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American Muslims' Perspectives on the Sept. 11 Tragedy
Thursday, October 18, 2001

How did American Muslims respond to the tragic events of Sept. 11? What are the challenges facing American Muslims following these events? What will be the nature of the relationship between the Muslim community and the larger society? Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang, co-directors of Project MAPS: Muslims in the American Public Square, answered these questions and more. Project MAPS is a three-year project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, housed at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU) at Georgetown University.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari Zahid Bukhari, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. From 1978 to 1983, he worked as executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Public Opinion (PIPO), Islamabad, a member of Gallup International. Since 1996, he has been a member of Mid-Atlantic Catholic-Muslim Interfaith Dialogue sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

Dr. Sulayman Nyang Sulayman Nyang, Ph.D., teaches at the department of African Studies at Howard University. He served as department chair from 1986 to 1993. He also served, from 1975 to 1978, as Deputy Ambassador of the Gambian Embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has contributed over a dozen chapters in edited books. His recent book, "Islam in the United States of America" (1999), is a collection of essays written over several years.

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Moderator: Welcome to Viewpoint with our guests, Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang. Dr. Bukhari and Dr. Nyang, thank you for joining us. Please get us started by describing the American Muslim community's reaction to Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: American Muslims' reaction to the September 11 tragedy was swift and decisive. When the Muslim national leadership learned about the heinous attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon they issued statements condemning the acts of terrorism. They are also involoved in the relief work. They donated blood to the Red Cross. Muslims also participated in the interfaith activities to ease the tension. The most significant events were the visits of President Bush to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., and the interfaith religious services at the National Cathedral.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Islam claims to be a religion of peace, non-violence, and equality for people of all other faiths. But in reality it is totally opposite. They hate Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, et al. They are at war with everyone. There is not a single Islamic country in the world where people of other faiths can practice their non-Islamic religion without fear of persecution. As a matter of fact there is not a single Islamic country (Moslem majority population) on the face of this earth that is truly democratic and secular. Islam preaches that anyone who does not believe in Allah is a Kafir (infidel). Any place in the world Moslems become majority, they attempt to annihilate the minority and convert them to Islamic faith by force or else. Can you explain why the Islamic faith is like that?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: Islam is a religion whose name is rooted in the Arabic word aslama (peace). Its teachings enjoin the doing of good and the avoidance of evil. To Muslims this tall order for humankind can only be realized when the indvidual is at peace with himself and with others in this world. Muslims may have difficulties with other faith people; with Christians because of the crusades and with Jews because of founding of the state of Israel. In fact, Jewish scholars and intellectuals do acknowledge that Muslim Spain was the golden phase of their history before the modern period. As for Buddhist-Muslim relations, the record has been very good, except for the recent decision of the Taliban government to blow up Buddhist statues. Generally, non-Muslims have always gotten along with their Muslim neighbors in the Muslim majority countries.


Alexandria, Va.: Dr. Bukhari,
Why have nearly all Arab-American leaders refrained from directly and unequivocally condemning the September 11 attacks? By not doing so, they give the impression that they are not fully opposed to radical Islam and its terrorists. Thank you.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: The heinous attacks on WTC and the Pentagon were condemned universally by the Muslim organizations, Islamic movements and the Muslim governments. 73 Muslim leaders from all over the world have condemned these attacks in a joint statement. You may visit the links on this page and see the condemnation statements. See also a one-page ad of the Becket Fund in The Washington Post on Oct. 17, 2001.


Newington, Conn.: Can Islam and democracy co-exist? Do you know of any nation which is predominantly Islamic that has a democracy?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: We will begin our answer by saying that Islam and democracy are compatible, although the current Muslim world consists of a mixed bag of democratic and undemocratic regimes. One can argue that most Muslims in the world live under the democratic norms. Take the examples of Indonesia, Malyasia, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Turkey, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Muslims living in India, Europe, the USA and Canada. The majority of Muslims do live in a democratic environment. The situation is not good in the Middle East but efforts are being made to promote democracy in the region.


