A Lesson for Europe American Muslims Strive to Become Model Citizens

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim immigrants were seen as a potential threat in the United States. They have since become model citizens -- and now they want a greater say in politics.

By Marc Hujer and

Why shouldn't we wear head scarves?

Why shouldn't we wear head scarves?

It is almost 1 p.m., time for noon prayers, and Abdul Malik Mujahid, 55, is in his office on the second floor of Chicago's Downtown Islamic Center, preparing for his sermon. On his desk are a Koran, a pad of paper and a Blackberry. A telephone rings in the next room as people hurry through the corridors.

Soon Mujahid takes the elevator to the fourth floor, carrying the text of his sermon under his arm. The 200 men waiting for him in the prayer room are dressed in jeans and in suits. They have slipped away from their offices for lunch, removed their shoes and staked out their spots on the carpet. Now they want to hear Mujahid's Friday sermon.

He nods to the congregation. Mujahid is a short, elegant man. His gray beard is carefully trimmed and he has a smooth voice. He turns toward Mecca and recites the Fatiha, the opening Sura in the Koran. Then he quickly gets to his point: "My brothers, we can all contribute to reducing our energy consumption," he says. "That must be your very own jihad, your fight against global warming."

When he speaks he sounds like Al Gore, the former vice president of the United States and the man who is now leading America in the battle against climate change. "This wonderful country," says Mujahid, "depends on its immigrants. Show that you are good Americans and good Muslims."

Councillors, Advisors, and an Ambassador

Six years after Sept. 11, 2001, America and its Muslim immigrants seem to be on surprisingly good terms. They get along, they discover common interests, and it almost seems as if America's latest immigrants want to prove to everyone that they are the better Americans.

Many recent Muslim immigrants arrived in the mid-1970s and came from Southeast Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, the Arab countries, Europe and Africa. They are responsible for making Islam a fixture in "God's own country." There are already an estimated 3 to 7 million American Muslims today. No one knows exactly how many, though, because the United States has no religious census and church registers are not used in Islam.

Most of America's new Muslims adapted quickly, eager to become model citizens. Unlike other minorities -- the Chinese or Italians -- Muslims did not isolate themselves in distinct urban neighborhoods but tended to blend in. They were quiet and industrious, and once they had been granted asylum in the US, they stayed to make money. They wanted their children to have better lives, to go to school and earn degrees that would enable them to lead middle-class lives as lawyers, doctors and academics. They were not interested in politics. But then came Sept. 11.

In the space of a single morning, taxi drivers, cooks and waiters suddenly became potential terrorists. Hate crimes against Muslims jumped by more than 1,600 percent in the following year. That September day in 2001 seemed to mark the end of a dream. Five thousand men were placed in preventive detention merely because of their Arab birthplaces and, a short time later, government agents questioned 170,000 Muslim men. Applications for citizenship were turned down and many Muslims were deported.

But if there is an American answer to every problem, then America's Muslims provided the most American of all answers to Sept. 11. They saw the date as both a challenge and an opportunity. Six years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, American Muslims are now self-confident and more influential than ever before. They earn as much money as the average American, they go on talk shows to tell their success stories and they are beginning to run for political office.

American senators offer Muslims internships, members of Congress hire Muslim press secretaries and chiefs of staff and the US State Department recently appointed a female Muslim ambassador who also happens to be its chief advisor on issues of equality.

Muslims are everywhere in US politics: in government agencies and in the White House, in Congress and on city councils, in city halls and on planning commissions. They are the new imperative of political correctness in the United States. A year ago President George W. Bush announced: "America is stronger because of the countless contributions of Muslim citizens." Less than six months later, in February 2007, he nominated Zalmay Khalilzad, a native of Afghanistan, to the position of US ambassador to the United Nations. Khalilzad is now the most important Muslim in the US cabinet.

'Simply accepted as a fact'

There are already several influential Muslim interest groups in the US today. One is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which almost always sends one of its representatives to make the rounds of the talk shows whenever a US flag is set on fire somewhere else in the world. Another is the American Muslim Alliance, which aims to send Muslims to the Capitol. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is deeply involved in civil rights issues.

Edina Lekovic is the communications director for the Los Angeles and Washington-based MPAC. She sits in her office in downtown Los Angeles, facing a wall of brochures. She seems to have answers to all the relevant questions: how to deal with Islamophobia, or how to take advantage of free legal aid. The battles she wages are very much American battles.

Lekovic is a journalist by training and once wanted to be a TV reporter. She was told she would never make it in front of the cameras wearing a headscarf. But she was self-confident and decided to take a media job in the Muslim lobby instead. "If Sept. 11 hadn't happened," says Lekovic, "we wouldn't have this much influence today."

Americans are even entrusting Muslims with key positions, such as that of the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, a job with important homeland security responsibilities. Arif Alikhan, a devout Sunni and the son of Pakistani immigrants, has held the position since September 2006. He wears a shirt and tie; his suits are better-fitting than those of most Americans. He's in his late 30s. His office on the third floor of the Los Angeles city hall is only three doors down from the mayor's office.

He began his career seven years ago, when he took a job with the Department of Justice hunting down computer hackers, crooks who were selling merchandise on Ebay at rock-bottom prices. In his former position as an assistant US attorney, Alikhan consistently did his work accurately and silently, never producing any headlines. But then he suddenly became one of the most important men in Los Angeles, America's second-largest city after New York.

As the city's computer and telecommunications crime coordinator, Alikhan is in the process of hiring new police officers. The job is as big as it is crucial: Close to four million people live in Los Angeles proper, while the metropolitan area is home to 18 million. Los Angeles could well be the target of the next terrorist attack. There was no commotion when Alikhan was appointed, nor did any newspaper so much as question why someone like him should be placed in charge of the security of America's second-largest city. It was simply accepted as a fact. "I never had the feeling that my religion is written on my forehead," he says.

Trial by Fire

Sixty-five percent of America's Muslim community was born abroad. It is just beginning to develop its own institutions and produce its first representatives. Immigration experts call this stage the embryonic phase. But Sept. 11 threw them into the public spotlight, forcing them to make certain decisions. "Our generation has grown up, and it realizes that we are Americans," says Amina Masood, assistant to New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. By the time Congressman Tom Tancredo, from Colorado, proposed in August of 2007 that America should bomb Mecca if a nuclear attack were staged on American soil -- a suggestion that made headlines around the world -- American Muslims were in a position to speak for themselves.


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