Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

New York”s Muslim Youth at the Forefront of Local Political Activism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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With 40 million passengers passing through annually, New York City””s John F Kennedy International Airport is one of the world””s busiest airports. It is connected to the famous Manhattan Island located 15 miles away, by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, used by thousands of commuters weekly. Driving along this highway, one cannot help but notice a large building with Arabic and English signs, at the top of which sits a magnificent blue dome. It is here at Al-Khoei Foundation that hundreds of Muslim children learn about Islam in four languages: Arabic, Persian, English and Urdu, and hundreds of Muslims gather to pray.

The strategic location of Al-Khoei Foundation, looking over one of New York””s main highways represents the spread of Islam and its institutions that have integrated fully into the heart of New York. Although the institution is situated on the outskirts of the city, its location on one of the main roads that leads to central New York means it would be difficult to miss its presence. It has also become difficult to ignore the demands of New York””s Muslim population over the past few years. After the London””s 7/7 bombings, many asked whether the phenomenon of ””home-grown”” terrorism would find its way to the United States. As New York is home to America””s second largest Muslim population in the United States, reaching 800,000 people, attention has turned to New York””s young Muslims. The question remains, would this population carry out an attack against its own society?

After meeting various groups of Muslims in New York City, it is evident that second generation Muslims are working thoroughly on a wide-range of activities. These activities however, relate not to terrorism but rather aim to establish the best methods of integrating efficiently into American society. Activists use the internet and their free time for this cause. They strive for an awakening amongst America””s Muslims to be both American and Muslim, and not to become overwhelmed with excluding themselves from their surroundings and society.

Though this has been the goal for many Muslim activists since the end of last century, the events of 9/11 caused many others to feel a new responsibility in playing an effective role to improve the deteriorating reputation of Muslims. After the London bombings, there has been an increased speculation regarding the role of American and British Muslims and the influence of extremist ideologies upon them. A number of Muslim community leaders in the United States have ruled out the spreading of the phenomenon of ””home-grown terrorists””. They attribute their conviction to a number of reasons, the most important being that there are major differences between European and American methods of integration, thus major differences between ways of life amongst second generation Muslims of the West.

The director of education programs in the Al-Imam school affiliated with Al-Khoei Foundation, Mohsin Alidina, emphasized that the different socio-economic and demographic circumstances of Muslims in the USA and Europe would reduce the likelihood of second generation Muslims participating in terrorist activities. He told Asharq Al-Awsat, &#34The geographic landscape of the United States and the distances between community centres do not allow for Muslims to become secluded from the rest of American society. There are no towns exclusive for Muslim residents, or crowded areas for one particular ethnicity. Muslim families are spread across American society and it is rare to find here a Muslim abandoned by society&#34. He added that there are no &#34Muslim ghettos&#34 like in parts of Europe such as France and the Netherlands.

Alidina noted that the majority of Muslims in New York come from working class backgrounds, however, the Executive Director of ASMA (the American Society for Muslim Advancement) Daisy Khan, asserted that the majority of second generation Muslims come from a middle class background. This is one of the major variances between New York””s Muslims, as family income and living standards determine the upbringing of younger generations and shape their perceptions of opportunities in the United States. Khan highlighted that, &#34children of the first generation migrants have been raised in America, therefore they see themselves as Americans and share the same rights as everybody else in that country, rights that they would never give up.&#34 In this light, the children differ to their parents who emigrated from their homelands and shy away from actively working for equal rights for all citizens. This support of equal rights, however, is one of the most important features of American society. She continues, &#34Muslims must realize that they have to work for such rights to be acknowledged.&#34

Khan referred to the history of civil rights campaigns by minorities in America. She said, &#34Each group of immigrants in the U.S faced discrimination and persecution at some point or another and had to fight for their rights. Catholics felt persecuted until John F. Kennedy came to power. African-Americans suffered the worst persecution ranging from enslavement to seclusion from society. Jews were persecuted at one point until they united as one community and engaged in political activity.&#34 Daisy continued, &#34The problem with Muslims at the moment is that the idea of young leadership does not exist to ensure and uphold Muslims”” rights. Our society is working to qualify young Muslims to become leaders. The second and third generations are the ideal ambassadors for us.&#34The ””Al-Farah”” mosque affiliated to ASMA, the Imam of which is Faisal Abdel-Rauf who founded the Cordoba Initiative and is married to Daisy Khan, receives many leading figures from the Muslim community to deliver the sermon at the Friday prayers. Khan asserted that this program encourages young Muslims to play an active religious role in the country that they were born and raised.