Deerfield Beach, Fla.: Why do most Muslims fail to recognize the fact that Jews have a proper historic claim to what is now Israel and beyond because they have been there for more than 1,000 years before Christianity and 1,500 years before Islam, and the only reason most Jews have been in the diaspora is that they have been pushed out by competing Christians and Muslims?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: American Muslims generally support UN resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawl from Arab lands and the recognition of the rights of the Palestinians. The conflicting claims of the Palestinians and the Israelis can not be resolved by war. The road forward is for a final peaceful settlement to be negotiated and signed by both parties. The American Muslims do have a vested interest in the outcome of this conflict. They are not only interested in the question of Jerusalem but they also care much about the future of Palestinians. This is why the American Muslim leaders applauded President Bush when he called for the establishment of a viable Palestininan state.


Tampa, Fla.: I am so confused. These men kill thousands, joyfully, and yet it seems the Middle Eastern Muslims are rioting in favor of them. They are murderers, apparently heroin dealers, and very frequent liars. They treat their women like dogs. Why isn't the Islam/Muslim community rioting about that? Are the Afghanistan women less important then say, the Palistine women? Yours seems to be a very selective religion. They seem to be picking and choosing what parts of their "Bible" that they might want to follow. And then they have the rest of the Islamic community making excuses for their behavior? If your "God" condones this type of behavior, I want no part of your religion. Wrong is wrong. Sin is sin. Hate to say this, but these people are shaming your religion. Also, if what I have seen on the RAWA Web site is factual, the Islamic community should hang its head in shame, and beg for "Allah's" forgiveness. I am ashamed, and these are not even women of my faith. The world really let these women down.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: Your question deserves a lengthy answer but time and space do not allow us to do so. However, we can tell you that the strict segregation of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban is not universal all over the Muslim world. Although Islam asks its adherents to dress modestly and to avoid unnecessary mixing of the members of the opposite sex, this principle has been differentially applied across space and time in Muslim societies. In this era you will find Muslim women serving in various capacities in Muslim lands. We have more Muslim women serving as heads of state than anywhere else in the world.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I am confused by the different ways of practicing Islam.
There is the Nation of Islam (which I tend to not think of as being traditionally Muslim), Sunni, Shiite and varitions of each of these.
We are told that the Taliban and other extremists are corrupting Islam or practicing a corrupted form of it, but since I have also been given to understand that all Muslims take the Qu'ran literally I'm not sure how that corruption takes place. Could you provide some explanation?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: Like all other human religions, Islam has its sects and divisions. In the special case of the United States, we have both home-grown Islamised and Islamic groups and imported sects from the old Muslim world. For example, the Nation of Islam is a home-grown Islamised group that has transformed itself into a bona-fide Sunni Islamic group, although Minister Farrakhan still holds on to the old teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The majority of Muslims in the USA are Sunnis with co-religionists in the larger Muslim world. There is a Shiite minority which scholars claim to be about 11 percent.


Fairfax, Va.: We have been told that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the USA. What impact will the Sept. 11 events have on the future of Islam in this country?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: There is unanimous opinion among demographers and journalists in the United States that Islam is the fastest-growing religion. The tragedy of Sept. 11 is likely to drive away some Americans but the chances for conversion could ironically be enhanced by the sense of persecution resulting from the backlash against Muslims. If the historical record can serve as a guide for the future development of American Islam, the example of Christianity in Rome is instructive here. It will all depend on the endurance of the Muslims and the political sagacity of the political and religious leadership of the country.


Detroit, Mich.: Can you tell us more about the reaction of American Muslims to the policies undertaken by the Bush administration in this anti-terrorism campaign? Thank you.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: American Muslims support the action taken by President Bush that the war against terrorism is not against Islam. However, Muslims would like to be more actively involoved in the policy-making forums.


California: As an Arab-American, I'm finding myself having to refute myths about Arabs and Muslims often these days. Can it be emphasized that not all Arabs are Muslim, and even more true, most Muslims are not Arabs? Islam is a religion (not a race of people) that is inclusive of many ethnicities and cultures, like Christianity and Judiasm.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: There is a misconception about the ethnic composition of Muslims around the world. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Arabs constitute less than 20 percent of the Muslim world population. Here in America, We have more Arab-Christians than Arab-Muslims. In the United States, the Muslim population is a microcosm of the Muslim world. In a sense the American Muslims are the mirror image of global America and global Islam.


