Hostility across U.S. jars Muslim college students

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010

Although the Muslim students hadn't eaten since dawn, something besides food was on their minds as they loaded plates with tandoori chicken, chickpeas and rice at American University to break their Ramadan fast.

For weeks, their faith had been under attack by some opponents of a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. Every time they turned on the TV, there were new reports of anti-Muslim sentiment: mosque construction being opposed hundreds of miles from Ground Zero; a Florida pastor vowing to burn copies of the Koran to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11; a poll showing that 43 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims. And just this week, a Muslim cabbie was stabbed in New York.

All of it points to a swelling hostility that many of these students had scarcely known was there and that religious and political leaders worry could fuel alienation and radicalism among some young American Muslims.

At AU, there is little evidence of that, although the students who gathered on Tuesday for an iftar, the banquet that marks sundown, said the backlash has been particularly jarring, coinciding with the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, prayer and reflection.

"We've all been talking about it," said Farah Mohamed, 19, a sophomore who grew up in Massachusetts, adding that the conversations have permeated every layer of their world -- from class discussions to Facebook status updates.

She and many of her peers have never felt like outsiders, not even in the tense days after the Sept 11 attacks. With their scoopneck shirts and skinny jeans, they are part of the patchwork of ethnicities and religions woven through most U.S. campuses. For them, any suggestion that being Muslim is incompatible with being American is disturbing.

"My brother came home one night really upset," said Asma Mian, a 20-year-old junior from Potomac. He'd encountered a man on the Metro who was railing against the proposed community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan.

It rattled her to see her 17-year-old brother so emotional. "He barely gets involved in politics. He's not extremely religious or anything," she said, adding that people his age can be quick to take offense. They "feel like it's more a personal attack. It's more mortifying than it would be if you were older."

That anger, youth leaders and terrorism experts warn, could push some young Muslims into the arms of such extremists as U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has been linked to several terrorist plots. In his recruiting efforts, Aulaqi often portrays Islam as being under attack by the West.

The most vociferous mosque opponents "do not know what they are doing," said Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. "They are radicalizing people."

'Only takes one or two'

Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, said that the vast majority of American Muslims disagree with Aulaqi and are unlikely to be radicalized by the mosque debate.

"The problem is that it only takes one or two," Fishman said. "They get a couple of people to do something crazy, and that will spark a backlash and reinforce a cycle of separation."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company