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The Complexity Of Muslim Identity, 10 Years After 9/11

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As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are reflecting on what we, as Americans, have achieved since that fateful day -- and all that is still left for us to do. For Muslims, this conversation is happening at multiple levels, as we struggle to make sense of not just the socio-political issues facing our faith community, but also the deeply personal, spiritual questions 9/11 has posed for us as individuals.

At the community level, there is a growing understanding of the sophistication and resolve of our enemy. A recent report released by the Center for American Progress, "Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America," highlights the source of over $42 million dollars of funding for Islamophobic initiatives since 9/11/01, as well as the multiple media enablers and political players involved in growing and amplifying such messages of hate against the Muslim community. And it's not just hateful messages without any on-the-ground ramifications -- as the report mentions, the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik, who in July shot and killed 68 people at a youth camp in Oslo, was motivated by the need to protect his country from "Muslimization." Meanwhile, here in America, the fear-mongering has led to many states considering anti-Sharia bills and ballot measures. The citizens of some of these states have taken matters into their own hands, protesting the building of mosques and vandalizing Muslim religious property.

Given this well-oiled and highly active Islamophobia hate machine, many Muslim Americans feel a sense of urgency to take control of their narrative -- to fight back against caricatures of Sharia as a "legal-political-military" doctrine that threatens the fundamental rights of Americans, and explain its true meaning both academically and through personal action.

My personal attempt at translating this urgency into action is reflected through my work at altmuslimah.com, a web magazine I founded over two years ago to explore the inherent complexity of gender-and-Islam. The question of gender and, more particularly, Muslim women's rights, is a predominant one in the non-Muslim understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of Muslims. Well-known anti-Muslim activists, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, use it to portray Islam as backward and dangerous. "Women's rights" is used to limit the religious freedom of precisely the women such rhetoric purports to protect -- whether in the form of burqa bans across Europe or the push against sharia arbitration in the U.S. While there are some Muslim women who are subject to coercion, the general thrust of such measures is to tell Muslim women what is good for them; to rob them of their right to make that choice for themselves -- to speak for them, and not let them speak for themselves.

In my work at altmuslimah.com, I have fought against precisely this tendency to speak about Muslim women as passive objects needing external advocates. I have sought to create a forum that allows these women -- and the men who support them -- to speak up and tell their own stories. Whether they're about interracial and interfaith marriages, personal decisions to wear, not wear, or stop wearing the headscarf, or political commentaries on gender rights in America and abroad, each of these stories stems from a unique thought process and spiritual experience. The variety of views reflects the tremendous diversity and intellectual nuance of not just our writers but of all American Muslims.

These stories also reflect the very organic process of spiritual evolution. The individual spiritual experiences of American Muslims since 9/11/01 have, in many ways, been rich. In defending our community from external allegations, we've been forced to think through hard questions instead of sweeping them under the rug. We're beginning to come to terms with ugly truths about some members of our community, such as those who have fallen prey to radicalization or are vulnerable to it because of the failings of their family and the community as a whole.

The media frenzy has kept us on our toes, even while we sometimes feel that our spiritual connection to Islam is being replaced by socio-political soundbytes. And yet, there is an understanding that it is precisely that spiritual connection that will keep us moving forward, plugging away for change in the years ahead.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 comes at the heels of Ramadan, a month when Muslims strive to reflect on their individual and collective weaknesses and turn to God in sincerity for guidance. It has given us renewed strength to continue to face our challenges -- and to rise above them.

Muslim 9/11 Reflections: Islam In America 10 Years Later