Photo: Sean Adir/Reuters

Guilty by association

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By Sutton Eaves

A year has passed and sometimes Saleem Hamdani still forgets that his eldest son won’t be waiting for him at home at the end of the day — that “God was sleeping” when he died on Sept. 11.

“You are happy, listening to music coming home at the end of the day and then suddenly you realize that he won’t be there, that Salman won’t be home. That feeling is very bad and I don’t know how many months and how many years it will last,” said Hamdani.

After six months of uncertainty, the police told the family in March that their son’s body had been discovered in the World Trade Center wreckage. Although initially confused by his disappearance — Hamdani neither worked nor lived near the WTC — his family and officials now believe that Hamdani was drawn to the scene of the terrorist attacks in a selfless act of humanity.

“I know his nature. When he was travelling with me and he saw car wrecks on the highway, he would tell me to stop so he could help,” said his father. A trained emergency medical technician who often carried first aid supplies with him, Hamdani was recognized in the USA Patriot Act of 2001: “Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance …”

Reports of incidents like these, however, have been overshadowed by newspaper headlines screaming of violence inflicted upon Muslim, Arab, Indian and Middle Eastern individuals and communities in the wake of Sept. 11: “Afghani taxi driver paralysed following assault”; “Hindu temple destroyed by arson, mosque vandalized”; “Muslims suffer bomb threats and intimidation;” “Racists seek revenge around the world.”

In the past year, normally innocuous communities have been littered with angry letters and threats that seep through mail slots, telephone wires and Internet connections.

A portion of a poem found on the World Trade Center Memorial site reads “Osama, you coward, I’ll piss in your eye. Now all I have to say is die die die bitch ass Muslim.”

Guilty by association, followers of Islam who are also mutual sufferers of the terrorist attacks are being persecuted because of their perceived likeness to Osama Bin Laden. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, an arm of the United Nations, reported in August that Muslims and Arab-Canadians have been subjected to “increased racial hatred, violence and discrimination” since Sept. 11.

This claim is supported by the Toronto Police Services 2001 report on hate crime, which states that the “66 per cent increase in reported hate crimes was largely a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.” The report refers to 121 incidents that were directly related to the terrorist attacks, accounting for 90 per cent of all hate crimes. Muslims, Arabs, Pakistanis and Sikhs represent the largest targeted group.

“Many Muslims were killed in the Sept. 11 tragedy, however, unlike other North Americans, the Muslim community could not grieve as it had to immediately go into crisis mode responding to hate crimes and backlash. This has interrupted the healing process … in order to heal from the backlash, the community needs to feel safe, which it does not,” wrote Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association of North America, in The Culture of Fear and Hate: the Impact of Backlash.

She speaks of a situation that many Muslims in North America can relate to and that the rest of the continent cannot deny. Like the rest of North America, Muslim families have been confronted with the atrocities of the attacks. Unlike the rest of north Americans, they have also been the target of a more personal breed of terrorism — hate.

“Hate is the rock that broke through our office windows two weeks ago, and the caller the week before who informed us that the only good Arab is a dead Arab,” said Raja Khouri, national president of the Canadian Arab Federation, at a June conference on hate crime in Toronto.

From the hate Khouri speaks of comes fear — the chief result of Sept. 11, according to Siddiqui’s paper. For many, it’s a fear of leaving the house and being mistreated because you appear to be Muslim. For others, a fear of losing your job, having your bank account frozen, or expressing your disapproval of American policy and accused of supporting terrorism. It is one fear bred from another, and for many non Muslims, there is fear of the unknown and ignorance of a culture they do not understand.

What some have called a tremendous lack of interaction between the two groups leaves non-Muslims depending largely on the media for information about a world they are not familiar with. As a result, critics say many people have drawn a skewed connection between Islam and terrorism based upon misinformation.

“One of the front players is the media,” said Maliha Chishti, former director of the Hague Appeal for Peace, United Nations. “How do they create an image of terror and terrorists?”

Chishti said that by playing the Athan, a Muslim call to prayer, as background sound in al-Qaida stories, the media encourage viewers to incorrectly associate a peaceful practice with terrorism. Those same viewers, after seeing the images and hearing the sounds, then associate prayers coming from the mosque down the street with al-Qaida, creating a link between terrorism and the culture of Islam.

In a country that proudly wears the mark of multiculturalism on its sleeve, the mentality of “with us or with the terrorists” has come as a surprise to many Muslims, both Canadian-born and immigrants, and has left them with only two options, said Khouri: You’re either like us or you are not. “I don’t feel the freedom to get up and say what American is doing is wrong,” said Wahida Valiante, national vice president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

While views such as those described by Valiante have Muslims fearing for their future, many agree that Sept. 11 has presented them with a unique opportunity to dispel the myths surrounding Islam and promote its teachings.

“We’ve … had more questions and interest in Islam than ever,” said Imam Hamid Slimi, who is a Muslim representative on the Ontario Multifaith Committee. “The community at large is asking about Islam and for the first time, Islam has become a topic of discussion at the dinner table and between colleagues at work.” Slimi believes North America is becoming more aware of what is happening around it and is familiarizing itself with the Muslim world, making education on Islam imperative — a responsibility North Americans are shouldering at their own initiative.

Since Sept. 11, sales of Islamic and Middle Eastern books at Canada’s Chapter’s book stores have risen 10 per cent, while the Islamic Studies web site has seen its number of visitors soar from 350 to about 4000 per day. Asad Dean, director of Toronto-based United Muslims, said that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a lot of groups reached out to the Muslim community to “show support and empathy that not all Muslims should be demonized and put in one category.

“[It] just goes to show that there are a lot of other groups and people in Canada who are very much supportive and eager not to label Muslims as people who support terrorism,” said Dean. During the World Youth Day events, United Muslims invited 300 Christian and Muslim pilgrims to a “Living your faith in a secular society” workshop to help foster education and tolerance between the two faiths. He said the workshop afforded the two groups a better understanding of one another because before, most knew very little about each other’s faith.

“Education is the only thing that has worked, that has to work,” said Chishti. “Making Islam not something that is an “other” but something that is part of what you learn and know and are familiar with. Education is the vehicle towards transformation.”

 

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