Daily Record – December 18, 2005
NJ Muslims say trust still remains elusive
Many feel suspicion, trampled rights persist in post-9/11 U.S.
BY LORRAINE ASH
Yursil Kidwai's mother still tells him to shave his beard. "She thinks it makes me look more like a terrorist," said the 27-year-old Pakistani-American, a computer expert who grew up in Paramus.
"She thinks it makes me look more like a suspicious figure because I fit some stereotype of the people you see on TV who do these horrible things."
Four years after Al-Qaida launched its surprise assault on the United States and almost three years into the war in Iraq, American Muslim communities in North Jersey and nationwide still are explaining themselves. Still trying to fill voids of ignorance with information about Islam. Still worrying about the erosion of the civil liberties that inspired them or their parents to come to the United States in the first place.
Headlines continuously keep these issues in mind.
Kidwai, of the Liberty Corner section of Bernards, has not completely restored that feeling of comfortable citizenship he enjoyed before the 9/11 attacks. When the planes flew into the twin towers in Manhattan, he was single, fresh out of college and living in Mount Arlington because it was close to his job in Randolph. He was proud of having his first apartment and getting used to paying his own electricity bill and $800-a-month rent.
"The walls were thin and I could hear my neighbors downstairs," he said. "Eventually, in wintertime, I ended up having to buy an air conditioner because I could not control the heat."
After 9/11, his troubles got larger. He had been moving out, in increments, in August and September 2001 because he bought a condo in Basking Ridge. When he was gone one day, he said, the superintendent went into his apartment with people putting in new windows. It was then that they saw Kidwai's Quran and prayer rug, as well as a few arabesque jars.
Calling the FBI: Combined with his passport, stamped to reflect his latest family trip to Pakistan in 1997, the stuff in his bachelor pad apparently made the superintendent uneasy enough to call the FBI. One of the first things Kidwai, a second-generation Pakistani-American, experienced in his new condo was a message on his tape machine from an FBI agent.
"My reaction was that it must be a prank call," he said. "The man left a number, though, so the next morning I dialed the number. The agent said he wanted to meet me as soon as possible. He said, 'Where are you right now?' They wanted to meet me 'right now, wherever I am.' I told them they could meet me at home. They said, 'No, no. Stay where you are. We're coming to you.'"
To this day Kidwai wishes the agents who visited him at Concurrent Technologies, where he still works, would not have involved his workplace. The CFO of the company allowed Kidwai and the agents to use his office, an offer for which Kidwai is still grateful because it gave him some privacy. The agents asked him about 9/11: What did he feel about it? What did he know about it? Did he know anyone involved?
"They knew I had a copy of the Quran in my home," he said. "They knew I had been to Pakistan. I don't know the extent of what else they knew. The fact that someone had gone into my home and through my things was not brought up."
Kidwai remembers telling the agents that he thinks of Osama bin Laden as a miscreant, an anarchist, a politically motivated person and not a religiously motivated person. Nothing came of the inquiry in terms of stopping terrorism, but Kidwai has not been quite the same since. That phone call from the FBI scared him.
Today he shares his condo with his wife and young son. If somebody else called the FBI on him again, he still would cooperate because, he said, that's what a good citizen does.
But Kidwai, now director of applications development at Concurrent Technologies, also would take legal action. His home should not have been searched, he said. His privacy should not have been invaded.
After his experience with the apartment, Kidwai cannot help but wonder what would happen if there is another attack. Would people stop talking to him?
Lots of worry: "For some people that dial goes one way or the other," Kidwai said. "We're on a very slippery slope in terms of how much diversification we accept in our communities and how tolerant we are. It doesn't take much to make a tolerant person very intolerant."
Other Muslim-Americans worry, too. They worry to the point of educating themselves very well so they can field any question about Islam. They worry to the point of holding forums and giving talks to promote understanding of Islam. As Americans, they worry to the point of organizing to fight for civil liberties.