Recently, Daisy Khan invited the national director of MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), Ahmed Younis from the country””s capital, Washington DC, to New York to deliver the Friday sermon at the Al-Farah mosque. The mosque is situated in Tribeca, close to Wall Street in the famous financial district of New York, attracting bankers from the area to pray with students and other employees from all walks of life. Younis surprised many when he delivered a heated sermon calling for the &#34awakening of Muslims,&#34 saying, &#34You must rise and take your positions in society to defend your right to live here. Muslim Americans will portray the real nature of Islam to the world, stopping the terrorists from shaping and dominating the identity of Muslims.&#34

Younis told Asharq Al-Awsat that since the founding of the MPAC in 1988, the organization has worked to support civil rights movements so that they could &#34politically practice their due role in American society&#34. He rejected the notion that the events of 9/11 were the main cause in increasing political awareness amongst Muslims, adding that there were many Muslim associations already working for such a cause. He did acknowledge, however, that &#34the attacks of 9/11 pushed more Muslims to become politically active and in that sense increased our work at MPAC and in similar organizations&#34.

Amongst the most prominent of such Islamic organizations within the political arena is CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The officials who founded the institute originate mainly from the Middle East and the organization now has 30 chapters across the United States. The representatives of CAIR frequently highlight that the association is an American one, and does not represent any foreign interest.

CAIR””s executive director of New York, Wissam Nasser explained that his office in New York offers legal advice to Muslims. &#34There are 13 anti-racism laws in the US. Therefore, we help Muslims to defend themselves should they be subjected to racial discrimination, according to American law,&#34 Nasser asserted. He continued: &#34The majority of Islamic organizations are ethnically divided among themselves. We open our doors to all Muslims.&#34 Nasser agreed that the events of September 11 affected his organizations work, stating &#34CAIR was founded in 1995 but has attracted much attention following 9/11. CAIR officials met approximately 400 journalists last year, while previously we were not widely known&#34.

CAIR seeks to encourage Muslims to participate in local politics. Nasser explained that &#34the majority of Muslims do not take part in local politics for a number of reasons such as, language barriers, or their preoccupation with trying to integrate into the society or due to American foreign policy towards their home countries. Unfortunately, some Muslims who do take part in politics only do so to take control of a certain mosque or area&#34. Therefore, not many congressional representatives, politicians or candidates running for public office take heed of Muslim communities and campaign for their votes as Nasser illustrated. This is because, &#34the Muslims themselves do not pay much attention to their voter-power. Many of them vote in presidential elections only and neglect the local elections which in itself weakens their electoral weight&#34, Nasser said. He further stated that the absence of strategic planning and concerted action made the Muslim community politically weak. He added that in some areas even the exact number of the Muslim population is unknown thus making it difficult for Islamic organizations to persuade politicians to address Muslim issues.

Nasser considered that the number of American Muslims is powerful enough to influence American policies, only provided that Muslims unite and agree. He explained, &#34To acquire political power you need media access and financial influence, which is exactly what we lack. For example, Muslims are generally reluctant to donate money to Muslim organizations in case the government accuses them of funding terrorist activity&#34.

Daisy Khan believes that the best way to empower Muslims is by, &#34initiative and interaction rather than reacting to particular events, or having a defensive attitude&#34. She pointed out that unlike their parents, the young American Muslim generation is much more concerned with events unfolding in America rather than in their countries of origin. She added that this is because &#34America is their home whether they agree or disagree with opinions and actions of some politicians&#34. She remarked, &#34the parents on the other hand perceive their disagreement with the US government as an obstacle in the way of complete integration into US society.&#34 Khan continued, &#34After the 7/7 London bombings, many people were worried that similar attacks would be carried out here in the United States. We had to work promptly to calm these worries and explain the Muslim point of view””, fearing the possibility of a backlash against Muslims, similar to the one witnessed following the New York attacks.

Khan ruled out the possibility of terrorist activities carried out by American Muslims and explained that, &#34the precautions taken by the American government and the self-discipline of Muslims mean that it is unlikely that such events would take place.&#34 She continued however to say, &#34It is not impossible that such attacks are carried out as their remains a small number of Islamic factions that have a unique way of thinking.&#34 Khan added that &#34Muslims learned from their mistakes when there was no organized condemnation after the 9/11 attacks despite many expressing their outrage individually. After the 7/7 London bombings there was much stronger and wider condemnation of these attacks. Muslims here will never make excuses for the terrorists again&#34.

Over the past few weeks, many American Muslims in New York sympathized with the victims of Pakistan””s earthquake and felt a sense of responsibility in alleviating their suffering. Through the collective efforts of ASMA, CAIR, and the Khoei Foundation, and other organizations, American Muslims collected 12 million US dollars to help the victims of the quake. At the same time, these organizations worked hard to collect aid for their fellow American compatriots who fell victim to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. However, despite these passionate initiatives and continuous efforts undertaken by such Muslim activists, many fear another terrorist attack in the United States would not only destroy buildings and take lives, but radically diminish the effectiveness and progress of such organizations.