Before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Kew Gardens resident Moviz Siddiqi was never targeted for being a Muslim-American. He and his family easily walked the streets of Queens, enjoying the country he has called home since leaving Pakistan 15 years ago.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and, as has been said countless times, everything changed.
Like many Muslims throughout the city and the country, Siddiqi, the public affairs officer at the Islamic Circle of North America, a group based in Jamaica that focuses on charity work and disaster aid, found himself facing an increasingly hostile environment for members of his religion.
“I remember one incident when my sister-in-law was wearing hijab and someone yelled, ‘You are Osama bin Laden, go back,’” Siddiqi said. “I myself feel like a second-class citizen. After Sept. 11, there is no doubt about it, I can feel totally different.”
Since the 2001 attacks, numerous reports have been issued by a variety of organizations, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Gallup Organization, that cite a host of problems Muslim-Americans have faced, including being improperly detained by law officials, bullied in schools and encountering a rise in anti-Islamic sentiment in the country.
According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of Americans said they had favorable views of Islam, down from 41 percent in 2005. Over the past decade, Muslim Americans have routinely found themselves in the news. Over the past year there has been a national debate over whether an Islamic cultural center should be allowed to be built a couple blocks away from Ground Zero, and U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-LI), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has held three hearings on “Muslim radicalization” that have largely upset members of the Queens Muslim community, as well as other religious organizations like the Catholic nonprofit charity group Pax Christi and the Interfaith Alliance of Long Island.
“When Peter King says the things he does, that doesn’t just hurt Muslims, that hurts everybody,” said Harpreet Toor, a Richmond Hill resident who is a Sikh.
Sikhs, some of whom wear turbans and grow beards, have, like Muslims, been victims of harassment or violence since the 2001 attacks. The Sikh Coalition reported there have been at least 700 attacks or bias-related incidents against Sikhs since Sept. 11.
Federal officials have not kept separate statistics on violence against Sikhs, tracking hate crimes against them in the same category as crimes against Muslims, Arab-Americans and South Asians. In 2000, there were 28 anti-Islamic hate crimes reported to the FBI — a year later, there were 481, according to federal Department of Justice numbers. According to the most recent statistics available from the federal government, reported anti-Islamic hate crimes have dropped to 107 in 2009.
“Life definitely has not been easy,” Toor said. “Have we made any strides since 9/11? Yes. Are we where we need to be yet? No. You still get these comments. Somebody pulled up in a car next to me while I was walking and told me to ‘go back.’ Why do I have to prove my patriotism to someone because I look different?”
Siddiqi said his organization increased its efforts to do charity work and disaster relief domestically after Sept. 11 and has been working with groups like Catholic Charities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide aid for victims in places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and now for people affected by Hurricane Irene. Such work, he hopes, will shine a good light on Muslim-Americans trying to prove they are good citizens.
“People have to understand, we are not going anywhere, we are as American as anyone else,” Siddiqi said. “We are doctors, engineers, computer programmers. The Muslim community, we are not receivers, we are givers. Yes, there are some bad apples, but they are few. Our religion teaches people to respect others, to respect the law.”
Asad Bajwa, a Queens Village resident who is the public affairs officer for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, said his organization has recently launched a nationwide blood drive with the hope of collecting 10,000 bags of blood.
“We wanted to spread the message that the definition of Islam is sanctity of life,” Bajwa said. “On 9/11 life was taken away, and we want to people to know that Islam stands for life, which is why we’re doing the blood drive.”
To find out when and where a blood drive is happening, visit muslimsforlife.org.
Siddiqi said the jump in anti-Muslim sentiment after Sept. 11 was devastating for him, and other Muslim-Americans, who felt increasingly isolated in the country where many of them grew up, or moved to long ago.
“The Tea Party has held big demonstrations against us, and that is really heartbreaking,” Siddiqi said.
Siddiqi and Toor said it is crucial to focus on dialogue promoting cross-cultural understanding in the city and throughout the country.
“American people are the best in the world,” Siddiqi said. “They’re more open. They can come to us with questions about Islam, and we can explain what we are and they listen.”
Toor said he also believes it would be helpful if Sikhs in the NYPD were given more visible positions.
“Something that would help is if we have people with beards and turbans in the NYPD protecting elected officials,” Toor said. “If people see that the elected officials are safe, they will feel safe too.”
Mark Rosenblum, the director for the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding at Queens College and an expert on the Middle East, said he wanted students to engage in dialogue about contentious topics immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, which he and his Modern Middle East class witnessed from the Flushing campus.
“We were sitting right in front of Rosenthal Library with an unobstructed view of downtown Manhattan,” Rosenblum said. “We saw both of the buildings come down. One kid in the class had a father in the building.”
In Rosenblum’s class, there were about 12 Muslim and 13 Jewish students, and, on the night Sept. 11 — which he spent at Queens College with students stuck there because there was no transportation — the professor, following a heated discussion between a Muslim and Jewish student, began to think about creating a curriculum that would “force students to confront the event and walk in others’ shoes.”
Rosenblum has since created that curriculum, as part of which students who are members of groups that have historically been at odds with each other — Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Greeks or Indians and Pakistanis, for example, will “enter into difficult dialogues with one another.”
The Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding has also brought numerous speakers and other performers to Queens College and recently hosted an event that featured a discussion between Daisy Khan, wife of Park51 Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who favors building the Islamic cultural center near its proposed site a couple blocks from Ground Zero, and Jim Riches, a retired city Fire Department deputy chief whose son died as a first responder on Sept. 11 and who has opposed the Islamic center.
“This year we’re hoping to engage more mosques and synagogues and get people to visit each other’s holy places to have dialogues,” Rosenblum said. “We have students who’ve undergone transformations because of our dialogues. We have a soldier who’s the head of the young Republicans here who did several tours of duty in the Middle East and is going back to Afghanistan, and he’s developed a close friendship with a Muslim woman who had once been deeply suspicious and didn’t appreciate the fact that he was a soldier in Afghanistan.”