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Americans Muslims make gains after terrorist attacks, but feel vulnerable
as war continues
By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press
Burhan Ghanayem saw the best and worst of America in the days following Sept. 11.
A lie spread through his community that he and his family of Muslim immigrants held a party at their Durham County, N.C., restaurant celebrating the apocalypse in lower Manhattan. Business nearly stopped.
But in a moment worthy of "It's a Wonderful Life," customers upset by the rumor gathered at the restaurant in a show of support. Hundreds of strangers came, too, and one man even offered to get his gun and guard the building, Ghanayem said.
"America is full of great people," he said. "But it's really been an overall difficult year. There have been a lot of disappointments for us."
The 12 months since the World Trade Center crumbled have been a time of both dread and promise for the millions of Muslims living in America.
While President Bush made the grand gesture of visiting a mosque, an Ohio man sent a different signal by ramming his truck into one in suburban Cleveland. As Americans consumed books on Islam, Franklin Graham and other evangelists denounced the religion as evil.
Muslims were in demand for better and worse -- by FBI agents looking for links to terrorists and church groups that simply wanted to know what "jihad" means.
A survey released in August by the advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations reflected the split Muslims found in society. More than half of the respondents said they experienced discrimination, but nearly 80 percent also reported receiving support from friends or colleagues of other faiths.
The overt name-calling and threats have largely stopped now, but so have the visits to the White House, Muslim leaders say.
Muslim groups say they more often deal with the less-influential community relations arms of government agencies and have not been invited to meet with Bush on policy issues since last fall.
Some leaders said they felt the president used them to build support for bombing Afghanistan and, as violence intensified in Israel and the Palestinian territories, his willingness to consider the American Muslim perspective waned.
"The extremists in the neoconservative and pro-Israel lobby -- their views have taken over," council spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. "Their view is don't deal with Muslims. Marginalize Muslims. Exclude them."
Lezlee Westine, director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, said the administration has consistently reached out to Muslim activists, providing briefings on issues ranging from foreign policy to civil rights.
Muslims have also been trying to gain influence in local politics. Many who were previously uninvolved in civic affairs have been registering to vote and courting candidates. But others have withdrawn, scared by government raids on Islamic charities and the indefinite detentions of suspects.
"9-11 has cut both ways," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a Washington advocacy group. "I think it has intimidated some people to the point they're afraid to write a check to their local mosque. But at the same time, I think it has emboldened many in the Muslim community that they're not going to be scapegoated for something they didn't do."
Some of the most difficult moments in the past year have ended up benefiting the Muslim community the most, said Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Ind.
When Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that terror suspect Jose Padilla had converted to Islam apparently while he was in prison, Ashcroft inadvertently helped make ISNA's annual conference on Islam in prison the most successful ever.
Syeed recorded 250,000 hits on his group's Web site immediately after Ashcroft's remarks, and conference attendance doubled.
"We couldn't have received that publicity if we had spent a million dollars," he said. "That's unparalleled. It would have taken us years to reach that level of education."
Muslim groups say the rate of conversion to Islam appears to be the same as before the attacks, but curiosity about the religion remains high. Syeed said the depth of popular interest in Muslims struck him when he walked into a Sam's Club warehouse store and saw a book for sale called "The Complete Idiot's Guide, Understanding Islam."
"I thought I should send a copy to Franklin Graham," he quipped.
Despite their higher profile in public life, Muslims see a difficult road ahead. Many are clinging to the hope that the political rights and freedoms that drew their families to the United States will protect them as the war on terror continues.
"I feel we are at the edge of a McCarthy era against the Muslims," said
Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies at Temple University in
Philadelphia. "But I have faith that the American system, with all its
problems, has the capacity to always correct itself."
Some facts about Muslim living in the United States:
NUMBERS: Estimates of the numbers of Muslims in the United States vary dramatically, from 2 million to 6 million.
ETHNICITY: About 33 percent are South Asian, 30 percent U.S.-born blacks and 25 percent Arab. European immigrants, Africans, U.S.-born whites and others make up the rest, according to "The Mosque in America," a 2001 report commissioned by U.S. Muslim leaders.
GROWTH: The largest influx of Muslims began after 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson abolished an immigration quota system that disproportionately benefited Europeans. Large Muslim communities have formed in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York.
MOSQUES: Nearly all of the nation's estimated 1,200 mosques were founded in the last 30 years, many with money from governments of predominantly Muslim countries.