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.

Through it all, the American Muslim community continued to mature with each year that passed since the attacks. Being reactive was not enough. Words of condemnation, though always necessary, were not enough. We realized that our very survival depended on our taking up our rightful place in society: Working not only to reach out to our non-Muslim neighbors, but to also working to promote peace and justice across the country and the world.

American Muslim charities responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and helped those in need. Under the auspices of CAIR, Muslims started a public service campaign, to serve the communities in which they live and work. And in my hometown took interfaith dialogue to the next level and are serving society through a variety of initiatives.

American Muslims also have grown politically active, and there are Muslim candidates now running for public office across the country, such as Keith Ellison in Minnesota. In Chicago, American Muslims played an active role in the fight for the rights of immigrants. And in the wake of the recent shootings at a Seattle Jewish Federation office, Muslims reached out to members of the Jewish community and offered their support. American Muslims also are now working with federal and local law enforcement in order to combat terrorism here at home. There is so much more. And as for me, I consider my writing to be my tiny contribution to this effort.

I look back at my columns in last five years and see how my views have evolved in parallel with the progression of the American Muslim community. From teaching and explaining, to defending, to highlighting all the efforts of my community to help fight terrorism and be an active part of American society--through it all I tried to stay open to criticism and turn a critical eye inward. I learned quickly that a continuous harping of "Islam means peace!" won't do the job.

And so I starting attacking head on the ugly and unfortunate reality that there are among us monsters that will drive a truck bomb into a crowd of innocent civilians and shout "Allahu akbar" (God is Great). I figured, who better to out the problems in our community and challenge extremists than a Muslim like me. I've made mistakes, and at times I've been naïve. But it's been a learning process, one that has--I hope--benefited readers around the world.

There continue to be many challenges for Muslims in America. With each terror plot that is uncovered comes renewed suspicions of Muslims around the world and calls for profiling those "most likely to become terrorists," which means me and those of my faith. With continued sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, with each new Al Qaeda tape, with our own President using terms such as "Islamic fascists," Americans' perceptions of Islam continue to decline.

Consider this: Forty percent of Americans in a recent Associated Press poll admitted to harboring prejudice towards Muslims. Five years later we American Muslims still have a lot of work to do. This is our duty not only as citizens of this blessed country, but as Muslims. The Lord God expects nothing less of us, and He will take us to account if we fail. We cannot afford to be in such a position. We simply cannot.

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