From Reactive to Proactive

In the five years since 9/11, American Muslims have gone from teaching, to reacting, to acting. And we've still a ways to go.

This is the first part of a two-part column on lessons learned by Muslims since 9/11.

I can hardly believe that it has been almost five years since the terrible attacks of September 11, 2001. So much has happened since then, especially in the American Muslim community. My own evolution also occurred, one that was long overdue and most welcome. But the transformation in the Muslim community came in fits and starts, and not without pain.

And unfortunately, it still seems that things will get worse before they get better. Yet, we must continue working and be assured that the Precious Lord will help us.

The images of that fateful September morning are as fresh in my mind as if they occurred yesterday. I was overwhelmed with shock and disbelief that terrorists would strike our country in such a brazen and barbaric manner. But that the act of mass murder was committed in the name of my faith was almost too much to bear.

We were all terrified in the hours and days after 9/11. The Islamic school at which my wife taught and my eldest daughter attended was closed as a precaution, and it was eerie to watch oblivious children being led away by anxious and worried parents. At that time, the top priority for the Muslim community was to convince Americans that all we were not all terrorists ready to strike.

American Muslims wanted to ensure fellow Americans that we loved this country as much as they did, that we were hurt by the attacks as much as they were. We wanted to show that Islam is not a violent religion, that it was a beautiful, peaceful, respectful faith. It seemed a daunting task at the time.

So American Muslims across the country--including in my hometown of Chicago--held open houses in their mosques, candlelight vigils, and community meetings. A community that was previously in the shadows--and out of the public interest--was forced to come out and explain to their neighbors who they were and what their faith was all about. This effort included writing opinion pieces and letters to local newspapers.

In fact, my writing career kicked into high gear as a result of the September 11 attacks, and my first column for Beliefnet was published late in 2001. Back then my articles were mainly introductory and explanatory: Introducing Islam to the American people, informing fellow Americans how important Moses and Jesus are to Muslims, explaining such misunderstood terms like "jihad," and writing that American Muslims were hurt doubly by the terrorist attacks. The public wanted to know about Islam, and we were in a teaching mode.

Then, as the fog and fear immediately after 9/11 began to lift, American Muslims' focus began to shift. While many people supported Muslims, others held fast to their beliefs that Islam and terrorism were equal (and this faction was supported by subsequent terrorist actions or plots that were uncovered around the world).

We embarked on a campaign of defending our faith from an increasing litany of smears and attacks. We continued to hammer the point that "jihad" does not mean a "holy war" against all non-Muslims. We had to keep convincing people that we condemned terrorism in the name of Islam. We repeatedly explained that the actions of a few militant Muslims did not define the entire Muslim community.

We continually defended our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) from vicious smears and slanders. This cycle of reactive defense occurred with each ensuing terrorist attack committed by Muslim extremists (I loathe to call them Muslim). And, to our dismay, these extremists continued to outdo themselves in committing even more horrific acts of terror: Madrid (in 2004), London (in 2005 and 2006), Mumbai (in 2006)--the violence swept across the world. The campaign of violence continues to this day.

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