Since the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001, the spotlight has been focused largely upon those Muslims in the United States who fell victim to harassment and suffered from psychological pressures resulting from the attacks. This was a relatively new phenomenon especially in New York itself, which has traditionally been tolerant to different races and religions. Since the late 18th century, Muslim immigrants had left their countries and headed for New York in search of a better life. Today, Muslims find themselves having to defend their identity and right of residence in the United States.
Four years after 9/11, the media”s focus on Muslims has begun to recede slowly allowing them to resume with their day- to –day lives far away from the effects of the attacks that targeted their well-being and stability.
New York City, with its population of 19 million, is home to some 800,000 Muslims. It has the second largest Muslim community in the United States after California, which is home to one million Muslim residents. In parts of the city with a significant number of Muslims, one can often hear the stories of Muslims living peacefully, while others speak of receiving death threats representing the level of discrimination and racial tension that emerge after any terror incidents related to Islam.
Since the Muslim community”s arrival in New York, just like other cities with a migrant population, a larger part of the community chose to be based around the mosques of the city and its suburbs. The opening ceremony of New York Central Mosque in 1991 was especially important, as it presented an area where up to 4000 Muslims would congregate for the weekly Friday prayer. The number of smaller mosques has increased especially in Queens and Brooklyn, where migrants have established smaller versions of their original towns.
The Muslims of New York share the same religious practices, yet differ in their traditional backgrounds as over twenty different Muslim ethnicities, including Arabs, Africans and Turks, reside side by side. Each ethnic group usually attends a specific mosque where other members of their original nationality go to pray.
As one enters the New York Central mosque on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, where the New York Islamic Center is located, one notices that various worshippers come here, from sick women to angry men demanding to see the Imam of the mosque. The various visitors and hectic atmosphere resemble, to some extent, a waiting room in a hospital, rather than a place of worship. The number of worshippers increases during the holy month of Ramadan, during which many poor Muslims would come to the mosque to receive Zakat, the charity-tax given by all Muslims who can afford it.
Before the noon prayer, I visited the mosque which was strangely crowded despite it not being prayer time. The visitors were asking for the Imam, causing his assistant much stress as the Imam had not yet arrived. It turned out that many members of the impatient crowd had visited the mosque, not for the prayers but rather to receive their share of the Zakat contributions that reach a total of $100,000 US annually and can only be distributed by the Imam.
There are a number of poor Muslims who visit the center in genuine need of financial aid, as well as others who do not actually require the help of these donations, or those who claim to be followers of the Islamic faith. Whoever claims Zakat must present identification papers and certain documents to prove that they rightfully require this form of charity. Each individual case is documented and kept by the center.
The Central Mosque”s Imam, Omar Abu Namus, told Asharq Al-Awsat, "I have a special insight that allows me to determine who is genuine in their demand for financial aid and who seeks to exploit the generosity of Muslims." He added that there is no doubt that some of the requests for help are not legitimate, especially as the community is aware that the mosque gives money to the poor. He stressed, however, that even if 10% of the cases are fraudulent, at least 90% of them really do need assistance.
In addition to donating financial aid, the Center sponsors many conferences addressing religious tolerance and organizes weekly classes on Islam for both Muslims and curious non-Muslims. Abu Namus spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the increase in the general public”s interest in Islam after 9/11 and the high number of Americans who visited the center to obtain information about the religion. He explained, "The Center”s establishment was sponsored by a number of Islamic governments, therefore, we are generally regarded as an official source of information about Islam."
A number of Muslim countries contributed to the founding of New York”s Central Mosque and the Islamic Center, the building of which cost 17 million US dollars. Kuwait donated two-thirds of the amount and the Kuwaiti ambassador to the UN is the head of the Center”s board of trustees.
Most American journalists contact the mosque with questions concerning Islam. Imam Omar referred to an American journalist who had contacted him wanting to know his view on another Imam”s comments that indicated that the 9/11 hijackers were not guilty of their crime and that they had been caught up in a conspiracy. "I told the journalist that the Imam”s comments were nonsense. My reply was crucial as this center represents a large number of Muslims."
Imam Omar expanded that post-9/11 New York was "very difficult for Muslims and for us at the mosque in particular." He said that two weeks after the attacks, the former Imam of the mosque, Mohammed Gomaa left the United States, leaving those at the mosque in a difficult situation. The former Imam had claimed that it was best for him to return to his country of origin, Egypt, only having later discovered that the Imam had received death threats in New York and had not disclosed this information to anybody else. Imam Omar said, "I, personally, did not receive any death threats, but I was subjected to racial harassment which I decided to ignore and not to report to the police as I believed the incidents were trivial." The Imam kept some of the threatening letters including one from the ”United States Catholic War Veterans,” which called for "the bombing and elimination of Muslims." The Imam highlighted, "terrorism is not restricted only to those who claim to be Muslims. Members of other religions also practice terrorist behavior as evident from these letters; however, the media does not focus upon them."
