Muslims in Columbia view Sept. 11 with sorrow, some frustration

Friday, September 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Columbia’s Muslim community doesn’t intend to dwell on the horrific events of Sept. 11, but wants to find ways to move past the tragedy and move toward new images and ideas about Islam.

Imam Abdullah Smith, the religious leader of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, said that Sept. 11 was “a horrifying day for us not only because of the people who died, but because we are all blamed for it.

"Not only do we have to deal with the tragedy that actually took place, but now, every year that it comes up, we’re reminded of it, and we’re feeling like we’re the bad guys,” Smith said.

Some Muslims interviewed by the Associated Press have a sense of dread about the day, knowing that people might stare, or worse, yell insults.

And while that’s not a typical reaction in Columbia, Muslims “are always pointed at and looked at as the bad people when this type of stuff comes up,” Smith said.

Nuzhat Chowdhury, a MU junior, said she feels the Columbia community is more open to the differences within the Muslim community. Chowdhury said she had never experienced discrimination here, unlike family members who live in North Carolina.

For the younger generation of Muslims, the tragedy can seem like a distant memory. "Time marches on," said Souha Azmeh Al-Samkari, a 22-year-old student at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

On the eve of the anniversary, the Muslim Student Organization at MU hosted a "Fast-a-thon" event for non-Muslims to help educate fellow students about their faith. Members of the organization encouraged their friends to join them for a day of fasting during Ramadan. Afterwards, about 100 students met to break the fast and share their common experiences. Before the meal, Arwa Mohammad, MSO’s educational chair, offered an overview of Islam.

Even though there are rituals and routines for Muslims during Ramadan, for many American Muslims Sept. 11 will never be routine, no matter how many anniversaries have passed.

Smith said some Muslims feel the pressure of the day because they are in some way linked to the terror attacks through a shared faith with the bombers.

“They come from the same lands, they share the same nationalities, but just because you hold the same nationality doesn’t mean you hold the same ideology,” he said.

Chowdhury shares the same sense of detachment with the terrorists.

“We can’t control a radical sect,” she said. Since the attacks, “people are trying to educate and improve the image of the Muslim community.”

The anniversary brings a mix of emotions: sorrow over the huge loss of life, anguish over the wars that followed and resentment over how the hijackings so completely transformed the place of Muslims in the U.S. and beyond.

Nureen Syed of Columbia said, "I feel just as badly ... as anyone else" about the attacks. However, the 19-year-old MU student doesn’t intend to change anything about her daily routine.

At the time of the attacks, Syed and her family lived in Chicago where she and her siblings attended an Islamic school. Syed said she remembers the school having to close for a week because of bomb threats it received after the attacks.

Mahir Khan, an MU freshman, also attended an Islamic school at the time of the attacks. Being surrounded by fellow Muslims, he said he never experienced any problems.

“I was too little to understand what was going on though,” Khan said.

Khan looks at the day from an American perspective, instead of a Muslim one. He said he is bothered by the lack of interest in the day he sees from the population as a whole. Khan said that more people should be respectful of the tragedy.

This year, the anniversary falls on a Friday, the Islamic day of congregational prayer, and during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, when mosques are usually packed. Muslims expect their prayer leaders, or imams, will at least mention the significance of the date in their sermons.

Not all mosques will commemorate the day. A significant number of U.S. Muslims contend that no one of their faith could have perpetrated the hijackings. They resist suggestions that they should be monitoring their own communities for extremism.

Imam Smith said he has no plans to mention the terror attacks specifically in his sermon, but he will participate in an interfaith service at 7 p.m. on the Stephens College campus.

“I don’t think people are walking around scared of things like that. It gets talked about every now and then, how people feel or are made to feel around this time,” he said.

Kamran Memon, an Illinois lawyer, has taken a different approach, founding Muslims for A Safe America, which challenges fellow Muslims to learn more about national security. The debates and talks he leads at mosques throughout the Chicago area start from the position that Muslims were behind the attacks.

A poll released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 38 percent of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence. That is down from 45 percent two years earlier.

On the anniversary, Memon keeps his work schedule light and prefers to stay home. He reflects on what happened, but his thoughts are more focused on what could be ahead. Some Muslims are convinced that if the U.S. is hit with another terrorist attack, the government will put them in internment camps, he said.

"There's this fear about what down the road this will mean for my daughter's future. What kind of life will she have here?" he said. "People may be less angry or less hostile toward Muslims in general, but if there's another attack, what then?"

Missourian reporters Sarah Midgorden, Nikki Tekeei and Courtney Shove and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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