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How 9/11 Shaped the Lives of American Muslims

September 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After 19 Muslim hijackers attacked the United States on 9/11, many Muslims living across the country had their allegiance to America questioned and faced problems being able to practice their religion. Ray Suarez reports from Tennessee on the state of life for Muslim-Americans, 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

FAYE CHIOU, St. Louis, Md.: Well, I think before 9/11 most Muslims were not even on the radar of most Americans. I mean, I don’t even think people would even know. And now, I think it’s more of a negative connotation. I really don’t think the relationship is at all positive.

THOMAS BAKER, Felton, Del: I mean, the Muslims are going to end up falling, you know, and it’s only going to be God’s people that are going to make it. So, I mean, if you’re a Muslim, you’re in trouble, you know? I mean, so, that’s the way I see it.

DEENA KUKO, San Diego, Calif.: I was made aware that I was not a full American or not an average or normal American right after September 11. It’s like I went to sleep an American and I woke up an Arab, even though I was born and raised in America.

RAY SUAREZ: American Muslims are dazzlingly diverse, with roots in every part of the world. They are native-born and immigrant, converts and born into the faith. The community is fast-growing, increasingly well-educated and affluent.
In the last 10 years, terrorism and wars in Muslim majority countries raised questions among many Americans about whether Islam is compatible with democracy, whether Islam could peacefully take its place in pluralist America. After 19 Muslim hijackers attacked the United States, many Muslim Americans faced suspicion, their loyalty and allegiance to America questioned, even in communities well away from the spotlight, places they’ve called home for decades.

RAY SUAREZ: Some things don’t change in middle Tennessee. They still love hot rods down in Murfreesboro, some 35 miles south of Nashville. Every Friday night during the summer, locals turn out to admire dozens of fine old cars.
People here say they’ve seen a lot of change in the decade since the attacks on New York and Washington.

THOMAS LANIER: I think the tragedy of 9/11 has definitely brought the country a lot closer together and it’s made us a lot aware of terrorist organizations.

MICHELLE SAVKO: We went through so much as nation during that time, and now it’s almost like people have forgotten that.

RAY SUAREZ: For American Muslims, the 10 years since 9/11 have placed a community making steady progress under an uncomfortable scrutiny.
I checked in with Dalia Mogahed, who samples Muslim public opinion worldwide for Gallup.

DALIA MOGAHED, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies: Muslim Americans are the most diverse, the youngest, the most entrepreneurial, among the most educated, among the most employed. They look like model citizens on paper, and yet many of them have said that they’ve spent the past 10 years telling people who they’re not rather than telling people who they are.

RAY SUAREZ: The population of Murfreesboro is up 50 percent over the last 10 years. It’s the fastest-growing city in the state with over 100,000 residents, but it still has a small-town feel, with reminders of its southern heritage everywhere.

Like many southern towns, it’s also a city of churches, well over 100 churches at last count. And another house of worship, tucked away behind a car dealer in a converted strip mall is a mosque, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Like the rest of Murfreesboro, the local Muslim community has been booming, growing from a single family 30 years ago to more than 250 families now.

The Islamic center bought land and drew up a plan to build a larger facility, one that would expand over time. In May of 2010, the plan came before the Rutherford County Planning Commission. There was a bit of routine discussion about issues like drainage and then the vote.

MAN: All in favor of the motion say aye.


MAN: All opposed no. Motion carries.

RAY SUAREZ: The news took the town by surprise.

SALLY WALL: How did this happen? We didn’t know anything about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Sally Wall, a local realtor, says plans for a house of worship that size usually takes years to get approved.

SALLY WALL: We helped distribute this about Sharia law because, literally, people here knew nothing about any of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Sally and others have become convinced that Muslims were intent on somehow imposing Islamic law or Sharia in America.
9/11 has made her much more wary of Muslim, she says.

SALLY WALL: I believe that’s their purpose in life is to dominate eventually the government and the laws of the land, whereas we separate the government and the religion and all, and they don’t.

MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: And when the county government next met, there was plenty of public reaction.

