Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2001, page 22
In the Wake of 9-11 President Bush and Muslim Leaders Work to Protect Muslim Americans
Delinda C. Hanley
“People say the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are defining moments for America. I think that what will define America is what the country does after Sept. 11.”—Remarks by a high school student in a Sept. 12 interview with Scott Horsley on National Public Radio
Americans reacted with grief and fury when terrorists used four planeloads of innocent passengers to kill thousands more. They vowed to retaliate—but against whom? News commentators like ABC-TV anchor Peter Jennings reminded Americans of the erroneous rush to judgment following the Oklahoma City bombing. As some Americans, raised on villainous Hollywood Arabs and the media’s anti-Islamic stereotypes, looked for a scapegoat, Arab- and Muslim-American organizations, and the leaders they helped to elect, went into overdrive.
Anti-defamation groups such the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)—along with every other Muslim- and Arab-American political organization—immediately denounced the Sept. 11 attacks. In addition, they provided information and commentary to media nationwide, in order to defuse what could have been a perilous situation for the country’s estimated 7 million Muslim Americans and 2 million Arab Americans. Even turbaned Sikhs, whom some confused Americans thought resembled suspected terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden, were victims of hate crimes.
President George W. Bush, members of his administration and Congress repeatedly spoke out against blaming any one national or religious group for the wrongdoing of a small number of fanatics. America’s media, which in the past has enjoyed dumping on Arabs and Muslims, responded to the frequent admonitions and worked hard to provide relatively balanced media coverage.
As a result of the effective campaign undertaken by America’s leaders, non-governmental organizations and the media, a backlash that, in many other nations, might have turned into a bloodbath was averted and, indeed, transformed into a celebration of diversity. What follows is a chronicle of how American Muslims and their leaders worked to turn a national tragedy into a lesson in tolerance and neighborly love.
Muslim Leaders React
The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caused the abrupt postponement of the first meeting between national Muslim leaders and President Bush in Washington, DC to discuss the Middle East conflict and the treatment of Muslims in America.
Days before the meeting with Muslim leaders, the Oct. 2 New York Times revealed, President Bush had decided to launch a new initiative that would include U.S. support for the creation of a Palestinian state. Secretary of State Colin Powell was to present at the opening in late September of the U.N. General Assembly detailed proposals for a comprehensive settlement. The new initiative included recommendations on such crucial issues as borders, right of return of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, and implementation of U.N. resolutions.
Leaders of the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC) now wonder if the president had planned to discuss his new Middle East initiative with his Muslim constituents at 3 p.m. on Sept. 11. While Bush’s earlier hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was popular with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and some American Jewish groups, the rest of the world, as well as every Muslim- and Arab-American organization, had urged Bush to put pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table.
That morning the coalition of Muslim-American leaders had gathered at the Hotel Washington, a block from the White House, to prepare for the meeting with the president their bloc vote helped to elect. Instead they watched in horror television coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Eric E. Vickers, a former candidate for the U.S. Congress and a member of the American Muslim Alliance, described the shock Muslim leaders felt on Sept. 11: “As the surreal events of that morning began to unfold—with people running through the streets in near panic, and police and military personnel first sealing us in the hotel and then forcing us to evacuate—we could see vanishing before our eyes all the work we had done over the years to encourage the eight million Muslims living in America to become active participants in this country’s political and civil life.
“Although that morning there was not a clue as to the identity of the terrorist perpetrators,” Vickers said, “we knew instinctively that the religious faith of over one billion persons around the globe would face blame. It seemed that in an instance all of America’s progress in knowing and understanding Islam would give way to the prejudice and bigotry borne of fear and ignorance.
“Suddenly and ironically,” he recounted, “what was to have been a momentous afternoon meeting with the president to discuss domestic and foreign issues of concern to Muslim Americans turned into an encamped week in the capital filled with intense efforts to mute an anti-Muslim backlash. But in the crucible of that week, Islam became forever imbedded in the fabric of American life.”
