Knowing Islam

Leah LeMoineMay 1, 2015
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The rise of radical Islam – and Islamophobia – compels Valley Muslims to address their otherness.

“Pre-9/11” and “post-9/11” have become such weighted signifiers of time and culture for Americans that we use them as epochal touchstones – our B.C. and A.D. Whether we’re describing literary themes, airport security or just our overall sense of safety, “pre-” and “post-” that autumn day frequently come into play. For American Muslims, that invisible marker separating Sept. 10, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, is a daily reality.

“When 9/11 happened, I was in third grade. I didn’t realize what was going on,” says Hasana Abdul-Quadir, a senior at Arizona State University and president of the Muslim Students Association. “The gravity of what was happening never occurred to me as an 8-year-old.” When she was older, Abdul-Quadir’s parents, who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh before she was born, helped her contextualize the event in terms of the broader Muslim experience here.

“I think back then [in the 1980s] the situation of Muslims here in America – yeah they were the other, they were ‘them,’ but nobody really bothered with that. They didn’t care. ‘You do your thing, I’ll do mine,’” Abdul-Quadir says. “But after 9/11 we just got in the spotlight, and after that we were the other. We were the criminals.”

By all accounts, the fallout from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has left a powerful imprint on the Muslim community in the United States. Further incidents of terror perpetrated by those claiming Islam, from the Boston bombing to the Fort Hood shootings to the rise of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now self-identifies as the Islamic State but has also been known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; the group is now increasingly referred to as DAESH, an acronym of its Arabic name), have served only to amplify the general uneasiness that non-Muslim Americans have come to associate with the religion. In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center’s new American Trends Panel (see sidebar), Muslims ranked lowest in a “feeling thermometer” rating religious groups. On a scale of 0 (colder, more negative perception) to 100 (warmer, more positive reception), Muslims received an average rating of 40 – the lowest rating, and one point below atheists.

What that rating means is up for debate. Has radicalized Islam poisoned the proverbial well for mainstream Muslims by causing non-Muslims to generalize all of Islam as radicalized? Or does it  reflect an ignorance of Islam as a whole? And what does it mean for Valley Muslims?

A full 62 percent of Americans say they have never met a Muslim, according to a 2010 TIME poll. The Muslims interviewed for this piece say it’s since moved closer to 50 percent, but either stat speaks volumes about the average American’s meager familiarity with Islam, even nine years after 9/11 brought Islam into public consciousness.

This lack of familiarity can have consequences both benign and deadly. In Arizona, the latter was vividly illustrated in one notorious example of anti-Muslim backlash in the aftermath of 9/11, when Mesa gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was muredered in a misguided revenge attack on Sept. 15, 2001. Indeed, many hate crimes aimed at Muslims are actually perpetrated against Sikhs, ostensibly because people who are not educated about Islam and Sikhism conflate the traditional head covering Sikh men wear as a marker of Islam and terrorism. Many people also confuse being Arab or Middle Eastern with being Muslim; while Islam is the predominant religion in those populations, there are also Arab and Middle Eastern Christians, Jews, Druze, Baha’i and more. The fact that some Americans literally do not know a Muslim when they encounter one is distressing for many American Muslims, to say the least.

“I believe the real enemy is ignorance,” says Ahmad Shqeirat, imam (“teacher” in Arabic) at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, a mosque near ASU. “When I don’t know about a thing, I’ll be concerned of that thing. Those who have firsthand contact and communication with Muslims and visit Islamic centers, they understand. But those who never know a Muslim person, never been inside a mosque – ‘Oh, you’re telling me that these people are bad and this religion is bad, I trust you. I assume you are truthful.’”

