Local Muslims reflect on the decade since Sept. 11, 2001

4 Sep
Sunday, September 04, 2011
By Malak Shaher, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette
Imam Abdusemih Tadese, left, with the Rev. Daniel Valentine late last month at the Humanity Day event at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh

Ten years ago, his Islamic faith was not a problem for Clifton Omar Slater.

Then came the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Somerset County.

“We prayed for the dead, Muslims and Christians. But people keep forgetting that we were victims too,” said Mr. Clifton, 66.

Mr. Clifton is on the executive board of the Council of American Islamic Relations, Pittsburgh chapter, and a retired environmental scientist.

“What happened to me as a Muslim… I was humiliated and the people in my community became afraid.” He said some returned to their home countries, “but we as Muslims here, our jobs began to suffer, business was boycotted and people began to look for what we were doing,” he said. “Many of the defense contractors [who were] Muslims had their security clearances lowered. Their loyalty was questioned.

“I felt my religion and its principles were under attack.”

It was painful to learn that some Muslims working in government jobs were not allowed to work until they went through new background investigations, he said. A notable local case was that of Moniem El-Ganayni, a Muslim nuclear physicist who lost his battle with the Department of Energy to get back his security clearance and his job at the Bettis Laboratory in West Mifflin.

Ordinary citizens also encountered ugly incidents after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Mr. Slater.

A Muslim American who did not want her name used said that she faced at least three instances of discrimination since 9/11. She wears a hijab and thus is recognizable as a Muslim.

“I was walking on Negley [Avenue] last summer when a man in his early 30s stopped the car and shouted out loudly, ‘Get out of our country!'” said the woman.

Another day she was walking along Fifth Avenue when a man stopped his car suddenly and honked his horn. “I looked at the car and he gave me the middle-finger.”

Many Muslims approached for this article were uncomfortable speaking on the record about their experiences. The Post-Gazette distributed an informal questionnaire to people attending an event at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and the responses included several descriptions of discriminatory incidents, including garbage piled in front of a Muslim’s house, a workplace that prevented Muslims from praying at work and reports of being accused of terrorism.

Some of the incidents reported did not happen in Pittsburgh, and one of the comments on the questionnaire was that the interfaith events in Pittsburgh helped create understanding.

“Contrary to other places in the U.S, Pittsburgh is actually the most moderate section, thanks to many interfaith activities,” commented Ahmed Abdelwahab of Forest Hills, president of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Clifton agreed that Pittsburgh has worked at interfaith relations. He said that lawyers specializing in immigration came to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh offering pro bono representation for Muslims caught up in the “special registration” program that required thousands of Arab and Muslim men to register with immigration authorities after the attacks.

“Many of [the lawyers] were Jews,” he said.

During an open house a week after Sept. 11, 2001, at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh nearly 1,000 packed the Oakland facility. Alia Hallab of Shadyside, who was Christian at the time, said she went to learn about Islam.

Mrs. Hallab did not know any Muslims at the time, but three years after that first open house she converted. So did her sister.

Karen Hussaini of Avalon recalled that a coworker told her that he was surprised to learn that she was of the Islamic faith as she “did not look like a Muslim.”

“I asked him how a Muslim looks like and he said he did not know,” she said.

Mrs. Hussaini is the widow of Farooq Hussaini, who organized the first Humanity Day at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in 1994. She was assisting him in his outreach efforts and after he died she continued his work of trying to give other people an understanding of Islam, including speaking at interfaith events.

People have responded very positively to her talks, she said.

“The problem was that their first contact with Islam was 9/11.”

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