Day 2: Donating Blood
Their scheduled meeting with the president was canceled, airports were closed and there was an eerie silence in the nation’s capital. AMPCC leaders worked feverishly to prevent a recurrence of the backlash that had occurred in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, before it was learned that a home-grown terrorist—Timothy McVeigh—was responsible. On Sept. 12, they spent hours in the heat outside the Red Cross building in downtown Washington, DC, waiting with their fellow Americans to donate blood.
Reporters interviewed the Muslim leaders along with other patriotic blood donors—tourists, students, diplomats, members of Congress, and Americans of every hue and ethnicity—who felt they just had to do something to help victims on the day after the attack. The Muslim Americans condemned the terrorist strikes in New York City and Washington, DC, and expressed condolences to the families of the innocent people killed. American Muslim Council (AMC) national executive director Aly Abuzaakouk described the attacks as “despicable, appalling, horrifying, and an act of war.”
CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said he and his friends would donate blood to show their “solidarity with the victims of the attack,” and Vickers called upon all members of his community to help save lives by donating blood, life-saving skills, and money.
In the course of the impromptu press conference Dr. Bernadine Healy, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, joined the Muslim leaders in line to donate blood.
After thanking them for providing a good example to their community, Healy asked them to take a stand right then and there backing Israel’s entry into the Red Cross family and the addition of the Magen David Adom, or Red Shield of David, to the international red cross and the red crescent signs.
The gentlemen graciously demurred, saying that they would be happy to discuss the matter at a later date. This was the time to think about America’s tragedy and put aside politics, they pointed out. As Dr. Healy continued to press them again, American Muslim Alliance executive director Dr. Saeed politely repeated, “Today is for America. Let’s agree that today is for America.”
While Dr. Healy’s concern for Israel the day after disaster struck America seemed out of place, her official statement after the attacks did include concern for all Americans: “This is a time for compassion,” she said. “Religion, heritage, culture, language differences cannot divide us. The Red Cross requests community members to express their feelings about this tragedy in ways that respect all humanity, regardless of how they look, speak or worship.”
Muslim Leader Reads From Qur’an on National Day of Prayer
Americans from across the country, including invited Muslim- and Arab- Americans, joined in the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance ceremony Sept. 14 at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The nationally televised service emphasized healing and unity and was attended by President George W. Bush, former presidential candidate Al Gore, former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Jerry Ford, as well as Washington diplomats and members of Congress.
In his opening prayer, Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, president of the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), read verses from the Qur’an and expressed grief on behalf of all Muslims for those who were killed or injured in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC.
Other Muslim leaders taking part in the prayer service included CAIR board chairman Omar Ahmad and executive director Awad, and Dr. Agha Saeed director of the American Muslim Alliance.
“American Muslims share the same sense of grief and loss felt by all Americans during this time of national crisis,” Omar Ahmad told reporters. “We were honored to join the president in expressing support for the families of those who were killed or injured in these horrible attacks.”
American Muslims have an added burden, Ahmad noted, because they not only feel the pain of all Americans, but are also experiencing the fear and apprehension of unjustified harassment based on anti-Muslim hysteria and scapegoating.
Fighting the Backlash
Muslim leaders went on radio and TV shows, and gave countless print media interviews, urging their fellow Americans not to direct their anger toward Arabs, Muslims, Southeast Asians, and Sikhs living among them. After the shooting deaths of a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, a Pakistani Muslim storeowner in Dallas, Texas, and several hundred other anti-Muslim incidents, the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference at their Capitol Hill headquarters in Washington, DC on Sept. 17.
CAIR called on law enforcement authorities to find and punish the perpetrators of the Sept. 11attacks. At the same time, executive director Awad asked for nationwide assistance to protect their community members who were experiencing violent attacks, hate crimes and harassment in the wake of the attack. Institutions and businesses owned by people who look Middle Eastern were targeted across the country, CAIR spokesmen said. Vehicles rammed into Islamic centers in Ohio and Indiana and a bomb went off at another in San Diego.
On the other hand, noted Awad, “Muslims have received many messages of support from people of other faiths who abhor the anti-Islamic backlash that is now taking place. Unfortunately, the bigoted acts of a small minority are creating an atmosphere of apprehension and fear in the American Muslim community,” he said.
