A Place to Explore Muslim American Life

Saturday, May 23, 2009

From his home in Austin, Shahed Amanullah, 41, runs six popular Web sites that explore topics of interest to Muslims -- with two more to go online shortly. A senior project manager at an engineering firm by day, the American-born Amanullah has built a mini-Internet empire. His sites include one that reviews restaurants that meet Islamic dietary restrictions and another that reviews mosques. On a more esoteric note, he has a Web site for the best Muslim writing on the Web and a site that explores gender issues in Islam. But his highest-profile Web site is

Alt.muslim.com, a forum for Muslims and non-Muslims to explore contemporary, often controversial, topics as they intersect with Islam: terrorism, politics, culture and comedy. Washington Post staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon interviewed Amanullah about his work. Here is an edited transcript:

Q Why did you start

Altmuslim.com?

AThere was a fundamental disconnect after 9/11. People who were not Muslim couldn't understand what they were seeing with Muslims they knew, or what they thought Muslims should be like, and Muslims on the other side couldn't understand why others feared them so much. Both sides were very much talking past each other. We needed a third voice in there. We purposely make the site accessible to both sides. It's not targeted to Muslims. It's not targeted to non-Muslims. It's shared space that speaks to both. My job isn't to convince people that Muslims are perfect. My job is to convince people that Muslims are human. People worry about, 'Don't expose our dirty laundry,' and my attitude is that 9/11 blew our dirty laundry all over the place. You can't pretend it doesn't exist. The nightly news covers it every night, so let's at least own up to it and see what we can do about it.

Eight years after 9/11, what is the single biggest challenge facing American Muslims?

I don't think it is external so much as it is internal. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup, we are relatively well adjusted, have a relatively good quality of life and are a reasonably content group of people. The biggest challenge facing us is more internal -- asking the deeper question. Okay, now that we know that we are Muslim Americans or American Muslims, whatever you want to call us, what does that mean?

The Muslim community in the West, at least in America, is very young. We're talking two to three generations for the bulk of the population, and that goes for whether you are an immigrant Muslim or whether you come from the Nation of Islam like African American Muslims. So we're still trying to figure out what American Muslims are and what American Islam is, and how it differs from Islam elsewhere and how it is the same. What is the relation between us and them -- Muslims here and in the Muslim world, and Muslims here and our non-Muslim co-citizens. What is our culture? Is it just an American culture that we fine-tune to meet our religious needs? Is it an amalgam of all the different cultures that came to America -- a melting pot of African American and Arab, South Asian and Indonesian and whatever? There is so much exciting stuff to talk about and write about.

Do you anticipate that Muslims will have more access in the Obama administration?

The timing has been good. At the same time that the Obama administration has come into being, you also have a crop of Muslim Americans who have been training for careers in public service, who have backgrounds in law and public policy who are just maturing to the point where they are ready to be taken advantage of. I am a founding board member of the Muslim Public Service Network. We bring Muslims to Washington to put them into internships and promote careers in public service.

The administration has already put some of these very high-quality young Muslims in positions where they can make a difference. It's been very heartening to see -- to have a voice in the room that is of this community is crucial to making policy stick and making policies work. We've had to see how it plays out, but people are extremely hopeful. There is far more talent out there that's available to be tapped.

Has life in the American Muslim community changed with the election of Barack Obama?

Yes, but not in obvious ways. What it represents for Muslim Americans is that, despite the fact that he is not Muslim, we live in a country where someone who has that kind of name and a Muslim heritage wasn't denied the highest office in the land. It gave people hope. 'Wow, I live in a country that suffered a horrific attack and just a few short years after that, found itself willing to elect someone with a name that kids used to pick on me for when I was growing up.'


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