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Muslim-Americans: Bracing For A Backlash

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Adil Najam, a Pakistani-American professor at Boston University, took his 12-year-old son aside before sending him off to school last Wednesday. He told him to hold his head high, even if the other kids make fun of him and call him a terrorist.

In the days following this month's attempted car bombing in Times Square by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, Pakistanis and other Muslim groups in the U.S. have been taking precautions to prevent a public backlash similar to the one Muslim-Americans faced following 9/11--but they are still preparing for the worst.

"We are so grateful, thank God, that the bomb did not blow up, but the real damage here is to the Pakistani community," Najam said. "Everyone [Pakistani-Americans] now gets ready for the office - or school - knowing he will be looked at differently."

As a result, community leaders, such as Dr. Saud Anwar, the director of Connecticut's branch of the Pakistani-American Public Affairs Committee, are counseling fellow Pakistanis to jump on the offensive. "We're hoping we're not going to be marginalized and we're trying not to be scared, so we're mobilizing the community to condemn the incident," he said.

After 9/11, Anwar made a choice to be more "politically active and to build bridges with the law enforcement community." He now works closely with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to help identify suspected terrorists. He has also encouraged his fellow Pakistanis in Connecticut to become more engaged with the police, in part to counter the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorist-sympathizers.

If Muslim-Americans don't take an active approach, Anwar believes, they will only be further marginalized, which in turn will lead to increased "identity crises" and subsequent radicalization in the greater Muslim community--an arguably vicious and deadly cycle.

Najam also contends that Muslims are being "more vigilant against crackpots within their own communities," by reporting them to the authorities. "We are trying to deal with incidents involving black sheep much better," he said, referring to fellow Muslims that are suspected of harboring radical and violent agendas.

Both Najam and Anwar are trying to preemptively thwart the onslaught they say their communities faced after 9/11. Back then, both men argue, many Muslim-Americans felt they were put under a microscope by the mainstream American media and society at large. "There was a very high level of apprehension immediately after 9/11," Najam said. "'American-Americans' - whatever that is - were apprehensive about Muslims, and we were internally apprehensive about how we were being viewed."

Prof. Sinan Antoon of New York University believes that U.S. government policy and rhetoric following 9/11 only compounded the situation for Muslims. "The war on terror discourse and the manichaean view of a world populated by those who are with us and those others who are against us spelled danger and disaster for Arab and Muslim citizens or immigrants," Antoon said. "After 9/11," he added, "Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans were all guilty by association."

Indeed, for many 'ordinary' Americans - non-Muslims, or "American-Americans," as Najam put it - 'Muslim' became the codeword for 'terrorist.' As a result, many Muslims felt forced to take responsibility for the acts of religious (and political) fanatics who happened to share the same faith.

Antoon further argues that Muslims were easily linked with terrorists after 9/11 because "terrorism was explained in cultural and civilizational terms, not in material history and politics." "The result," he explained, "was for the U.S. government to absolve itself of its own responsibility in supporting foreign jihadists in the 1980s...and skirt the blame to the cultural sphere and simplify phenomena and events as simply a class of cultures."

But Najam is optimistic that things could be different this time. He believes that mainstream American society has evolved since the time period following 9/11. "Society is more adept at handling these [terrorism incidents] as acts of criminality," he said. Most Americans, Najam argues, no longer see the actions of individuals such as Shahzad as representative of an entire cultural or religious group.

Anwar, too, is trying to remain positive. "There are over 1 million people of Pakistani heritage in the U.S., and there was one idiot that couldn't think straight," he said.

"I think America is better than that--blaming the whole community."