Muslims at UMass recount experiences in wake of 9/11

By Nancy Pierce

Daily Collegian – Sept. 9, 2011 | Daily Collegian – Sept. 12, 2001

Courtesy of MCT
Ten years ago, America experienced a surreal terrorist attack on one of the nation’s most beloved cities. It was found to be that al-Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim extremist group founded by Osama bin Laden, was responsible for the fatal attacks.

While the group purports to identify itself with the Islamic religion, many other Muslims do not consider al-Qaeda as abiding by the teachings of Islam. Several spiritual leaders and other participators of Islam denounce the terrorist attacks and do not consider those responsible to be true Muslims.

“Their lives have been touched – in some ways being vilified – because the perpetrators were identified as Muslims,” said Larry Goldbaum, the director of the Office Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Massachusetts. “So Muslims in this country have lived under a kind of shroud of suspicion.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) distributed a survey in 2004 to gauge American attitudes towards Muslims. The study revealed that nearly one in five Americans had a strong anti-Muslim attitude, believing Islam to be a faith of hatred and violence. The study concluded these anti-Islam attitudes among Americans could be due to a lack of accurate information about Muslims joined with a general fear for personal safety.

Naeem Baig, the vice president of Islamic Circle of North America, spoke about perceived backlash towards the Muslim community since the attacks.

“Islamophobia has become an industry in America,” said Baig. “People see that some news media is willing to offer them air time.”

Although Baig said he thought there was increased scrutiny placed on the Muslim community in the aftermath of the attacks, he noted that there was an apparent increase in curiosity and interest in Islamic teachings since Sept. 11.

“Muslim mosques don’t seek out converts,” added Baig. “We like to offer true and clear understandings of Muslim faiths [and] then it’s up to the individual to decide. We welcome them.”

Ahmed Zakaria, a Muslim student born and raised in Pakistan and a junior marketing major, said he does not consider any bomber or terrorist to be Muslim.

“It should not represent Islam, and is considered a sin,” Zakaria said of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Zakaria, who attended an American school in Pakistan until he arrived in Amherst to study at UMass, said culture shock is still an issue. He referenced derogatory names that had been lodged against Muslims, but noted that now he gives it less attention.

Zakaria also described his personal experiences and dealings in certain parts of the U.S. He noted that he has been stopped and questioned by security every time he has ever entered an airport in the U.S. During some of those times, he said, he was kept for hours in a room filled with people with criminal records. He said that anyone with a Muslim name between the ages of 16 and 25 was categorized similarly.

Zakaria noted that he was not sharing the experience for pity or sympathy. He said he feels a loss of independence and privacy during these experiences, but he did say he thinks security does this for safety purposes and does not blame them for doing their job.

“Yes, I’m still annoyed I have to go through this,” he said, “but at the end of the day, they’re doing it for my safety also.”

Zakaria said he remembered feeling shocked at how much information the airport security knew about his family. He said an official at an airport once asked him about much of his extended family and if he knew information about how much money they made and where they were employed.

Noman Khanani, the president of the Muslim Student Association at UMass, also recounted his experiences. He was born in Pakistan, but has lived in Massachusetts for most of his life, and noted that he is a “pretty much full-blown American.”

Khanani said he himself never had much of any personal experience with negativity surrounding his culture, but, he said, he had seen such things on television – which he thought put Islam in a dissenting light.
Khanani said that the Sept. 11 attacks were disheartening for him more so as an American and not a Muslim.

“I was upset about it … not because my religion is being put in a bad perspective, but that my country America was being attacked,” he said. “I was vulnerable to a lot of bad things – the safety of the country [and] Muslims as well.”

“Muslims who live in the U.S. want to be integrated into U.S. society, not tolerated,” Zakaria added.

Nancy Pierce can be reached at [email protected]