Bethesda, Md.: Thank you both for being here today. It was my impression that Muslims around the world, except for the most extreme, condemned the attacks on the U.S. of Sept. 11. In contrast, regarding the U.S.'s military response in Afghanistan, lots more Muslims, including those who were not resident in that region such as Indonesians, have reacted with widespread anti-U.S. protests. Do you think the protests reflect anger about the specific military assault on behalf of Muslims in Afghanistan, or are they reacting more generally to U.S. policies in the Middle East and the world at large, or both?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: The Muslim rage is against certain USA policies in the Muslim world. There is the perception that the American policies during the Cold War have continued unchanged. In order to calm down the highly- charged atmosphere, there must be a review of some of these Cold War policies. In the Middle East, many Arabs and Muslims feel that the American policies are not evenhanded and USA support for authoritarian regimes has not helped the democratic Islamic forces in the region. One can argue that the American policy- makers must differentiate between the mainstream Islamic movements and the extremist elements who resort to terrorism.


Jamaica, N.Y.: What does the Islamic world have to say about the atrocities being committed against women by the Taliban? Is this Islam?

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Islam does not violate the rights of women. As we have stated before the Taliban's treatment of women in Afghanistan is uncharacteristic of Muslim practices.


Silver Spring, Md.: My husband is presently working in San Francisco (he is ethnically from Yemen). He has told me that the majority of Arabs in San Francisco are working in the same type of area. He recently said to me that certain people have been asking his supervisor to fire all of the Arabs working in the building, because they are afraid of terrorists. My husband has been in this country for 20 years and is a permanent resident. He is a father of four children and is hard working. What can he do to protect his employment and his rights under such demands? Now, he is afraid to come back to the Washington, D.C., area because of fear that no one will hire him in any capacity.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: We sympathize with the plight of your husband. Yemeni immigrants have been coming to the United Staes since the late 19th century. Many of them settled permanently in Michigan where they worked in the automobile factories. The recent backlash against Muslims does not make it easy for all Mulsims to operate in their respective localities. Our advice to your husband is for him to maintain close contact with local Muslim leadership and to report to law enforcement authorities any threat to his person or property. Remember, there is also a silver lining in the dark clouds: American Muslims also received a lot of positive responses from other faith group leaders and the members of the larger society.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: How many American citizens are Muslims -- followers of Islam -- and how many others now living in the U.S. who are not citizens, are Muslims? And of all of those Muslims who are citizens, what percentage are naturalized, that is not native-born Americans? I'm trying to understand the extent of Islam here in the U.S. And as an engineer, I can tell you that numbers are important to any societal situation. Thanks much.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: There is no available data about the religious composition of the U.S. population. We do not ask any question about religious preferences in the census. However, according to various estimates based on the number of mosques and Muslim particpation in the religious services, the number of Muslims is between six and seven million. We do not have any breakdown of Muslims on the basis of citizenship or immigrant status. We believe that the majority of American Muslims belong to following categories:
1. South Asian Muslims who have naturalized and are the parent of second generation Americans of South Asian
descent. 2. African-Americans, all of whome are native born. 3. Arab-Americans, most of whom are first, second and third generation American. 4. The rest of the Muslim population consists of immigrants who are either naturalized or green card holders. Almost 80 percent or more are U.S. citizens.


Dr. Zahid Bukhari and Dr. Sulayman Nyang: We thank you for your participation in this online discussion with us. We appreciate our moderator and washingtonpost.com for giving us the opportunity to share our research findings of Project MAPS: Muslims in the American Public Square. We would also like to thank the Pew Forum for making this possible. This is a difficult period in our national history. We are sure that the American spirit will once again keep us united and move us on to greater heights.


Moderator: Our thanks to Dr. Zahid Bukhari, Dr. Sulayman Nyang, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and all who participated.



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Muslim Public Affairs Council

Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding

Islamic Supreme Council

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