ICCT is open to visitors and frequently hosts tours, where Shqeirat and his staff answer questions and explain the basics of Islam. In essence, it’s a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion that is laid out in the holy text of Islam, the Qur’an. There are many overlaps with fellow Abrahamic religions Judaism and Christianity, including some philosophies (justice, mercy), ideologies (rigorous monotheism) and even  key players Abraham, Moses, Mary and Jesus, though their statuses in each religion vary. Islam is practiced by 1.6 billion people around the world and is defined by its five pillars: shahada (faith; the declaration that there is only one god, Allah, and that the prophet Muhammad is his messenger), salat (prayer, done five times daily at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening and night), zakat (alms-giving), sawm (fasting; some throughout the year but always during the month of Ramadan), and hajj (pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca). These pillars are obligations for all Muslims. From there, interpretations vary. Sunni, Shi’a and Sufism are the most populous denominations, though, like Christianity and Judaism, sects and offshoots abound within each. As in other religions, interpretations of the Qur’an vary greatly, which is why the Muslims spoken with for this piece say that their Qur’an has nothing to do with the interpretations extremists and terrorists espouse.             

Another concept that’s been interpreted in varied ways, particularly in recent years, is Islamophobia. The term itself has sparked fierce discussion among cultural commentators and even among Muslims in recent years. It appears to be the perfect storm of etymology and ideology, with opponents squabbling over semantics. In an October 2014 piece for The Atlantic, editorial fellow Tanya Basu traced the history of the term to its first usage by Alain Quellien, a French colonial bureaucrat, in 1910. “In its earliest historical usage, the term ‘Islamophobia’ described prejudice and hostility towards Muslims – not an ‘irrational fear of Islam,’” as its critics decry, Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry, told Basu.   

Imraan Siddiqi, chairman of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has dedicated his career to Islamophobia – or, rather, his work to eradicate it. Prior to joining CAIR in 2011, Siddiqi had a corporate job and did freelance writing, specializing in Islamic issues. He started the blog and wrote pieces for media outlets including the Arizona Republic, The Dallas Morning News and The Oregonian. His decision to get more active in the Muslim community stemmed from what he viewed as rising Islamophobia in the U.S., particularly in the media and what he calls the “Islamophobia industry.”

“Even though 9/11 was the sort of seminal moment for [Islamophobia], in the direct aftermath of 9/11 you actually didn’t see a huge upswing. There were isolated incidents [of violence]. You saw a massive upswing around 2010, where a lot of money and a lot of resources started getting poured into an Islamophobia industry,” e.g. anti-Islamic books, speaking tours, anti-terrorism training, etc. “As someone who had been writing for a decent amount of time, it was a very noticeable upswing.”

The numbers don’t necessarily support that notion. Nationally, hate crimes motivated by anti-Islamic sentiment spiked in 2001 to a high of nearly 500 reported incidents, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program. They eventually dipped and have consistently remained in the 100-150 range – still a huge jump from the average of 20-30 incidents per year recorded prior to 9/11. Further FBI data released in 2011 showed a 50 percent increase in crimes targeting Muslims in Phoenix from 2009 through 2010. These were reported crimes – as is the nature of crime, particularly against groups with an outsider status who may be fearful of law enforcement (many Muslims in America are immigrants or refugees), many incidents go unreported. What prompted this change of the tide during this period of time is unclear.

Siddiqi names physician and political conservative Dr. Zuhdi Jasser as a local beneficiary of the “Islamophobia industry,” along with national figures like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. He acknowledges the stereotype that the majority of Islamophobia comes from the political and religious right, but says there have been some surprising opponents from the left.   

“There’s also something called the ‘New Atheist’ movement. You get names like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris… Socially these people are liberal, but if you watch Bill Maher’s show he claims to be against all religion, but he tends to hone in on Islam,” Siddiqi says. “It’s an easy target right now. They project their fears and insecurities on one group of people and they generalize. They take a lot of what Islam’s holy book says totally out of context. At the current moment, it’s coming from all sides.”

Still, the concept of Islamophobia is not without critics – even within the Muslim community. Jasser is the most prominent local one. In his medical practice, Jasser specializes in internal medicine and nuclear cardiology. In his political life, he specializes in occupying a seemingly unusual space for a Muslim: conservative author and Fox News commentator. Jasser is also a Navy veteran, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith.   