Agha Saeed is a political science professor at California State University, national founder of the American Muslim Alliance and national chair of American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, a coalition of 11 major American Muslim organizations. He flew here last week to address the group's New Jersey chapter at a gathering of some 200 Muslims at the Shahnawaz Palace in Edison. He set out an ambitious agenda for the group locally and nationwide: to take a lead in restoring civil liberties for all Americans.
"There is an unnamed movement in the United States for civil liberties and human rights, and that's why city after city, county after county, state after state, are taking on the responsibility to make this repeal request," Saeed told the crowd. Saeed was referring to 391 cities, counties and states that have passed resolutions calling for partial repeal of the U.S. Patriot Act on the grounds of unconstitutionality.
[The House approved a renewed version of the Patriot Act last week. The Senate on Dec. 16 rejected reauthorizing several provisions of the USA Patriot Act because of civil liberties concerns.]
Parts of the act fight terror, according to Saeed, but other parts dispense with elements of due process and bypass restrictions on ex post facto laws.
There is no reason, he added, why AMA of New Jersey could not play a leadership role in this new civil rights movement.
"We are not asking something special for Muslims," he said. "We are asking something special for America. We are asking for America to be restored to its principles."
Political involvement: Saeed also calls for 75 percent of American Muslims to vote in 2006 elections, and he urges them to run for office, following the lead of such New Jerseyans as Ali Chaudry of Bernards Township, who became the first Pakistani-American mayor in the country in 2004.
Certainly American Muslims are not a decisive voting force, he said, but they can be a significant one.
There are 3.5 million Arab-Americans nationwide, according to the 2000 Census, and 3,116 in Morris County. The American Religion Data Archive estimated that there were 2,141 Muslims in Morris County that same year.
"Muslims constitute 2 percent of the voting population," Saeed said, "but we know from the published records of the past 100 years of presidential elections that only 50 percent of the people vote. So if we vote full strength we are 4 percent of the voting population.
"We also know from the published records that in an off-year like 2006 it will be roughly 37 percent voter turnout. If we vote full strength we will be 5.5 percent of the voting population."
Such involvement with elections is one way of firming a foundation of trust between Muslim-Americans and other Americans. But such trust also is built person to person.
"We need to make the foundation of tolerance a lot stronger," Kidwai said, "so that if another incident happens, all our dialogues weren't just dialogues that were forgotten."
In retrospect, Kidwai wonders whether his being reported to the FBI had something to do with people in his apartment complex knowing nothing about him except what he looked like.
"I was working a lot and I didn't have much contact with the people in the community," he explained. "Maybe it's my fault that I didn't reach out to them, I don't know. At the same time we are a minority for a reason. There are not enough of us.
"But we can touch the people who are around us and become close friends and make that level of understanding. For those who will never be able to access a Muslim person or never be able to understand one, I'm not sure. Then it's the job of our media and our spokespeople and our leaders to be getting that message out."
No good stereotypes: Getting to know Muslims one-on-one whenever possible is an antidote to a new media phenomenon -- creating a stereotype of all Muslims as good and sweet, according to Nazish Aghal, a 32-year-old corporate lawyer from Livingston who has done pro bono work on civil rights issues. She is secretary of the Civil Rights Committee of the New York City Bar Association. Born in India and raised in the United States, Aghal is a Shia Muslim.
Creating a new good stereotype of Muslims to counter the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists is dangerous and should be avoided, she said.
"The good stereotype is also wrong and unrealistic and creates this great difficulty of expecting people to live up to this absurd reality," she said. "To live up to this good stereotype every Muslim has to be super-patriotic, nicer than everybody else, nonviolent. It's unreasonable because no one behaves like that. Nobody."
There are Muslims who are gay, she said, and Muslims with drug problems. There are Muslims who would be comfortable in interfaith sessions with Jews or Southern Baptists, and still others who are more the New York liberal types. The point is: They're complex, they're people.
"If you create just two divisions of Muslim people -- the terrorists and the good Muslims -- and if you happen to not fit in the good Muslim category, the assumption will be you must be the other kind," she said. ….