Under suspicion: American Muslims search for identity 10 years after Sept. 11

June 11, 2011

First in a series on American Muslims. Today: Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. Muslims search for a way to reconcile their American and Islamic identities.

Hungry to be just one of the guys after immigrating to Texas, Palestinian Fawaz Ismail asked everybody to call him “Tony.” The nickname put people at ease at his Dallas high school, where Tony switched from soccer to football and picked up a bit of a Texas twang.

He remained Tony when he moved to Northern Virginia to expand his family’s flag-selling business. The name made him feel as American as his Falls Church store, Alamo Flag, a patriot’s paradise brimming with Stars and Stripes banners, pins and stickers.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the day Tony became a foreigner again. That afternoon, people started pouring into Alamo Flag, many wearing sunglasses to hide their crying eyes. Ismail sold thousands of American flags in those days of fear and unity, and he gave away thousands more.

But soon after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon burned, Ismail felt his adopted homeland pushing him away. He decided to push back. He sent Tony into permanent exile, taking back his given name. Now, a decade later, his name is a daily message to his fellow Americans: They must deal with him for who he is — a Muslim who loves his country and proudly sells its banner.

“A lot of people use a nickname to make it easier for Americans to pronounce,” he says, “but now, I don’t care. They’re going to have to pronounce my name. It’s not that hard — Fah-wahz.”

There was pride in that decision but also a real and still-growing anger — at Americans who assume that anything Islamic is shorthand for terrorism; at the older generation of American Muslims, whose immigrant, old-world version of Islam paints them as rigid and intolerant; and at people who accept him if he’s Tony but recoil at a name such as Fawaz.

It’s hard hearing your faith put down all the time as this scary, evil thing,” he says. And hard to endure the cloud of suspicion that American Muslims feel has grown rather than dissipated over the past decade.

Like most American Muslims, Ismail, who is a buff and hale 50, is not particularly religious. He likes to listen to tapes of Koranic chants at night to relax. But in the past few years, he has struggled with the reality that some Americans take one look at him and think, “Hmm, is he really one of us?”

“I pay my taxes. I love this country. You want to talk about patriotic? I am the definition,” says Ismail, who became an American citizen as a teenager. “I sell the best flags, made in the United States, not in China like a lot of stores sell. I’m all about moderation — man, I like Fleetwood Mac.”

Late at night, Ismail has a cup of chamomile tea with anise seed to try to get to sleep. It can be a struggle, just as it is for many of his Muslim friends.

“I see them with their sleeping pills and antidepressants, and I know how hard it is,” he says. “I smoke because I’m stressed. Sometimes I wish I was born a Swede.”

As Ismail talks, his 20-year-old son, Talal, pops in to say he’s heading over to the the mosque — in the basement of a Best Western on Route 7 — for Friday prayers. Talal, in T-shirt, jeans and earrings, is a drummer in a metal band — “progressive metal,” his father qualifies — and works at the flag store.

Talal is what his father sees for the future of Islam in this country, a thoroughly American kid who barbecues burgers with his dad and then stops off for prayer on his way to work.

“Fitting in,” Fawaz Ismail says.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but his legacy colors the lives of the estimated 2.4 million American Muslims every day. Some have reacted to a decade of stares, cutting comments, airport humiliations and disturbing incidents of homegrown terrorism by drifting away from their religion, some by deepening their faith, and a few by turning to the very extremism that sparked the mistrust they encounter.

In the past 18 months alone, U.S. Muslims have felt compelled to explain — to themselves and their non-Muslim neighbors — the Fort Hood, Tex., massacre, the attempted bombing of Times Square, the backlash against a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, and sting operations that led to the arrests of alleged Muslim proto-terrorists from Portland, Ore., to Ashburn.

The more Muslims feel singled out, the more they focus on painful divisions in their own ranks, between young and old, native and newcomer, secular and devout, militant and moderate. Two-thirds of this country’s Muslims are immigrants, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, hailing from scores of countries.

In the Washington area, Muslims attend mosques with some of the region’s leading professionals in medicine, technology and government. Yet they have also prayed alongside people who were later charged with plotting to blow up Metro stations or traveling to Pakistan to train for jihad against the United States.

Younger Muslims often complain about a blanket of orthodoxy that weighs on them. Many of the country’s large Muslim organizations — religious, civic, educational — are run by immigrants or funded by groups with strong ties to countries with very different cultures.

“In my parents’ generation, there was more of a sense of clinging to a foreign country, and with that, more of a religious orthodoxy,” says Saqib Ali, 36, a software engineer and former Maryland state legislator who lives in Gaithersburg. “People of my generation are much more confident and more assertive of our rights. We’re not just thankful to be allowed in this country. Unfortunately, as younger Muslims fell away from that level of devotion, the people who retained power were the most orthodox.”

