FIVE YEARS LATER : Balancing Faith, Country

Young U.S. Muslims Strive for Harmony

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

Standing in the small, fluorescent-lighted room that served as George Washington University's Muslim prayer area, Amin Al-Sarraf pointed to the six-foot-high plastic partition dividing the space.

It had been a point of contention at the university's Muslim Students' Association. Some members thought the partition, common in mosques to separate men and women when they pray, was a necessary part of their religion; others disagreed, saying women had trouble hearing the imam.

"Some see it like the Great Wall of China in the middle of the room," Al-Sarraf explained, adding that there was a fear "freshmen will get a bad taste in their mouth -- like this is how the MSA's going to be."

Al-Sarraf didn't want to alienate anyone. In his post last year as president of the Islamic Alliance for Justice, a political group under the umbrella of the MSA, he'd heard of Muslim groups at other universities making students feel excluded for not dressing a certain way, for example. Perhaps, he mused aloud, his MSA could come to a compromise: Keep the partition, but make it shorter.

For Al-Sarraf, 22, a student of international relations who graduated in May, the partition quandary was part of a larger debate taking place among American Muslims, especially young ones: how to incorporate their religion into daily life. The question has become more pressing -- and more pressured -- since Sept. 11, 2001, linked Islam, in the eyes of many Americans, with acts of fanaticism and murder.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Muslims began to feel the heat. Women in hijab became targets of hostile remarks; mosques were sprayed with graffiti and vandalized. Some Muslim immigrants were required to register with the government, and families got unexpected knocks on the door from immigration and FBI officers.

In some communities, resentment swelled as Muslim men disappeared, deported to their home countries or swallowed into a law enforcement system many Muslims felt had convicted them of ill-defined crimes. The United States went to war, first in one Muslim country, then another.

To many Muslims, it seemed that the United States was going to battle against them. "These policies create the impression in the minds of many people . . . that to fight the war on terror you have to fight some kind of war on Islam," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Until Sept. 11, being Muslim in the United States had not necessarily meant taking a special stand or explaining the actions of others. But in a new social climate, Muslims had to decide, more concretely, what it meant to be both Muslim and American.

For two young Muslim men in the Washington area, the process of refining the balance between faith and country, set in motion by the attacks, has played out differently.

Al-Sarraf, raised in a multiethnic family that frequently discussed how Islam fit into mainstream America, was propelled into a leadership role aimed at integrating Muslims into broader society.

Basim Hawa, son of Palestinian immigrants, went from ignoring many tenets of his religion to thinking actively about what they meant to him and, ultimately, throwing off the trappings of American life that didn't fit with Islam.

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