For Muslim Americans, A Decade Of Increasing Outreach
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For Muslim Americans, A Decade Of Increasing Outreach

While most call themselves loyal and optimistic, many also report prejudice and discrimination.

During the days five years ago when a new Islamic community center was taking shape in Mohegan Lake, a small, bucolic village in northern Westchester, the center’s leaders asked Rudina Odeh-Ramadan to speak at a nearby church.

The church’s members wanted to hear more about the group of Muslims behind the center, which was then facing a hostile reception from some of its neighbors, said Odeh-Ramadan, whose extended family was involved in creating the facility. Vandals threw rocks at the center’s windows at one point, and a raucous meeting of the local planning board included allegations that the center would recruit children for extremist ends, that its organizers were terrorists and that they were planning to blow up the nuclear reactors at Indian Point.

Odeh-Ramadan believes that much of the hostility was based on fear of the unknown, a view borne out by some of the questions she fielded at the local church: Does she work and, if so, what does she do? Why didn’t she have more children than just one? Why doesn’t she wear a hijab or veil?

“I remember being up there on stage, thinking how strange it was,” recalled Odeh-Ramadan, a resident of Riverdale, scientist at Columbia University Medical Center and the married mother of a 7-year-old boy. “But, then, I thought, “They don’t know anything about Muslims, they want to know more, and I’m glad they want to know.”

One of the things that members of the audience didn’t know is that Odeh-Ramadan, now 42, organized her colleagues in the hours after 9/11 to volunteer at Ground Zero, where she helped establish a medical-aid station for firefighters whose work at the “Pile” was beginning to wear on them.

Today, the Hudson Valley Islamic Community Center is doing just fine, relations with its neighbors are peaceful and Odeh-Ramadan believes in the value of such exchanges now more than ever. “That’s what’s needed over time,” she said.

Her experience reflects what many Muslim Americans say is the biggest change in their community in the 10 years since 9/11: the expansion of outreach efforts to the American public, including Jews, in an effort to educate others about their faith.

The events of 9/11 “really awakened a lot of Muslims to get to know their neighbors and to be as welcoming as their faith instructs us to be,” said Sami Elmansoury, 27, an activist in the general and Muslim communities. “The desire to reach out has always been there,” said Elmansoury, whose grandparents emigrated from Egypt in the mid-1960s, “but the reason there wasn’t [as much of it earlier as there is today] is because people didn’t see an imminent need for it.”

At the same time, Muslim Americans “are moving away from a single issue — what’s good for the Muslims — to what’s good for the communities in which they live,” said Hussein Rashid, an adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University.

They’ve become more and more involved in issues that affect the entire community, such as education, health, law enforcement and sanitation, said Rashid. Those, in turn, have led to greater contact and, in some cases, more friendships between Muslim Americans and others.

Local examples of that trend include the joint activities between the Jamaica Muslim Center and the Queens-based Bukharan-Jewish community, including a recent health fair at the mosque. The idea for the fair came, in part, from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the organization founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier that has focused on bringing Jews and Muslims together. Another example is the work of Robert Kaplan, director of intergroup relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, whose efforts, at times, have helped keep the peace in tense neighborhoods.

In fact, many believe that 9/11 has also brought change to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a participant in Jewish-Muslim dialogue since the 1980s, sees an increasing curiosity about Islam, a greater knowledge of the faith and a growing desire to interact with Muslims among his fellow Jews. As evidence, he pointed to Jewish day schools that now offer courses in Arabic, synagogues and Jewish museums that sponsor programs on Jewish-Muslim relations and interfaith events that include not only a rabbi and pastor, but an imam, too.

“The communal conversation now includes Islam,” said Rabbi Weintraub, rabbinic director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.

To be sure, the subject of 9/11 still evokes raw emotions among both Jews and Muslims, some of whom attack the very idea of dialogue or question how effective it can be.

Daniel Pipes, for instance, remains as opposed to dialogue today as he was several years ago, when many of the efforts began, he wrote last week in an e-mail message. Founding director of the Middle East Forum, a conservative-leaning think tank, Pipes called dialogue efforts “premature” and claimed that “Islamists still dominate the activity and abuse it.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week that his organization has “tried to reach out [to Muslim] groups to create working coalitions without much success.” The lack of success stems from the refusal of any and all Muslim groups to agree to the terms of “a simple litmus test,” Foxman said — “that no just cause justifies terrorism.” Those groups include the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella organization of 300 Islamic centers, mosques and professional groups.

Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of ISNA, disputed Foxman’s words, saying that ISNA and other Muslim groups have issued statements, fatwas, letters and petitions opposing terrorism in every part of the world, including Israel.

One Jewish leader who works with Syeed is Rabbi Schneier, who pointed to several recent developments as proof that dialogue and, more important, building relationships with others, yield results. They include a letter to Hamas from 11 prominent Muslim Americans, including Syeed and the only two Muslim members of Congress, calling for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on humanitarian grounds.

Meanwhile, Marcia Kannry, a Brooklyn resident who leads an organization called the Dialogue Project, agrees that Americans in general, and Jewish Americans in particular, “have opened up to Muslim experiences.” But she worries that a good percentage still has limited contact with Muslims and, therefore, find it easy to generalize about a global culture.

Her dialogue groups challenge participants to open up to each other in “authentic” ways, including repeating to others what they believe they heard and speaking from the “I” rather than the “we.” Members of Kannry’s dialogue groups have included Rabbi Weintraub and Ahmad Samhan, a Palestinian who immigrated to this country at the age of 3 and now owns Zaytoons, a chain of three Middle Eastern restaurants in Brooklyn.

Samhan, 42, spoke of the Islamophobia he and his family have experienced since 9/11. One incident took place within 24 hours of the horror, when Samhan arrived at his restaurant the next morning to find hate notes attached to the gate and garbage strewn around the premises. A more recent episode took place four years ago near Samhan’s home on Staten Island, where his wife and youngest daughter were in a crosswalk. A motorist, noticing his wife’s hijab, screeched to a halt within a few feet of the two and then shouted ethnic slurs at them, the restaurateur said.

Even more difficult than the physical part of that episode was the emotional part, which came when his daughter asked why the motorist screamed what he did. “How do you explain hate to a 7-year-old?” he asked.

But Samhan, who also lost close childhood friends over 9/11, said he makes it a point to converse about his faith with customers, most of whom are Jewish.

Haroon Moghul, a doctoral student of Islamic history at Columbia University, said “the notion of networking your way or ‘interfaithing’ your way out of a tight spot was alien” to many Muslim Americans before 9/11, especially those who came from oppressive societies where the reaction to difficult situations was to keep their head down. But that’s changed as new organizations have formed and as younger leaders have come to the fore, he and others said.

Many Muslims today “are resisting the victim syndrome,” Elmansoury said, reflecting two recent polls that show most American Muslims identifying themselves as loyal to America, satisfied in this country and hopeful about their future. He sees the current moment as “an opportunity to demonstrate that we’re just as proud to be American as anyone else, that we’re just as proud to give back to our country as anyone else, and that, at the end of the day, we’re all human.”

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