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Muslims struggle to keep rights

Judith Scherr
Thursday September 19, 2002

The taxi driver scheduled to pick up Muslim speakers Wednesday for a UC Berkeley conference on Islam backed out at the last minute. 

He said he feared the FBI would interrogate him if he showed up at the airport to pick up the speakers, according to Agha Saeed, UC Berkeley political science professor and national chair of the American Muslim Alliance. Saeed noted the irony that began the daylong conference, Islam in America: Rights and Citizenship in a Post 9/11 World. 

The threat to the civil rights of Muslims and the need for the community to stand up to it was the thread tying morning speakers at the event. 

“We shouldn’t sacrifice civil liberties in order to feel safe,” speaker Sami Al-Arian told the conference audience of about 50 people. Al-Arian was placed on paid leave by the University of South Florida at the end of last year after a talk-show host brought up a 1991 statement he’d made calling for “death to Israel.” 

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Al-Arian, a Palestinian born in Kuwait, said he did not call for the death to Jews, but to the Israeli state which he said had oppressed his people. 

The point, however, was not what he said. “The issue before us is academic freedom,” he argued. “We shouldn’t allow an Enron code of ethics to rule our society.”  

Al-Arian condemned post-Sept. 11, 2001 anti-Muslim bigotry and blamed the media for its role.  

Al-Arian explained that Robert J. Goldstein, the Jewish man arrested in Florida with 40 weapons, explosives, napalm, timers and wires, with a detailed plan to blow up 50 Islamic institutions, was treated differently than a Muslim would be treated.  

The media didn’t call him a terrorist; they "called him by his profession: a podiatrist," he said.  

Zahid Bukhari, a fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, underscored the challenge for Muslims in the face of media distortions and repressive legislation like the federal Patriot Act. 

"The Muslim community is fighting back," he said. But the community is not familiar with participating in the United States political arena. Even though there were Muslims who came to America with Columbus and Muslims who were among the enslaved Africans, the community was the "new kid on the block," he said. 

Muslims are not alone in America to face discrimination. The Jewish community and many others in America have suffered from bigotry. "They fought back. They got status in society. I still believe that" can happen for Muslims, he said. 

Bukhari added that even though there has been intolerance and repression, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 have had a positive impact on the place of Muslims in American society. "That exposure raised the level of debate on Islam and Muslims," he said. Islamic Centers, for example, have opened their doors to others in the community. The aftermath of Sept. 11 has also provoked internal discussions – "the neglected issues of extremism in Islam," he said. 

Salam Al Maryati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an agency that disseminates information about Islam, added that the post-Sept. 11 bigotry and repression should not become "an excuse for inaction [or] self-marginalization."  

Rather, the opposite should happen: "We need to be more engaged, more involved. We cannot afford to dilute the Muslim identity," he said. 

Wednesday’s event was sponsored by the American Muslim Alliance, the UC Berkeley Department of African American Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Islamic Society of the East Bay.