Charities preaching an ultraconservative brand of Islam remain important donors to many Muslim schools and mosques. And most U.S. mosques are still led by imams trained overseas, often in the fundamentalist tradition, complicating efforts by the next generation to mold a distinctly American brand of Islam.

* * *

At the Giant in Sterling not long ago, a woman looked at Sadaf Iqbal’s oldest daughter, 4-year-old Asiyah, and said: “She has such beautiful curly hair. It’s a shame she’ll have to cover it up.”

Iqbal, 30, who has covered her hair in public since she was 11, reacted with stunned silence. Days later, “I still don’t know what I should have said,” she says. “For me, it’s not at all a shame that I cover. And the woman who said it was very nice — totally friendly, just ignorant.”

Iqbal’s husband, Ibrahim Moiz — a 31-year-old Fairfax City lawyer who handles small-business and family cases, often from Northern Virginia’s large, rapidly growing Muslim community — would not have stayed silent.

His anger, he says, would have “taken control of me.” He would have challenged the woman to consider if she could be strong enough to wear such an evident expression of faith.

Still, Moiz’s impulse to defend his wife is tempered by his American practicality.

“Islam has flourished for 1,400 years because it fits into every society and adapts to it,” he says. “So those people who would require women to wear the hijab, or men who say you have to grow your beard out two fists long, are making life more difficult for their children if they take such a rigid approach.”

The blame for Americans’ suspicion toward Muslims, Moiz argues, lies mostly with his fellow Muslims, especially those who refuse to adapt to the culture of their new home.

Moiz, an American-born child of immigrants from India, is a devout Muslim who spent years studying the Koran in Syria before beginning his legal career in the Washington area. Ask Moiz about Islam, and his answers often cite the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.

“We have to figure out what’s right for Islam in this country,” he says. “It’s like in the law — you have your Scalias who strictly construe the Constitution and you have your Justice Kagans, who ask how we can interpret those texts for today. We know we have to emulate the prophet, but does that mean we have to have a long beard? Do we have to look like him or is it more important to understand him?”

Moiz clerked in Prince George’s County for Maryland’s first Muslim judge and then worked for a time on discrimination claims made by American Muslims. He left that job believing that too many of his fellow Muslims — such as the worker who complained that his employer wouldn’t give him Fridays off to pray, when he really needed only an hour — are too quick to take on the victim label.

The Islam that Moiz has chosen is traditional in some ways yet markedly American in others.

“I don’t wear the traditional garb,” says Moiz, who has on a tennis shirt and chinos. “But I believe the way I dress is Islamic” because it is simple and modest.

Moiz’s ability to adapt his faith to his country has turned him into a hot commodity at his mosque, the 5,000-member All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling. At ADAMS, some immigrant parents ask Moiz to mentor their teenagers, who sometimes frighten their parents by retreating into their rooms to commune with the Internet, where radical jihadist preachers aim their videos at young Americans.

Two of those teens are hanging out in Moiz’s living room in Sterling as Moiz and Iqbal are busy corralling their own small children, with the goal of getting them to bed before evening prayer.

Iqbal leans over to scoop up their 8-month-old baby, Tasneem, who scampers along the carpeting. Moiz takes the video game controller from Tarek Zagade, a 14-year-old who is losing a game of Madden NFL football to his buddy Salman Mehter, 17.

“Here, let me help you come back,” Moiz says, but a few minutes later, Salman has vanquished his mentor, too.

Tarek, who after years of home schooling attends Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, is trying to find his place between the devotion of his parents — his father is from India and his mother is U.S.-born — and the secular lives of his fellow students.

Religion never comes up at school, he says, but there are times when he feels as if he has to drag his family into American ways, as when his parents wanted to name his baby sister “some terrible name, a ‘Lion King’ name, Zaina or something like that.” They finally chose Noreen, thanks to pressure from their American-born kids.

The boys banter with Moiz about Eli Manning’s passing style and rib him over his passion for old-school video games from the dark ages of Atari. The boys are deep into their game — Colts-Giants, no Redskins fans here — when Moiz calls over, “We’ll pray at the end of the quarter, okay?”

Tarek’s parents “wanted me to get through to him, see what’s in his mind,” Moiz says, “ ’cause at home, he just gets back from school and goes to his room.” What he does there, what his adolescent mind makes of the clash between his parents’ ways and the culture’s notions of Islam, can be scary to parents who grew up in an unquestioning, authoritarian environment.