Awad called on President Bush and other elected officials to strengthen their statements rejecting anti-Muslim hysteria and discrimination. He also asked law enforcement officers not to infringe on the civil liberties of American Muslims as they investigate the Sept. 11 criminal attacks.
“We encourage any American who has information about these attacks to immediately contact the FBI,” he said. “But innocent people who have nothing to do with these crimes should not be harassed or intimidated.
“We should not be judged by our looks or last names,” Awad concluded. “We may have come to this country on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat.”
CAIR public relations director Ibrahim Hooper told reporters that after the serious shock of this attack, Americans should be thinking more about their neighbors. “American Muslims are working as heroic firefighters and others are donating blood,” Hooper said. “Americans should not be divided. Let us not let this attack turn us against each other.”
Mohamed Nimr, CAIR’s research director, stated that now is the time for Muslims to educate their neighbors. He advised Muslims who were staying at home for fear of the backlash to go out and live their lives and continue to participate in community affairs. As a coach for his son’s soccer team, he said, he was reminded the previous weekend that most Americans are friendly people. “People who know us gave us sympathy and apologized for the hurtful anti-Muslim acts of bigots,” he said. “Other parents we didn’t know spoke to us and offered their support if we needed them.
“Americans do not hate us as Muslims,” Nimr concluded. “People just don’t know us. Muslims need to introduce themselves.”
President Bush Pays Historic Visit to Mosque
Later that day, Sept. 17, after visiting rescue workers at the Pentagon, President George W. Bush paid a visit to some of the latest victims of the Sept. 11 attack—Muslim Americans who faced a backlash from their fellow Americans. At Washington, DC’s Islamic Center the president held an hour-long meeting with American Muslim leaders, Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, and worshippers present. Bush became the second U.S. president to visit the center since President Dwight Eisenhower helped inaugurate it in 1957. Muslim leaders expressed their appreciation to the president for taking the time to reach out to the Muslim community in the midst of a national crisis.
Dr. Jamshed Uppal of the American Muslim Alliance told reporters that the meeting was held in a very cordial atmosphere, with everyone expressing his views frankly. “A broad range of topics of concern to the Muslim community were brought up during the meeting,” Uppal said. “These topics included the current violence in the Middle East, the need for American Muslim input on government policy, and the ways in which terrorism can be eliminated worldwide.”
Uppal added that, in their remarks to the president, Muslim leaders also expressed concern about recent hate crimes and the draconian laws that could be passed in the wake of the terrorists’ attack. The leaders also were disappointed by the use of certain terminology, such as “crusade,” by American officials. The president, Uppal added, was very receptive and pledged to approach the issues in a sensitive manner. Other Muslim leaders expressed the hope that the president’s supportive remarks would help set a tone of tolerance and inclusion for the country.
In addition to Dr. Uppal, CAIR’s Nihad Awad, Yousuf Saleem of the Muslim American Society, Prof. Azizah al-Hibry representing Karamah, Dr. Hassan Ibrahim of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Abdulwahab Alkebsi of the Islamic Institute, Georgetown University’s Muslim chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi, and representatives from the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohamed met with President Bush.
The president, flanked by Muslim leaders (see back cover photo) later addressed a press conference in the prayer hall (see box). Muslim leaders presented Bush with a copy of the Qur’an and Paul Findley’s ground-breaking new book Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam.
The visit to the Islamic Center was soon followed by a highly acclaimed address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20. President Bush used both speeches to condemn as un-American and shameful the intimidation and scapegoating of American Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs. Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, the president emphasized, had “hijacked” Islam itself.
His words had an immediate effect. Both ADC and CAIR reported a dramatic turnabout—from 95 percent negative remarks to 80 percent favorable—in their e-mail and telephone messages. The numbers of hate-crimes and harassment reports stopped their harrowing climb.
In the weeks that followed the attack, CAIR focused on “Messages of Hope” that describe the outpouring of sympathy and encouragement that Muslims have received from their fellow Americans.
