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ISLAM RISING : Muslims Enter American Mainstream

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The second generation is at home with U.S. social and political norms and proud of its heritage. But it’s worried about prejudice and misunderstanding.
First came the thunderous explosion that rocked the World Trade Center in New York.

Within days, the arrests of Arab immigrants and a naturalized U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent made news around the world.

“Muslim Arrested!” screamed a headline in an Eastern newspaper.

Muslims in the United States had seen it before. The words and images ran together like watercolors on a child’s easel– Arabs, mosque, terrorism, Muslims, extremists –making it hard to tell where one began and another left off. The result, they said, was a blur of fear and misunderstanding of them and their faith.

For millions of Muslim Americans, the picture not only has distorted the obvious (all Muslims are neither terrorists nor Arabs) but also has failed to convey a central fact of Muslim life in the United States today:

A torch is being passed to a new generation that is middle-class and politically savvy, with concerns that are as representative of America as an Aaron Copland suite.

To be sure, the members of this generation are concerned with the plight of Muslims in Bosnia. They dream as fervently of a Palestinian homeland as did Jews of the establishment of Israel before 1949. They agonize over the murderous religious clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India.

But Muslim Americans also worry about crime in the streets, the quality of education and jobs. They talk about taxes and the economy.

“Muslims in America are 6 million people,” said Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California. “The majority of them are breadwinners. They are hard-working, taxpaying, law-abiding people.”

The first generation of Muslims, like other immigrants, concentrated on building a life in America–sometimes in the face of negative stereotypes about Muslims. Now, those in the second generation–at home with American social and political norms and proud of their heritage–are entering the political and cultural life of the nation.

“The (Muslim) community is maturing, and the second generation is here,” said Zahid Bukhari, secretary general of the Islamic Circle of North America, based in Jamaica, N.Y. “Now they feel they are mature enough financially and to some extent (in) human resources that we should be a part of the American mainstream and become politically active.”

In times of crisis, such as the New York terrorist bombing, second-generation Muslims still turn to one another for support. “People are feeling like we need more to huddle together, to speak (with) the voice of sanity,” Hathout said, “because the religion itself is projected negatively and because of a certain danger to Muslims here.”

Nonetheless, few doubt that the Muslim community is in transition. It is reflected in the lives of young people and in the growing vitality of the community’s political voice.

“When I was growing up, my parents stressed that I not make waves, not rock the boat–so I didn’t,” said 24-year-old Qamarul Huda, a UCLA history student. Huda recalled being told not to draw attention to himself as an Iranian Muslim during the Iranian hostage crisis 13 years ago. “The generation of Muslims raised here . . . is becoming more creative, getting involved in the arts, becoming activists. I have a friend who was on the med school track who is now a lobbyist. I know someone else who wants to run for state senator. . . .”

While their activities pale in comparison with the well-heeled efforts mounted by other interest groups, Muslim Americans are running for office, lobbying Congress and courting local politicians.

In Southern California, two Muslim Americans ran last June for their parties’ congressional nominations. Although both lost in the primaries, their entry was viewed by fellow Muslims as a watershed. The Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles is meeting with the top contenders in the Los Angeles mayor’s race and with Clinton Administration officials on foreign policy matters.

The fledgling United Muslims of America in Sunnyvale, Calif., with 500 members nationwide, co-sponsored hospitality suites at California state Democratic and Republican party conventions. In Washington, D.C., the new American Muslim Council is encouraging Muslims to register to vote.

In Orange County, Islamic scholars and theologians have joined in a rare collaboration with Christian and Jewish colleagues to explore where the three Abrahamic faiths converge. The effort by the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies in Anaheim is the first of its kind in the nation.

As fighting continued between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, four Muslim organizations that claim to represent the majority of Muslims in the United States formed the Bosnia Task Force U.S.A. to lobby Congress to lift the arms embargo and to push for enforcement of a “no-fly” zone over Bosnian territory. (The U.N. Security Council authorized shooting down of aircraft violating the zone last Wednesday.)