They don’t need to worry, Tarek says — his passion is ice hockey, not politics. But Moiz knows that “a lot of American kids really struggle with Islam. They may pray at home but drop it entirely at school. They hear about jihad and all these strict laws that weren’t even applied through most of Islamic history.”

Moiz says Islam will adapt to American values only when U.S.-born Muslims — guys like him who know football and video games as well as they know the Koran — are handed the torch of leadership.

In the meantime, he tries to show immigrant parents the advantage of America’s questioning culture.

“What helped me stay away from extremists — either religious crazies or wild partying — was always questioning, doubting whatever I was taught,” he says. “That’s the American way, and that fits perfectly with Islam, but not with the rigid, closed Islam that too many of the imams from other cultures bring here.”

As the sun sets, the boys, Moiz and his wife move into the living room and turn toward Mecca. Moiz and the boys stand side by side in front, his wife behind them. Tarek leads the chanting in Arabic. For 10 minutes, silent contemplation alternates with the soft rhythms of prayer as they bow and prostrate.

When they finish praying, Moiz and Iqbal check their smartphones and the boys head back to their game.

“Oreos and milk?” Iqbal offers.

* * *

Zehra Fazal wraps a hijab over her hair, takes a deep breath and steps onstage, transformed into Zed Headscarf, Muslim punk rocker and bisexual.

An audience of 150, a mix of Muslims and others at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, meet Fazal’s alter ego, a brash but flirty character who relishes asking the kinds of questions most young Muslims wouldn’t dare pose to parents:

Why must she and her father stay in separate rooms at a party at the mosque? If a woman must cover her hair in front of men who are not part of her family, how about a lesbian — must she wear a hijab in front of all women?

“Why do I have to be the ambassador for Islam? Why do I have to represent Pakistan when I’ve only been there twice?” Zed demands in her one-woman show, “Headscarf and the Angry Bitch.”

Zed is a child of 9/11, an in-your-face Muslim who rocks out yet still covers.

“Zed is braver than I am. She can ask the questions I’m not allowed to ask,” says Fazal, who is 26 and trying to make it as an actress and writer in Washington, though she still holds a graphic-design job in Crystal City to make ends meet.

Despite the show’s title, Zed — and her creator — are less angry than frustrated and confused. They live on the edge of alienation, teetering between worlds where they don’t quite belong.

Playing Zed, Fazal challenges American Muslims to confront the contradictions of their hyphenated identity. In the audience, 20-somethings studiously avoid turning to look at their parents as Zed performs a song about falling in love despite religious rules that prohibit sex before marriage. Zed frankly tells her lover, “The only thing I’ll do five times a day is you.”

But Zed and the show win over the parents. Soon enough, the generations are laughing together as Zed sings, to the tune of America’s “A Horse With No Name”: “I been through the airport as a Muslim detained / At the airport, you can’t use your real name / ’Cause the no-fly list forbids any Hussein.”

Fazal’s parents, Pakistani physicians, never got to see “Headscarf and the Angry Bitch.” They died before their daughter finished writing it. But she thinks they would recognize the pain, humor and anger of her portrait of Muslim life in America.

Born in Libertyville, Ill., Fazal grew up in a home that was liberal by Muslim standards and conservative in the eyes of her Christian friends. Her family wasn’t much for going to mosque, but some parental rules rendered Fazal and her sisters different.

“Let your books be your boyfriends,” her father would say. And sorry, no prom, either.

At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Fazal steered clear of the Muslim student groups . Her friends were mostly white.

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, she became uncomfortable with her father’s decision to go on local TV to try to explain that Islam was a religion of peace. She grew exasperated over having to somehow prove her patriotism to strangers and angry when her dad’s name temporarily popped up on a no-fly list because it was similar to that of some bad guy.

After moving to Washington, Fazal found herself doodling as she waited for her turn onstage in a play about homeland security at the District’s Church Street Theater.

She drew a scantily clad punk rocker who wore a hijab. Over time, the doodles morphed into a character, a folk-singing Muslim whose lyrics managed to offend just about everyone.

Now the lanky, onyx-eyed actress, six years out of college, has come to think of Zed as her tougher, bolder, prouder side.

“It’s time for this religion and ethnic group to stop taking itself so seriously,” Fazal says. “I’m not sure the conservative Muslim community has a sense of humor yet, but the younger generation is ready for this. They know it’s okay to let different labels make up your identity. Just because I’m Muslim doesn’t mean I can’t also be this other thing, even if that thing is haram” — religiously forbidden.

Or, as Zed puts it at Round House: “Skittles — first they were haram, now they’re halal,” or religiously approved. “Ellen DeGeneres — definitely haram.”

* * *

Someone recently asked Siron Zidan what she would do if her daughter came home and said, “I have a boyfriend, and I want to have his baby.”

