When two planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center, FBI special agent Ammar Y. Barghouty was on a training course. Nadia Aman was about to leave home for her job at the U.S. Commerce Department. And Mirza Baig was in his White House office, where his first thought was, "God, don't let it be a Muslim."
But it was.
Ever since, these young Muslims who work for a government that is vigorously waging a war on terrorism -- acts often committed in the name of Islam -- have faced the unusual challenge of being in the middle of the battle.
"From one side, they're probably thinking he's a Muslim, of course he's going to defend Islam," said Baig, 31, a senior network engineer in the executive office of the president. "On the other hand, they're thinking, he works for the government, of course he's going to toe the government line. . . . It's a double-edged sword there."
On the eve of Islam's holy month of Ramadan, which starts today, five Washington area Muslims who work for the federal government discussed the impact of last year's terrorist attacks. All said their jobs help break down stereotypes about Muslims.
They spoke of living amid two countervailing winds, one bringing acts of kindness and support from professional colleagues and neighbors, the other, bigoted attacks on Islam by some Christian leaders and media commentators. Several told of extra scrutiny at airports, even when flying on government business.
None of them has become more circumspect about practicing his or her faith. On the contrary, they feel obliged to reach out to non-Muslims and educate people about Islam. They stressed that Muslims must be more vigilant against those who misrepresent Islam, and some said they are more careful with their charity dollars.
As they prepared for Ramadan -- when Muslims eat and drink nothing from sunup to sundown -- they all expressed confidence about the future of their faith in this country. "It's ironic how people want to blame Islam for a lot of negativity in the rest of the world," said Aman, 26. "But in the United States, Islam is actually flourishing."
Explaining, Defending As a contract worker doing project analysis and auditing for the U.S. Customs Service, Aman works in a Northern Virginia building surrounded by a black chain-link fence. A 1998 graduate of Old Dominion University, she wears a tiny golden replica of the Koran around her neck. Her black hair is uncovered.
Recently, for the first time since her family arrived here 20 years ago as refugees from Afghanistan, they got a letter mailed directly from Kabul. "It was a sign that things are returning to normal," Aman observed.
Over the past year, "I find myself constantly having to explain and defend myself," she said, adding that there is "a degree of paranoia among Muslims. They're afraid people will misconstrue what they say." Still, she has a friend at work, Aman said, who is "a very devout Christian, and we talk about religion. We don't look at the differences in our faiths as much as the commonality in them."
This Ramadan, Aman is praying that some day she will be able to visit Afghanistan. "I'm hoping," she said, "that the world won't forget this time."
A Self-Conscious Prayer Arriving early at Reagan National Airport for a 7:20 a.m. flight, M. Yusuf Mohamed, 30, sought out a corner to say his morning prayers, because the airport chapel was closed. Then he did something he wouldn't have done before Sept. 11. "I went over to the gate agent, and I said, 'You know, I'm going to use this corner to make my morning prayers.' They didn't object."
Mohamed, an attorney in the U.S. Labor Department's Office of the Solicitor, resented having to give advance notice. "I'm more self-conscious about displays of faith in public," he said. "But I will not be deterred from doing so. I won't say 'I'll wait till I get home.' "
Mohamed, who was born in Cairo and has been in this country for 25 years, supports the war on terrorism even though he regrets the "apprehensive" climate it has created for Muslims.
"On the other hand," the Arlington resident said, "there is also a great opportunity forced on us by 9/11. A lot of people have become curious about Islam and want to know more."
This Ramadan, Mohamed said he is looking forward to sharing the iftar -- the evening meal that breaks the daily fast -- with non-Muslim friends.
Employing Vigilance Baig was headed to the presidential ranch in Crawford, Tex., with a senior government official and a plane ticket bought with a government credit card when his traveling companions began gently teasing him. "I bet Mirza's going to be pulled over," said one. Sure enough, the dark-complexioned Baig, who came to the United States from India when he was 14, was the only one singled out for a full search.
But such incidents, Baig said, don't compare to the far larger concerns of Muslims nowadays. For one, "within our own Muslim community, we have to make sure that no extremist elements take hold," he said.
Moderate Muslims like himself, he added, must "present the view that there's no compulsion in religion, that ultimately I'm responsible for my actions."
This Ramadan, the Greenbelt resident said he is more hopeful than last year. "My hopes and prayers actually are that we stay focused and win this war," Baig said. "That we American Muslims really do a good job of being vigilant. And that our civil liberties remain that -- liberties."
A Living Example
Tannaz Haddadi, 25, is legislative correspondent and systems administrator in the office of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio). Born in Tehran, she arrived here as an infant. She lives with her husband in Fairfax County. "I'm the only Muslim here who wears the scarf, and I haven't had any negative experiences," Haddadi said of her work environment. But shortly after last year's attacks, as she was driving home, "Three men on Route 66 started cursing me," she said. "I was just like, what's their problem? It suddenly hit me that I'm outwardly Muslim, and oh my God, they're talking to me!"
Among other Muslims, Haddadi said, she is far more often lauded than criticized for working in the U.S. government. "Most people, especially Muslim women, say, 'We're so glad you're out there. We're so glad that you wear a scarf. . . . Finally, people will see that there are people who are openly Muslim, who practice their religion and who work for the government.' "
Hope for the Future A few days after Sept. 11, FBI special agent Barghouty, 33, was staking out a District apartment building and chatting with the manager on duty. "His solution was to ship all the Muslims back home, back where they came from," Barghouty recalled. "I said, 'So you can start with me.' He apologized real fast."
Barghouty was a year old when he came to the United States with his Palestinian parents. Since joining the FBI more than three years ago, he has helped investigate the USS Cole bombing and the Pentagon attack.
"It's difficult when reading newspapers to see insensitive comments," he said. "It makes you feel you have to be better and show your faith as it really is."
The Arlington resident said that in the past year, "I've become more interested in the details, in the history of Islam. This Ramadan, I plan to read the whole Koran again, which I haven't done for years."
He does not pray in local mosques to avoid disturbing their congregants, many of whom know he works for the FBI. "I'd rather not cause discomfort," he said, "in the sense that people would wonder, 'Is he working? Is he not working?' "
"The big strength of the Muslim community is its extremely strong family unit," Barghouty said. "That will take us through the hard times. As a new generation comes along, more and more will participate in society. It looked dismal for the Irish, the Italians and the Jews for a while, for anybody looked at as born different. I believe that Islam and Muslims are going to become a very integral part of this society."