For many Muslim Americans, King’s hearings add to weight of community’s burden

Columnist March 10, 2011

“It’s the shopping-cart thing,” one of the women said.

“Yeah, totally. The shopping cart,” the other agreed, nodding her scarf-covered head emphatically.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

I was lost.

“Shopping cart?” I asked.

“You know, when you’re at the grocery store you always make sure to bring the shopping cart back. Never leave it in the parking lot, because someone may think, ‘Oh, those Muslims,’ if you’re wearing your scarf and they see you leave the cart in the parking lot.”

Being a Muslim in America today can be a series of shopping-cart moments, a life of constantly knocking down stereotypes, dispelling myths, quelling fears. Thursday’s high-profile congressional hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims could make that burden feel even heavier.

“I am a volunteer firefighter and EMT,” said Ashraf Sabrin, a 37-year-old father of two. “I’m from Ohio. I never thought I would have to point to those things to show I’m just a regular American.”

He was in Rabiah Ahmed’s living room in Sterling, where a group of Muslims had gathered to eat bagels, drink coffee and watch the hearing, chaired by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), on C-SPAN.

When some of the witnesses took the stand and made sweeping comments about jihadists, the room collectively groaned and eyes rolled.

And when Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in Congress, began tearing up during his emotional description of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, 23, the Muslim emergency medical technician who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, most everyone in the room cried, too.

Ellison recounted the young man’s “Star Wars” obsession and noted the rumors that he was involved in the attacks when, in fact, he was among the first responders who risked their lives trying to save others.

“Did Ellison know him?” someone in the group asked.

“Didn’t we all?” another responded.

The heads nodded, and Sabrin, a university professor, lifted his glasses and wiped his tears with a starched shirt collar. It was an emotional and contentious day for Muslims, who have been the object of suspicion for 10 years. For many, the hearing felt as if their entire community was being demonized for the actions of a tiny minority.

Mazen Ayoubi, a 56-year-old father of seven, said he never imagined this day in America.

“I am appalled,” said the architect, who came to America from Syria in 1980. “I am a practical man. What will this mean for my children, that Muslims are being talked about like this?”

Not everyone thought the hearing would be damaging. “Isn’t it good to just get it out there in the open and talk about it?” asked a 36-year-old doctor who was in her scrubs, which were a brighter shade of green than her head scarf. “Maybe I’m optimistic and naive, but I think it’s not a bad thing to have hearings like this because it talks about us.”

She wants people to know what ordinary Muslims are like and what they do day to day.

For her, it’s picking up the twins and getting the 5-year-old ready for Montessori classes and going to the local Islamic center every Friday for Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings.

“I’m the loudest soccer mom on the field. I juggle the kids, I save lives in the ER,” she said.

Another woman who is also a doctor said that when patients come to her, they see her head scarf and make assumptions.

“Then they start talking to me, and this —” she said, sweeping her hand around the flowery scarf, “goes away. And they just see me. A woman, a doctor. I’m just another American.”

That’s not the face of Muslims that was shown in the hearing, said her friend, Saba Baig.

“Just listen to the title — they want to talk about the extent of radicalization. Like it’s a given that Muslims are radical, and that’s what they want to talk about,” said Baig, 34, a teacher and mother who lives in Ashburn.

Something such as this puts American Muslims — the soccer moms, the volunteer firefighters, the teachers — on the defensive, Baig said.

Sure, in places such as Northern Virginia or Dearborn, Mich., with their huge Muslim populations, it’s pretty easy to see Muslims at soccer games and in the grocery store and on the playground, non-radicalized and doing everyday things. But in huge swaths of the country, Sept. 11 and now these hearings are the only exposure many people will have to Islam. That’s why the broad-brush generalizations, the tone of the hearings and King’s signature bluster scare so many folks.

Muslims have to dispel the myths and explain who they really are, Sabrin said. “But then again, the Italian baker doesn’t have to explain and account for the Gambino family or every other Mafia family, right?”

Italian Americans are probably too sick of countering the Snooki stereotype to answer that one.

“This puts the onus on us, this hearing,” Baig said.

So they will have to continue to battle negative perceptions — one shopping cart at a time.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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