Hasiba Rashid on her neighbor’s roof garden in Bensonhurst
If there’s a silver lining to this situation, it’s that the presence of an outside threat has eased some of the internal divisions that have traditionally split the city’s Muslim community. “One thing 9/11 really changed for me was that, before, I was very nationalistic,” says Rashid. “I’m a Palestinian Arab, and I kind of stuck only to associating with Palestinians and Arabs. 9/11 really helped me move away from that sort of illogical, nationalistic identity. I realized not to isolate myself, not to consider myself just an Arab Muslim but to think of myself as a Muslim in general.”
A Caribbean-American and the child of converts, Nzinga says her generation has seen “an unbelievable shift” in the years since 9/11. She describes going into corner stores as a child and being made by the Arab or South Asian clerks to recite verses from the Koran to prove she was really a Muslim. “That was a very common thing,” she says, “because there was a feeling with a lot of Arabs and Asians that they owned Islam, that it was their religion.” This began changing, she says, after 9/11, “because I think a lot of Arab and Asian Muslims were feeling like maybe they needed the black Muslims and the white Muslims and the Hispanic Muslims.”
Discrimination post-9/11 has also led Muslim communities to associate themselves with America’s civil rights struggles, Nzinga says. “I think a lot of Muslims wanted to see themselves as white as opposed to seeing themselves as a person of color and attaching themselves to that kind of history. Suddenly, though, they realized, ‘Oh no. People aren’t seeing me as white, they’re seeing me as a person who can be marginalized.’”
McGoldrick recalls a talk given several years ago at a CAIR fundraising banquet by the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan in which Ramadan encouraged Muslims to take the civil rights movement more seriously. “He was saying, ‘You need to invest in this. And not just your money. You need to invest yourselves.’ The African-American community understands this, because they’ve been through it before, but for all those Arabs and South Asians who came to this country in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and got good jobs and just assimilated and nobody bothered them—well, now the American Dream is coming for you.”
Of course, there are two sides to that American Dream. Being labeled an outsider is to be devalued, dismissed, threatened—to, as Faatimah puts it, have “a feeling of being cornered… like people can say anything about you and maybe you don’t have the power to say anything back.” On the flip side, though, we have a habit of fetishizing groups we’ve disenfranchised, of viewing them as repositories of authenticity. This latter predilection is probably just as ridiculous (if perhaps less obviously sinister) as the initial discriminatory impulse, but, as phenomena ranging from suburban white kids’ love of hip-hip to the collected works of Martin Scorsese attest, it’s real. This is something we do.
Which raises a question—has this tendency of ours rubbed off in any way on Islam? After 9/11, is there something a little bit badass about being Muslim in America?
There are hints of this in the way Gheith describes how her religious practice has changed in the years after the attacks. “People always called me rebellious,” she says. “I always like to do the opposite of what the community wants or what anybody wants. So, ok, they don’t want me to practice my religion? They don’t want me to be a Muslim? I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it ten times better.
“It just made me a more religious person. I started doing my prayers on time. During Ramadan, I fasted and didn’t miss a day. It just made me stronger.”
“People have taken on the outsider status in different ways,” Ali says. “Some people like the idea of an outsider. There’s no doubt that with projects like our ‘30 Mosques in 30 Days,’ a lot of the interest in it was this curiosity of ‘the other’ and people not knowing anything about Muslims. There’s no doubt that this controversy with the Ground Zero mosque and things like that helped pique people’s interest. Like my agent told me when the project really took off last year—‘Dude, as long as people hate Muslims, you’re going to make a lot of money.’”
Patronizing and perhaps unwelcome as this sort of interest may be, it’s something that American Muslims should take advantage of all the same, says McGoldrick, who, in addition to his work at CAIR, makes music under the stage name Raskol Khan. “We need to capitalize on that otherness, that authenticity, even on that fetishization,” he says. “It’s important to capture the imagination of the Americans that imagine themselves to be fighting for social justice, that believe in social justice.”
He offers the example of hip-hop, particularly the music’s earlier, more political manifestations. “A huge proportion of white Americans got into hip-hop,” he says. “And I think they gravitated toward that feeling of… that they were listening to that person inside of everyone that feels angry and disenfranchised. Even if it was just that you hated your parents, you know, it felt like that person had the legitimacy to put that anger into music. That was to [African-Americans’] benefit, I think, and I think that we need to capitalize on that, too.”
Most immediately, though, McGoldrick says, “we still need to get safe.
“I think, overall, Muslim communities aren’t quite there yet. Most Muslims are still deep in the fight to regain our American-ness. I think that’s the issue. We’ve had an identity stripped from us.” He cites a hadith: Islam began strange, and it will become strange again just like it was at the beginning, so blessed are the strangers.
“I think we’re back to someplace where Islam is pretty strange again.” •