Muslim Groups Discuss War on Terrorism
On Sept. 18, Muslim organizations held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. There each Muslim leader condemned the cowardly attacks on America. They also spoke of the many Muslims who have volunteered to help—the firefighters, doctors, engineers and blood donors—or those who have participated in candlelight vigils across the country. They described Muslim women as prisoners hiding at home for fear of a backlash, and Islamic schools afraid to open their doors for classes.
“American Muslims and Arab Americans love the American flag, freedom, civil liberty, and have the same respect for the sanctity of human life as any of their American neighbors,” Imam Shaker Elsayed, secretary-general of Muslim American Society, told reporters. “The attacks were un-Islamic, barbaric and inhumane. We urge our government to find the perpetrators and we will cooperate with law enforcement officers in any way we can.”
AMC director Aly Abuzaakouk said the Qur’an makes it categorically clear that killing one human being is as wrong as killing all of humanity. “Our country is a superpower. We want America to be a moral superpower,” Abuzaakouk said. That, he explained, meant no more irrational attacks on innocent Muslims, and avoiding emotionally charged words like “crusades.”
“Do not sacrifice the things that have made America—civil rights, civil liberties, and the bill of rights,” Imam Mahdi Bray, national political adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, advised Americans at this time of crisis.
“Muslim Americans are deeply saddened and deeply angered,” Bray said. ”˜How could someone do this to my country, my fellow citizens and my religion?’ they ask.
“Channel it,” he suggested. “With every difficulty, there is opportunity. Remember King David’s words: ”˜Joy cometh in the morning.’”
Abdulwahab Alkebsi, executive director of the Islamic Institute, said that Muslim Americans are not part of the problem of terrorism, but part of the solution. Muslims, he suggested, could be used as partners in the fight against terrorism.
According to Raeed Tayeh, a fellow at the United Association for Studies and Research, some 500 Muslims and Arabs are missing in the terrorist attacks. All Arab countries condemn the atrocity, he emphasized, which affected the entire world. He also noted that the media has shown a great improvement in reporting since the Oklahoma City bombing, with most media refusing to speculate on the identity of the attackers until there was some proof. He did caution reporters, however, to stop using words harmful to the Muslim community, such as “Islamic fundamentalist” and “Muslim radical terrorist,” as these words incite and contribute toward the stereotypes. “Just label them as terrorists,” Tayeh suggested. Reminding reporters that these men were seen drinking alcohol on the last night of their lives, Tayeh stated, “They had no religion. They were aberrations of Islam.”
AMC director Yahya Basha encouraged Americans to exercise solidarity and concern for human and civil rights. “America should take inclusive instead of exclusive actions,” he emphasized.
Dr. Basha added that every Muslim individual is morally and constitutionally obligated to cooperate with authorities and the FBI to solve the terrorism issue. “All Americans are victims of what happened,” he said.
New York attorney Stanley L. Cohen advised Muslims not to invite the U.S. government to engage in a collective investigation, because, he warned, “the FBI has a habit of violating the rights of people of color, aliens and undocumented workers.” Cohen is defending Imam Moataz Al-Hallak, who refuses to give information to FBI agents, and prefers to work with grand juries. Cohen accused FBI agents of photographing license plates of cars parked at mosques, and interrogating people in the middle of the night at home. He suggested asking Japanese Americans what happens when civil rights are taken away unnecessarily.
Home at Last
After a week-long whirl of meetings in Washington, DC, American Muslim Alliance director Dr. Agha Saeed related what he called a “Kafkaesque” experience he had when the airports finally opened and he and other Muslim American leaders finally could fly home.
At the airplane gate Dr. Saeed was surrounded by five FBI agents, who asked if they could have a word with him.
Dr. Saeed asked the agents if he had been pulled aside because of his appearance or because someone had overheard him talking politics with his friend in the airport terminal. The response was that he had been singled out because his last name was similar to someone for whom the FBI was looking.
When the agents asked what Dr. Saeed had been doing in Washington, DC, he replied, “I was having some meetings.”
Eagerly following up, the FBI men asked just who the professor had met with.
Responded Dr. Saeed quietly, “Well, actually I was meeting with the president of the United States.”
There were few questions to answer after that.
