Aneesah Nadir confesses she was a “nervous wreck” when her daughter Zarinah and friends chose to go to school on Sept. 11, 2001, dressed as always in the hijab, the traditional apparel of observant Muslim females. She feared the terrorist attacks on the East Coast that morning made them targets for ugly remarks or harassment.
“They were determined that they were going to go to school anyway because they didn’t want their classmates to think they would not be there out of some guilt, and they wanted to be there to answer questions,” she said. Nadir herself, at the time a social work professor at ASU West, remained home that day, but returned the next day to the classroom to healthy dialogue with her students about the events.
Ten years after the deadly terrorist attacks on America, the Valley’s Islamic population finds itself more highly visible and engaged in the rest of their community.
“Millions of Americans started wondering and asking questions about Islam and Muslims,” say Ahmad Shqeirat, the imam of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, a masjid, or mosque, that serves Muslims of about 75 nationalities. “I think 9/11 put all of us Muslims on the spot to answer questions about our communities and religion.” The imam said the tragedy “provided mainstream Muslims with the opportunity to distinguish from extreme and violent individuals” and led them to build connections with those of other faiths.
In the past decade, the number of mosques in the Valley has grown from seven to 19, said Marwan Ahmad, editor and publisher of the Muslim Voice and Arab Voice newspapers, based in Phoenix. Shqeirat, however, thinks there are now 25 Valley mosques, including four for Shia Muslims, plus five mosques in other parts of Arizona.
The Valley’s Muslim population may be as high as 120,000, Ahmad said, although no census has been taken. An influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees has fed that growth, along with the attraction of Muslims with professional degrees in health and technology.
Ahmad said there are nearly 1,200 businesses in the Valley owned by Muslims. “More Muslims have grown to be more involved in society and more integrated economically,” he said, “We are working with a lot of businesses. … We are involved in politics more, we meet candidates, and we meet with the mayor and the governor when needed.” In addition, Muslims have formed police advisory boards in some cities “that work closely with police to not only protect the Muslim community, but help police make sure that we and everybody is safe,” he said.
After 9/11, Muslims were impelled to deal with the reality that 19 Muslims had been identified as the hijackers of four commercial airliners that were used on suicide missions to slam into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia. A fourth plane was forced down and crashed in Pennsylvania before it could reach a high-population target. The combined death toll was nearly 3,000.
Even “though there were a lot of people upset and angry” and projecting that toward Muslims after 9/11, many non-Muslims were suddenly open to dialogue, said Deedra Abboud, executive director of the Muslim-American Society’s Freedom Foundation in the Valley. “They were open to the idea that it was not our people’s fault just because they had some crazy among them — we all do.”
Abboud said it seemed the Muslims in the Valley were invisible before 9/11. “Just as the larger community was shocked that we were here — in fact that we landed here on Sept. 11 — I think that Muslims were shocked that they were shocked.” Muslims had always regarded themselves as part of the community, she said. “We met politicians, we had photos with them, we voted, we knew our neighbors and our co-workers, so we thought everything was normal, but then after 9/11, we suddenly realized that all of that was kind of an illusion.”
She said her boss at a manufacturing plant, “whom I considered a friend, approached me after 9/11 and told me that I needed to decide whether I was a Muslim or an American first. I was floored. This woman had been to my house, and I thought we were friends.
“It was an entire shift in my world,” Abboud said, adding that “Muslims started realizing they needed to not only be more active in their community, but it needed to have more substance.”
Muslims gathered Aug. 30 in mosques and public auditoriums for the annual Eid al-Fitr celebration that marked the end of Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting, intense prayer and submission to God.
Hafez Turk of Tempe, who came to Arizona 44 years ago from Jerusalem, marveled at the ever-larger gathering of Muslims at Phoenix Convention Center for the Eid. An estimated 10,000 attended. “We had more people than ever,” he said. “It was full to the brim, and then there were 3,000 in Glendale Community Center.” He gave examples of people who had converted to Islam after exploring the faith, “reading and seeing the facts. ... They realize the religion really teaches people to be nice.”
Turk and others said they resent extra airport security where “they push you aside” for additional pat-downs or to get more information because of their ethnicity.
“We would like to see the world safe again,” said Turk, who recently returned from three weeks in Jerusalem, when as many as 80,000 surrounded the Dome on the Rock mosque for Ramadan prayers. At another gathering, more than 300,000 Muslims were on hand.
Ahmad Moharram, the imam of the Islamic Center of the East Valley in Chandler, which opened in 2008, said one day two men showed up with a long list of criticisms and accusations about Islam. “When they were finished, I smiled and said, ‘This is not the first time I have heard this. We hear them on TV and read them in the news. It is not new.’ ” He commonly hears non-Muslims claim that the mosques are places of terrorism.
Saaeh Nawar, a 17-year-old Chandler High School student, recalls little about 9/11, but as he grew up he found himself talking about it with his friends, along with answering many questions about Islam. “I’ve talked about it during debates with other kids,” he said. “It’s how we present ourselves, how we introduce ourselves to each other in the community.” He lauded schools that have strong, well-led Muslim Student Associations because of the way they can nurture understanding among peers.
Shehab-Eldean of Chandler, a native of Egypt studying at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, recalls watching TV in Egypt when America was struck. “There was a lot of panicking in Egypt, and people were under the impression it was doomsday, that this was the end of the world.”
He calls it a “disaster that affected everybody. They forget that a lot of Muslims died and got injured over there and forget that Muslims were risking themselves to help injured people.” Eldean told of “very interesting conversations” in his college classroom about Islam and 9/11. “They have a lot of questions,” he said. “They don’t know Islam.” Talking to Muslims firsthand is crucial, he said.
Shqeirat, the Tempe imam, recalls the calamitous day 10 years ago: “I immediately started making some calls to arrange for the safety of the center and the full-time school with 110 students. We decided to close the school for that day the following five days.”
Aneesah Nadir said the Tempe Muslim community was heartened when Tempe City Hall hosted an Islamic exhibit in 2008 called “Jewel in the Desert.” When the Tempe History Museum was remodeled two years ago, “they interwove the Muslims as part the Tempe community — not an exhibit off to the side or over yonder, which is usually what we get,” Nadir said. “The day I saw that, tears rolled down my eyes. It was now like we were part of the community.”
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