“I never use the term ‘Islamophobia.’ I do believe there’s been a rise in bigotry against Muslims. That’s what I refer to it as,” he says. “But to say that somebody can be phobic of an idea – Islam is an idea, it’s not a class or a protected group of people – to say that people are phobic of an idea, you know, ‘I’m phobic of communism, I’m phobic of socialism, of fascism…’ I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. I think America is becoming certainly more phobic of radical Islam and what happens is phobia, by definition medically, is an irrational fear of the unknown.”

While the other Muslims we spoke with agreed that Islamophobia is alive and worsening, Jasser says that Muslims enjoy a protected status because most Americans are fearful of being labeled bigots. “We’re overprotected and treated like children in that we don’t get to the core issues. As a result of not addressing the ideological reforms [within Islam] that have to happen, its creates a significant amount of denial of the issue of the theology and… the reforms that have to happen against political Islam,” Jasser says. He views himself as a reformer in the same vein as early reformers in Christianity and Judaism. Democratic principles must prevail, he says, over “political Islam,” which, by his assessment, is Islam organized as a political party, often with theocracy as a goal and with an anti-Western slant. In his estimation, this ideology creates a breeding ground for radicalized Islam and terrorists.

“Muslims do not have accountability. For example, when the president says that the Islamic State is not Islamic nor a state, and yet he goes and hugs the king of Saudi Arabia and we call their Islamic state an ally; or we negotiate with the republic of Iran, which is a cauldron of radicalism, a state that sponsors Hezbollah and terrorist activity across the planet; or the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which whips Muslims like myself in front of mosques for criticizing Islam.” He says Islamophobia is a term adopted from “Islamist groups in America like CAIR that wants to make [people] not question anything about Islam because if you do you get called a bigot and Muslims like myself get marginalized and we get called anti-Muslim.”

Jasser says he has been ostracized from the mainstream Muslim community because of his views. There is no love lost between Jasser and CAIR, which named him one of its “Worst List Inductees” in its 2011-2012 report on Islamophobia, “Legislating Fear.” He has been threatened by Al Fajr Media, al-Qaeda’s official media distribution network. In the extremist forum Al-Fida’, numerous posts have called for his assassination. Like Siddiqi’s portrait of Muslims encountering Islamophobia from “all sides,” it appears Jasser is also encountering opposition from all sides. Misunderstanding and discrimination are clearly realities for all Muslims – from non-Muslims and each other.   

The Valley has had a few notable anti-Muslim incidents beyond the Sodhi murder. In 2012, Phoenix made national headlines when a group protested outside the then-under-construction Light of the World Church in Phoenix near 19th Avenue along Interstate 10. The Christian church is capped with a golden dome, which some people in the neighborhood assumed indicated the construction of a mosque. The church received frantic phone calls from people who said they did not want a mosque in the area.

More recently, CAIR got involved when former FBI special agent John Guandolo (who resigned amid allegations of an affair with a key player in one of the agency’s investigations) was set to give counterterrorism training to local law enforcement, sponsored by Maricopa County Attorney General Bill Montgomery. Guandolo bills himself as a counterterrorism expert and calls his training “Understanding the Threat.” It focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood and what his website calls the MB’s “highly successful denial and deception operation” in North America. To Siddiqi, it was another ploy to spread Islamophobia, fear of “creeping sharia” and anti-terrorism histrionics that would be extrapolated to the entire Muslim community. CAIR and the ACLU met with Montgomery to present their case against the training, which had been opposed by Muslims in other states, but to no avail.

“What are the repercussions that are going to be faced by the community over here after you get these types of trainings done?” Siddiqi wonders. “That’s a very troubling aspect…” Montgomery told the Arizona Republic that the training was “mischaracterized.”

Despite these incidents, even Siddiqi and Jasser agree that Arizona is a pretty friendly state for Muslims. They make up only .5 percent of the population here, half of the national average of 1 percent, according to Pew Research’s Religion & Public Life Project. Imam Shqeirat says they’ve grown a lot here in the past two decades. When he moved here from California in 1998, he says there were five mosques/Islamic centers in the Valley. There are now 27.