WOMAN: Everybody knows who is trying to kill us, and it’s like we can’t say it.

MAN: This is my concern. Will radical ideas and violence be brought to our doorstep?

BRYAN BROOKS, Blackman United Methodist Church: I was surprised at the strongly negative response just right out of the gate.

MAN: The desire of Islam is to enforce Sharia law on to every non-Islamic country.

MAN: If construction does begin, I would also encourage contractors to boycott it and I would encourage the boycott of any contractor associated with the project.

RAY SUAREZ: Methodist Pastor Bryan Brooks has led a congregation in this town for years.

BRYAN BROOKS: Wildly suspicious things being said about people who have been in the community for, you know, decades, who are neighbors and who might be people’s friends or professors or doctors.

CROWD: Freedom now! Freedom now! USA, USA!

RAY SUAREZ: As the town divided over the mosque, the two sides faced off in the public square.

MAN: They’re marching down Main Street here to present a petition at the courthouse opposing the construction of the mosque.

REPORTER: You don’t want a mosque in Murfreesboro?

WOMAN: No. Nope.

REPORTER: Why is that?

WOMAN: Because that’s where they gather to take over America.

WOMAN: I think the people who are protesting the mosque are scared. I think they live in fear.

KEVIN FISHER: There’s a process that has to be followed, and the process wasn’t done.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the march organizers is Kevin Fisher. He’s also trying to block the mosque in court. His suit had two tracks, one said the county failed to give proper notification of the meeting. The other said the mosque could endanger public safety by providing a forum for radical Islam.

KEVIN FISHER: You know, post-9/11, I think a community has a right to be concerned about any group, not just a Muslim group, any radical group coming into the community. A community has a right the police itself.

RAY SUAREZ: While the debate simmered in the streets of Murfreesboro last summer, a similarly divisive disagreement was playing out in New York City. A Muslim group planned a new mosque just a few blocks from ground zero, setting off a national furor.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.

BARACK OBAMA: And that includes the right to build a place of worship in a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan.

RAY SUAREZ: Back in Murfreesboro, construction equipment on the site of the new mosque was burned, signs were vandalized.

IMAM OSSAMA BAHLOUL, Islamic Center of Murfreesboro: We were shocked. We were — we did not expect any of this.

RAY SUAREZ: Ossama Bahloul, the imam at the Islamic center, said he was baffled by references to attempts to impose Sharia law in the United States.

IMAM OSSAMA BAHLOUL: The use of the term “Sharia law,” and the Muslim like to sneak Sharia law, and they don’t like the Constitution, who said this? I did not say this personally. I don’t know any Muslim scholar in America said this.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this year, County Judge Robert Corlew ruled the mosque and Islam presented no harm to the plaintiffs. He did allow them to pursue their complaint that proper notice was not provided. Building permits for the mosque were issued in May.

For all the hot rhetoric, emotional debate, even lawsuits, when you come out to the disputed parcel of land, you won’t find anything. The congregation can’t find a contractor willing to build the mosque. They can’t even find a subcontractor willing to sell the concrete to build curbs next to the blacktop.
Whether the new mosque ever gets built in Murfreesboro, one thing is clear: Muslims are here to stay.

MAN: We want to live in peace the same as they want to live in peace. We’re no threat no nobody.

WOMAN: We’re not going home because this is home.

IMAM OSSAMA BAHLOUL: I trust the judgment of American people a lot. The majority of the people are fine people. Otherwise, we cannot live together until today.
So, do you think everyone in our city will be fine with us? I would claim the majority will be because the majority already are.

RAY SUAREZ: In a recent large survey of Muslim American public opinion, Dalia Mogahed found strong optimism about their American futures in a community that may have new milestones after 9/11.

DALIA MOGAHED: I think the Arab spring, the idea of Arabs rising up and demanding the very values that America was built on are all — it was also a defining moment. And in some ways, it might be the new date that Muslim Americans will define themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: After a decade of living in the shadow of 9/11, it may be time for the American Muslim community to define itself on its own terms and take its place as another piece in the rich tapestry of faith in America.