“It’s not even open for discussion,” Zidan replied.

Zidan’s husband, Yahya Hendi, has been listening from across the room. He pipes up: “Siron, I have to challenge you. Such a thing can happen, and you have to be ready to discuss it.”

Hendi — Georgetown University’s imam, the first full-time Muslim chaplain at a U.S. college — tells his wife about a family he counseled recently in which a 15-year-old told his parents he is not remotely interested in Islam and wants nothing to do with the faith.

“Oh God!” Zidan exclaims. “I can’t believe such a thing could happen.”

“It can, and it does,” Hendi says. “At that age, you have to ask questions. In this culture, that is how you learn and grow.”

Working on a college campus, Hendi sees the clash of identities many times a day. His version of Islam has become more about asking questions than about forbidding them.

Zidan, a Palestinian who immigrated to the United States at 25 and now lives in Frederick with her husband, has no desire to make life harder for her kids. But as an observant Muslim who wears a head scarf outside the house, she has definite ideas about how to balance her own traditional upbringing with her children’s reality as Americans.

So the four kids, who range in age from nine to 14 and go to public school, know they aren’t allowed to wear provocative clothing or drink alcohol.

“I don’t want them to be fanatic Muslims, and I don’t want them to be liberal Muslims who eat pork and drink alcohol,” Zidan says. “I want them to be moderate. I know they will be a blend of Muslim and American.”

The Georgetown imam — at 45 a jovial, hefty figure who cannot walk across campus without students of all kinds stopping him for a word of counsel or a quick joke — knows that tension well. But he has come to believe that living in America makes Islam stronger and more flexible.

As a Palestinian child, Hendi says, he saw the world in black and white.

“To me, Jews were Israelis in tanks,” he says. “I thought if you weren’t Muslim, you were going to hellfire.”

He moved to the United States at 22 for graduate school at Temple University. Hendi studied Hebrew and the Torah under an Israeli professor who regularly invited him to her home. One day, when the professor had to go out shopping, she left Hendi alone in her house.

“That simple gesture changed my life,” he says. “That she would trust me, a Palestinian, and show me that love. America opened the door for me to see the beauty of Islam as an open, inclusive, pluralistic faith. America taught me that I can sit with friends who are drinking alcohol even if I am not. America showed me that music can be holy, that marriage is about love, and that all of this fits easily in an open, modern Islam.”

Hendi rejects the idea that it is older, immigrant Muslims who are blocking the faith from adapting to the new land. Rather, he says, too many U.S. Muslim communities are saturated in a “haram culture — this or that is not allowed, no, no, no,” Hendi says.

While traveling recently in the South, Hendi heard an imam — “a guy with a long beard and a Saudi dagger” — teach that music is forbidden and dancing is forbidden and boys and girls should be educated separately.

“I went to this imam’s board members and I said, ‘Look at what you’re shoving into your children.’ There were 700 people in that room listening to that crazy guy. And the board members said, ‘Yes, we know, but we don’t know what to do.’ ”

* * *

A hundred-acre spread of lush, rolling farmland in Frederick County is where Hendi and Zidan will go when they are called home.

The imam and some members of his Frederick mosque were at a Borders coffee shop a few years ago when the topic of death came up. For many Muslims, as for generations of immigrants before them, dying meant being shipped back to the old country to be reunited with their ancestors.

The time had come for U.S. Muslims to make a different kind of commitment. Abdul Majeed, a physician from Pakistan who had practiced in Frederick for 35 years, became a founder of al-Firdaus Memorial Gardens. As it happened, Majeed became the first person buried at al-Firdaus, the first all-Muslim burial ground in the Washington area.

Eighty-eight Muslims have been interred there since it opened in 2008. They came from Bosnia, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Trinidad, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Iran and a dozen other countries.

There are 8,000 burial sites, 530 of which have been sold. Sayed Naved owns six of them. He moved from India to Maryland 22 years ago, when he was 26, to study engineering at College Park. Now, with his sons in college and high school, he wants to ensure that his family will be together for eternity.

“This is where we belong,” says Naved, president of a federal contracting firm based in Rockville and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. “We sometimes feel caught between the Islamophobes and the extremists in our own community who give us all a bad name. But this is our country. We see a lot more Muslim values in America than in most of the world — honesty, integrity, people taking care of neighbors, charity, freedom to practice religion.”

Hendi and his family have also bought plots at al-Firdaus.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, we built mosques only to pray,” the imam says. “In the ’80s and ’90s, we built schools to educate our children. Now we are building cemeteries because we want to die in America. We are saying, ‘We are here. This is home.’ ”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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