Neither Siddiqi nor Jasser has experienced anti-Muslim sentiment firsthand here (though Siddiqi was called a “damn Iraqi” by a classmate in Atlanta during the first Operation Desert Storm). Abdul-Quadir says she only recently experienced it firsthand. She was volunteering on behalf of National Geographic’s initiative to replenish the Colorado River, soliciting text-messages of support from passersby at the Phoenix Open. She says two “elderly white gentlemen” brusquely told her not to talk to them – more than once, and while scrutinizing her appearance, which includes the hijab (headscarf covering) worn by many Muslim women. “I thought at first, ‘OK, he doesn’t want to be solicited. He just wants to chill,’” she says. “But then it dawned on me, like, ‘No. I’m totally out of place here.’” She also has childhood memories of being in the car and people driving next to her mother, who covers her face in addition to the hijab, and shouting expletives at her.  

Azra Hussain, co-founder and president of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona, travels around the Valley and the country to give presentations on Islam – from an academic point of view, not a political or proselytizing one. ISB speakers have talked with schoolchildren, law enforcement agencies, healthcare professionals and corporate groups for more than 16 years. In that time, the questions they’re asked have changed.

“The women’s issue used to be there pre-9/11, a little bit post-9/11, but now all of that is forgotten. Today it’s all about sharia, jihad and ISIS. Everybody is petrified that the Muslims are going to take over the world,” Hussain says. “Nobody’s trying to get organized to do anything. They just want to live their lives. They just want to be people. Unfortunately, they have to keep answering for some idiot who did something on the other side of the world.” Unlike CAIR and Jasser’s AIFD, the ISB is strictly non-political.

“Even when people put out political statements [we don’t]. If we make a statement, it’s usually that ‘[With] this incident, in Islam, this is what’s permitted and this is what is not,’” Hussain says. “You won’t see us promoting or linking to people who are making those political statements because that’s not who we are. But that open letter to ISIS [posted on their website, it details why ISIS is not true to Islam, using Qur’anic scripture], that’s who we are. We want to educate about what Islam really teaches and what true Islam is.”

Hussain sees a pervasive Islamophobia, which she, like Siddiqi, believes increased several years after 9/11. Immediately after the tragedy, she says the non-Muslim community in Arizona embraced Muslims. Flowers, calls and letters of encouragement poured into the mosques she’s involved with. Her children’s friends, friends’ parents and teachers offered support and safe havens. A Sedona church sent her Scottsdale mosque a $50 check as a symbol of solidarity. She says she’d like to see that time of openness and love continue, rather than anti-Islamic rhetoric proliferate. Hussain says Islamophobia is getting worse, based on the questions and misperceptions she encounters, public rhetoric and anecdotal evidence from friends.

“People I know have gone through instances like that, where in a grocery store somebody’s just yelled at them, saying, ‘Why don’t you just go home?’” she says. “[And] they’re like, ‘Uh, I’m from Chicago. Where do you want me to go and why do you want me to go there?’” She says she’s never experienced anti-Muslim discrimination firsthand. “My children and I have never had to deal with ugliness ever. And I thank God for that. I thank my neighbors for that. And I thank the community I’m in for that.”

She has hope for the future of Muslim Americans’ interaction with non-Muslims, particularly in Arizona. “I love this place. This is home. I had a choice, and I choose Arizona,” she says, after having lived in Kuwait, England and New Hampshire. “Honestly and truly, for everyone calling it a conservative state and [saying] people are against Muslims, they really aren’t. It’s a very laid-back place. It’s a wonderful place to call home.”

Shqeirat identifies with Hussain’s hopeful, pro-education tack. While ignorance is an obstacle for Muslims, he says it’s also an opportunity for outreach, dialogue and education. He and the mosque participate in a handful of interfaith groups in the Valley, efforts he’s increased in recent years largely to address misconceptions and myths about Islam. He’s hosted rabbis and pastors at the mosque to educate his congregants about those religions and says he has spoken about Islam in hundreds of churches. “The way I view it, every challenge is an opportunity… more responsibility on me and my community to go out more and to speak more and to show a good example more and more,” he says. “The blank page will be for the first one who comes to write.”

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