Another Invitation to the White House
For the second time in two weeks President Bush met with American Muslim leaders—this time at the White House, on Sept. 26. Once again the president used a meeting with Muslims and the press to educate Americans about Islam and that the religion stands for “goodness and peace.” Speaking of hope, peace and inclusiveness, the president denounced hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans as “bigotry.”
Bush also urged the media not to identify the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks in New York and Washington as “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorists. He reminded his visitors that no one labeled Timothy McVeigh as a Christian terrorist. Instead, terrorists should be identified by their organization or the country that employs them. Once again the president stated that “this is not a war against Islam, but against a bunch of criminals.”
Referring to the copy of the Qur’an ISNA president Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi had presented to President Bush at the Islamic Center on Sept. 17, a visibly pleased Bush said, “And I want to thank you very much for the gift you gave me, Imam, the Qur’an. It’s a very thoughtful gift.”
“It’s the best gift I could give you, Mr. President.” replied Siddiqi.
The president also thanked Siddiqi for his participation in the National Day of Prayer, and asked him for a short prayer to conclude the meeting. At the closing of the prayer President Bush offered the words, “Ameen,” Arabic for “Amen.”
At the White House the president held a frank, substantive, and sincere off-the-record meeting with the visiting Muslim leaders, who were encouraged by his hopes and plans for peace in the Middle East. A joint statement released after the meeting read:
“We Arab American and American Muslim leaders, who have just completed a meeting with President Bush, wish to thank the president and his administration for setting a tone of unity, resolve, and respect.
“We once again condemn these horrific acts, express our sincerest condolences to the victims’ families, and join with all Americans in pledging our full support for the president at this critical time in his efforts to establish peace and justice in the world.
“We especially appreciate the president’s leadership in articulating the message that Arab and Muslim Americans are full and active participants in American society, and have been victimized by this tragedy like all Americans.
“We thank the president for his outreach to our community, and for his steady and wise leadership during this national crisis,” the statement concluded.
“The meeting with the president provides ample proof that participation in mainstream public affairs does matter,” observed the AMA’s Dr. Agha Saeed. “It is now under the worst possible circumstances that American Muslims are beginning to realize the significance of the Muslim bloc vote,” he added.
“I was genuinely surprised by the affability and receptivity of the president,” said Eric Irfan Vickers, who was introduced to Bush as one of the first Democrats to endorse him as the Muslim bloc vote was formulated. “We fully appreciate the fact that Mr. Bush is trying to be the president of all Americans.”
“The fact that this meeting was held under the present circumstances, itself speaks about the significance of this meeting,” observed Dr. Hathout, current chairman of AMPCC.
President Bush also met with Sikh leaders on Sept. 17.
In the aftermath of the terrible disaster that befell all of America on Sept. 11, Muslim- and Arab- American organizations proved that they really have come of age. A year ago they demonstrated that Muslims can unite to form a voting bloc. Today they have shown that Muslims have the political strength and savvy to weather the damage caused by the actions of extremists. By not lumping all Muslims and Arabs together and playing the “blame game,” this country also proved to the world that it is more than just a military or financial power—it is a moral superpower.
Muslims and their leaders still have hard work ahead. They must mourn their dead, for the attacks killed Muslim and Arab Americans, too. They must protect their living, who will face profiling, discrimination, surveillance, and suspicion as authorities cast wide nets for the criminals who attacked America. From this day forward, Muslims and Arab Americans plan to use every opportunity to introduce themselves to their countrymen—their neighbors, co-workers, classmates, PTA members and soccer moms and dads. Together Americans will prove that this country welcomes diversity and values all its citizens, regardless of their religion, ethnicity or the color of their skin. The rest of the world is watching closely and hoping that America will continue to carry the torch for freedom and justice for all.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.
Islam is Peace, Says President Bush
“Like the good folks standing with me, the American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks. And so were Muslims all across the world...
“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.
“The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Qur’an, itself: ”˜In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.’
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.
“When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race—out of every race.
“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the mili-
tary, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.
“Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.
“I’ve been told that some fear to leave [their homes]; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.
“This is a great country. It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They’re outraged, they’re sad. They love America just as much as I do.
“I want to thank you all for giving me a chance to come by. And may God bless us all.”