By Shaik Ubaid
June 8, 2003
Two weeks ago, in the midst
of the state of high alert, my brother-in-law called my children, saying
that he had three free tickets for the Mets game that evening. My son
and middle daughter jumped at this chance.
They were ready to leave
when my wife and I arrived home that evening. We were aghast. With her
hejab, our daughter is easily identifiable as Muslim. To send her into
the charged atmosphere of a ballpark was out of the question. The most
athletic member of our family, she tried arguments like, "Mom,
I am bigger than my brother," or, "But, Dad, there are a lot
of policemen in there." But nothing would sway us. My son went
with his uncle, and my daughter sulked for days.
We were probably being overprotective,
and in hindsight our son could have been in just as much danger of becoming
the victim of a bias attack, but the last 20 months have been a very
stressful time for our family and other Muslim Americans on Long Island.
From the Iraq war to the terror alert levels to the Sept. 11 attacks,
we're gripped with fear. And it's taking a heavy toll on the community,
as some of us avoid placing ourselves in perceived situations of danger,
change our everyday behavior or leave the
Some of our fears are caused
by events on the national front. During the latest heightened alert,
for example, a Muslim girl and a teenager were attacked in two different
towns in Pennsylvania, and a Sikh man, mistaken for a Muslim, was shot
in Arizona. But some of our fears are caused by events on the local
Some mothers pulled their
sons out of Little League after Sept. 11, hearing of unrelated reports
of mistreatment in the schools, never to send them back. Many motorists,
especially women, avoid driving late at night because Muslims have become
victims of racial slurs and verbal abuse. Many parents are even moving
to Canada or returning to their countries of origin, causing great distress
to their American-born children, because the United States no longer
The paranoia many of us
feel even consumes our social gatherings. At parties and other events
that are supposed to be joyful, stories are told and retold of young
men who are being arrested on suspicion of terrorism and deported, of
professionals who are losing their jobs because of discrimination, of
travelers being harassed on trains and at airports, and of couples being
separated because of minor immigration infractions.
Our rampant fears are already
inflicting far-reaching psychosocial trauma on our children. They are
just as fearful as we are. We hear it in their questions. The younger
ones ask, "Will there be more wars?" or "Why is the president
not saying sorry when children in Iraq are killed?" or "What
do 'towel head' and 'camel jockey' mean?" And many older ones have
exhibited clear signs of stress, like falling grades and behavioral
and mood problems.
Along with discussing our
fears, we also play the blame game. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida get
the major share of the blame for our problems, followed closely by right-wing
commentators in the media who make anti-Muslim slurs. But much of the
blame for our problems also falls on us.
Many local Muslims have
been deported. But our community's leaders, long interested in gaining
political support rather than focusing on social needs, never helped
form support institutions like legal aid centers that could have helped
us. Unlike African-American mosques, we have no strong ties to organizations
involved in social justice issues.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks,
Muslim leadership on Long Island, especially in the new immigrant community,
was trying to leapfrog into position to claim a share of political power.
These businessmen, lawyers and doctors thought that the way to do so
was by stressing rising population figures on Long Island and by giving
political donations to local politicians. They did this even as most
mosques on Long Island and other large Muslim communities around the
nation had no well-established projects such as soup kitchens to serve
poor or needy fellow citizens.
Sept. 11 pulled the rug
from under this strategy. Now, very few politicians are willing to openly
court the Muslim vote or money. Had the Muslim leadership done things
differently - paid as much attention to domestic issues as it did to
concerns overseas, built alliances with other immigrants, stood up for
the economically downtrodden as our religion teaches - we would have
far more support from other segments of society.
Lately, it seems as though
things are improving. Some mosques, including Islamic centers in Westbury,
Valley Stream, Bay Shore and Selden, are strengthening outreach programs
to help educate non-Muslim neighbors and student groups. They are also
getting more active in interfaith programs.
In the meantime, a debate
about the community's role in improving the environment is now taking
place. Many are asking for accountability and elections in mosques.
Young people are asking to get involved with local social justice issues.
At the same time, Muslims who come from more pluralistic, democratic
societies such as India and second-generation Muslims born and raised
in America are becoming more assertive. They have
seen how unchecked hate and draconian laws can weaken democratic institutions.
That offers much hope.
Once Muslims become more
proactive, they will have more sympathy and grass-roots support from
their fellow citizens, which in turn will help stem our fears.
(Shaik Ubaid, a medical doctor
who lives in Baldwin, is the former national pokesman for the Islamic
Medical Association of North America and the founding President of the
Indian Muslim Council-USA.)
Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday,