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Hostility across U.S. jars Muslim college students

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; B01

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."

Madiha Nawaz, a 20-year-old senior who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Fairfax, voiced similar concerns as the sun set over the AU campus. If protesters succeed in stopping the Islamic center's construction, she said, it could make young Muslims feel more marginalized.

"It could lead people toward being more self-secluded," she said, "and it could lead to homegrown terrorism."

Muslims are tired of being lumped together with a tiny minority who have committed terrorist acts, explained Tanim Awwal, 20, the president of AU's Muslim Student Association.

Awwal, holding a blue paperback Koran, said the notion of Muslims as "other" serves not only Islamic extremists but also those on the far right of U.S. politics. "If you're going to say that we're separate from people, you're going to do what the radicals want -- on both sides."

But many young Muslims have been heartened by statements of support from the likes of President Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart.

"It helps to know that you have some people behind you. Not because they're the same religion as you, but just because they know what's right and what's wrong," said Adam Sbita, 21, a junior at George Mason University who grew up in Falls Church and wears the traditional thobe, a long shirtdress, of his family's home country of Libya. In 10 or 15 years, he added, he hopes such debates will be a thing of the past.

'Civil rights' tested

In fact, many Muslims regard the current controversy as an opportunity to assert themselves as Americans, just as other minorities have had to do in the past.

"It's become more of a civil rights issue than anything else," said Adeel Zeb, former AU chaplain and founder of the Deen Foundation for Muslim Campus Life. "Young Muslim Americans are becoming more proud to be Muslim because of all this controversy. Your civil rights are being tested on a national scale."

Although Zeb said he could see the controversy potentially aiding extremists, he said it also could help young Muslims unite and build stronger bridges with non-Muslims.

"It really hits the heart of young Muslim Americans," he said. "Everyone has to go through this pledge process the way other groups have in America."

At AU's iftar feast, Nawaz mused about this moment in the history of America's Muslims.

"You saw it in Topeka, Kan., you saw it in Brown v. Board of Education," she said. "It may be time for us now. It may be time for Muslim Americans to embrace their hyphenated identity."

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