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Flurry of Bay Area Muslim arts and activism counters stereotypes after 9/11

by San Jose Mercury News

When the planes struck the twin towers, Junaid Shaikh knew that his faith, and the lives of every fellow Muslim in America, would be tarnished like never before.

Already, before Sept. 11, 2001, he would often see the image of a crazed terrorist as a distorted view of Islam in the media. Suddenly, the attacks would only reinforce that story in so many of his neighbors’ minds.

Instead of hiding their identity, Shaikh and others seized the chance to flip that stereotype around. The result: an unprecedented flurry of arts and activism from Bay Area Muslims intent on showing their neighbors that they are honest, hardworking Americans just like you.

“There was a lot of hate,” said Shaikh, a Santa Clara software engineer and chairman of the Northern California Islamic Council formed two years ago. “We had to repel it. Sept. 11 just sped up things for us. It created a climate for us to do this kind of work.”

At first, many Muslims held vigils for the victims of 9/11 but wanted to do more.

A San Jose State student created a radio station called MeccaOne, discussing ideas such as Islamic art and rules of marriage. A group of young people founded Muslim Unity Day with Muslim hip hop artists and comedians at Great America. In Oakland, an “Islam and Authors” series sprouted. In Alamo, the Islamic Scholarship Fund was established to help fund Muslim writers.

“Muslims themselves really didn’t engage civil society in the manner we should have,” said Wajahat Ali, a Fremont lawyer and playwright, whose show, “The Domestic Crusaders,” about a multigenerational Pakistani family, will be performed Sept. 11 in New York.

Ali said that Muslims, who often came to the U.S. as doctors, engineers or business professionals, realized they also needed civic leaders and “storytellers telling the authentic Muslim American story, through education, through service. That wasn’t there.”

Javed Ali began publishing ILLUME magazine out of his Hayward office, telling stories of Afghan women in Fremont changing the Muslim image through dance, a Muslim eco-rapper and the splendors of Islamic architecture.

“I felt a duty to myself and my family to try to change the narrative,” said Ali, a Fiji-born IT expert who started his project in 2006. “I wanted to show who we are.”

Even the older generation started to branch out from insular immigrant communities, going against a creed in Islam that demands humility. Many started publicizing their efforts, for example, like feeding the homeless, something they had done quietly for decades.

“After 9/11, the Muslim community realized that we had to come out of our cocoons,” said Habibe Husain, founder of the Rahima Foundation, which has fed Silicon Valley’s homeless for 19 years. “We were all brushed with the same stroke as those terrorists. That doesn’t represent my faith. It made me so angry.”

Groups such as American Muslim Voice, founded by Samina Sundas of Palo Alto, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Muslims to make friends with their neighbors, volunteer and join civic life. Several Bay Area Muslims took heed, including Omar Ahmad, who was elected in 2007 to the San Carlos City Council and later became the Bay Area’s first Muslim mayor before he suffered a fatal heart attack in May.

Several Muslims earned seats on the Santa Clara and Contra Costa County Human Relations commissions, though Muslims acknowledge they don’t have an ample representation yet on elected city posts.

Along with efforts to assimilate, Muslims have renewed their focus on worshiping and teaching Islam, building and expanding mosques from San Ramon to San Martin. This week, a new all-Islamic high school opens in Fremont. A prominent center of Islamic scholarship, Hayward’s Zaytuna Institute, moved to Berkeley and will become the country’s first accredited Muslim college.

Now, 10 years after 9/11, many Bay Area Muslims agree with the findings of a new Pew Research Center Survey, which found that 82 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are “satisfied” with their lives.

“I’ve always felt welcome here,” said Imam Tahir Anwar, a popular religious leader at the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose.

Just as Japanese-Americans decided to assimilate with greater zeal after Pearl Harbor, some see similar efforts happening with the Muslim community in the wake of 9/11.

“After September 11, the Japanese in California reached out to the Muslims before anyone else,” said Georgetown University’s Yvonne Haddad, a scholar of Islam and the West. “They knew to stand in solidarity because the Japanese were the most attentive to the inevitable blowback.”

Their outreach hasn’t gone without challenge.

Bruce Bramlett, an interfaith activist, Episcopal priest and lecturer at San Jose State, said some local churches regularly host speakers on what they consider the “radical nature of Islam.”

At a recent community forum, Sunnyvale teen Sarah O’Neal described how somebody scrawled “Sarah O’Neal is a terrorist” on a bathroom wall three years ago at her middle school.

Then, when she was a freshman at Wilcox High in Santa Clara, a student called her a “towel head.”

Instead of shying away, she reached out, urging the boy to touch her hijab. What does it feel like? she asked. Cloth, he answered.

“See, it’s not a towel,” she recalled saying. “Then I told him not to be so ignorant.”

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