Imam Omar Abu Namus stressed that Islam had come under attack by the racists and extremists of America. He emphasized, "The terrorist organizations that carry out their attacks allegedly in the name of Islam offer the biggest pretext for the enemies of Islam. As some groups settle old scores with the US government, the American people and Muslims nations become victims of the ammunition".
Recently, American media outlets have produced a number of reports concerning the increasing rate of those converting to Islam, especially in America”s prisons. Some of these reports insinuate that certain factions of Muslims are involved in crime. Imam Omar disagrees with this suggestion as he says, "less than one crime in a thousand is carried out by a Muslim in America. The majority of Muslims in prison also do not originate from the Middle East. They embraced Islam in America, leaving Christianity. A large number of Afro-Americans seem to maintain resentment against the white man, who they feel, has persecuted them as a people." Government statistics indicate that 30% of imprisoned Afro-Americans are Muslims. The discrepancy of the socio-economic backgrounds of American Muslims reflects clearly in their varying lifestyle and backgrounds.
As one leaves the affluent central Manhattan, it is clear that different Muslim communities based on ethnicity live in the suburbs. For example, in Jackson Heights and Harlem there is a large number of Afro-American Muslims in comparison to Astoria, Queens, where there is a large Egyptian and Yemeni community. The communities are usually based around a mosque and its affiliated school. The media frequently focuses on incidents of minor conflict between different Muslim groups, for example the case of Abu Bakr Al Siddiq in Flushing, Queens where leaders of the Afghan Muslim community fought over the management of their local mosque. The case was presented before the American courts and is yet to be resolved. The media further highlights activities of small extremist groups such as the ”Islamist Thinkers” Society”, which is closely linked to the dis-banded extremist movement, ”Al-Muhajiroun” in the United Kingdom. The majority of New York”s Muslims considers these cases to be marginal and nothing but fuel for those who consider that Muslims are unable to integrate into American society.
Mohamed, from Lebanon, who owns a shop on Steinway Road in Queens told Asharq Al-Awsat, "We live like any other migrant community. I have not suffered from any particular incident and do not know anybody who has. September 11, however, has changed the international situation, and the perception of Muslims by authorities, especially here in New York." He added, "The American authorities now are very harsh in dealing with any form of illegal immigration. Furthermore, accusations cast upon Muslims are much stronger and abundant now."
Mohamed explained that he established his own shop five years ago after 24 years of saving money from various jobs since his arrival in the United States. He said that he was keen to enroll his children in American state schools to guarantee integration into their new society and surrounding environment. Nevertheless, he was equally dedicated to ensuring that his children learnt Arabic. Mohamed added, "Muslims have been living here for decades peacefully. After 9/11, it was only natural for us to be put under the spotlight. Today, however, we feel that the wounds have healed and that we can move on with our lives".
While Steinway Street has a number of Middle Eastern shops, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is home to stores of South Asian and South East Asian origins especially those from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ahmed, the owner of ”Aziz” gift shop stated that neither he nor his family and friends were ever subjected to harassment after the 9/11 attacks. However, he continued to say, "We all felt a psychological pressure to explain Islam to non-Muslims after what happened." He stressed that he has lived peacefully in the United States, stating: "Since I moved here in the 1990”s, I have never been made to feel unwelcome. The nearby Farouk mosque makes us feel like part of one large family."
Ali who sells international phone-cards (low cost calling cards to international destinations), mainly for low-cost calls to Arab and Asian countries, said that he had emigrated from Yemen with his father thirty years ago and is now "comfortable, as income is reasonable and life is good." However, he added that his wife and children live in Yemen, saying that he believes "it is better for them to remain close to the family." Although Ali had personally never experienced hostility from society, he did say that Muslims have been placed under the watchful eye of society, which he described as "tiring, as we just want to live peacefully."
Walking through Atlantic Avenue, there is a noticeable absence of Americans of European origin, except perhaps the occasional police officers who walk past the Asian and Arab shops. However, a little further down the road, one sees a variety of other shops and restaurants with cuisines from Mexico, Italy and China. American society”s combination of people from all walks of life indicates an openness that has prohibited the creation of secluded ghettos, allowing Muslims to live in multi-cultural areas rather than isolating them.