A few days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a mostly non-Muslim crowd showed up at the Spokane Islamic Center in north Spokane for afternoon prayers.
“We had people come in – Christian, Jews, Native Americans – to show support,” said Mamdouh El-Aarag, a board member of the center, which has since moved to the Spokane Valley.
“It was very touching,” said El-Aarag, who is Palestinian-American. “There are people out there who realize a very small minority does not talk for the majority of Muslims.”
Ten years later, hardly a day goes by without a report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations of some offense by word or deed against Muslims in the United States. Most recently, it was reported that New York police spied on mosques at the direction of the CIA.
But El-Aarag said he has seen few incidents of overt prejudice against the Muslim community in Spokane.
“We have been very fortunate,” he said.
A survey of Muslim Americans released last month by the Pew Center found that 55 percent said life had become more difficult since 9/11, with 48 percent saying they had been treated with suspicion or called names in the past year.
Ahmad Alabdrabalnabi, a graduate student in computer science at Eastern Washington University, remembers waking up on 9/11 in his home in Saihat, Saudi Arabia, to the sound of his mother crying.
“She told me there was an explosion,” Alabdrabalnabi said. “She was watching the news and worrying about her son in California.”
Alabdrabalnabi’s older brother, whose name is Jihad, was studying at the University of California-San Bernardino, where one of his professors asked him if he wouldn’t mind being called “Johnny” in class.
Americans may not know many words in Arabic, but jihad is one they recognize – if not fully understand. The term has been taken to mean holy war, but Alabdrabalnabi said Muslims perceive jihad as a personal struggle for an idea or principle.
Aligning opinions of al-Qaida
Despite the polls, Alabdrabalnabi believes the general attitude of Americans toward Middle Easterners has improved since he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in 2004.
Alabdrabalnabi recalled a Transportation Security Administration agent waving his Saudi passport in the air to attract the attention of the agent’s superiors. The college student, who spoke little English at the time, said he spent the next five or six hours in an airport interrogation room.
Thousands of Saudis study in the United States under an exchange program supported and financed by the Saudi royal family.
When Alabdrabalnabi obtains his master’s degree, perhaps as early as this winter, he will return to Saudi Arabia “with good feelings for America,” and he wishes Americans could feel the same way about Saudis, he said.
Though 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi, Alabdrabalnabi said “you cannot judge 25 million people by the acts of a few.”
His countryman, Mohammed Iskandar, a senior in finance at EWU from Jeddah, shares Alabdrabalnabi’s animosity for the al-Qaida terrorists.
“Killing innocent people is neither Islam nor jihad,” Iskandar said.
Iskandar and Alabdrabalnabi are among 180 members of the university’s Saudi Club. They are expecting the club to grow when school starts this month.
After the attacks in 2001, Inland Northwest universities saw a drop in enrollment by Middle Eastern students, including 55 Arab students who withdrew from Washington State University. By February 2002, The Spokesman-Review reported, 47 of the 55 had returned to Pullman.
Most serious backlash was by government
The most serious backlash against Muslims in the Inland Northwest came not from the citizens of Washington and Idaho, but from the federal government.
In 2003, the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft arrested Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a University of Idaho student from Saudi Arabia, and held him for 15 months, including solitary confinement, on charges he aided terrorists by operating websites.
Another UI student, Abdullah al-Kidd, an American, was detained as a material witness in the al-Hussayen case, held in cells that were illuminated night and day, and subjected to strip and body cavity searches.
Al-Hussayen was eventually acquitted and al-Kidd never was called as a witness, but at the time the FBI was interrogating so many Idaho Muslims that the American Civil Liberties Union offered seminars on their constitutional rights.
“Of course, I get that Sept. 11 was a terrible tragedy and one that required action. But it does seem that so often when we have terrible things happen, there is a tendency for us to react to it by constricting civil liberties and losing sight of our first principles,” said Boise attorney David Nevin, who defended al-Hussayen.
Constitutional protections apply not just to U.S. citizens, but to all people, Nevin said. Al-Hussayen has returned to Saudi Arabia, where he is “doing well,” Nevin said. Al-Kidd is pursuing litigation against the government, though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Ashcroft has qualified immunity.
‘We are Americans like anyone else’
The events of Sept. 11 were seared into the memories of not just Americans.
Farba Mbow, a Muslim refugee from the west African nation of Mauritania who recently graduated with a political science degree from WSU, remembers playing Scrabble with a friend in Senegal on the day of the attacks. They never finished the game.
“It was a shock because we all grew up studying about the United States and everybody was aware of how powerful it is,” Mbow said. “What went through my mind was that if the U.S. is attacked, then nobody is safe.”
At the time, Mbow knew people whose plans to study in the United States were dashed after the attack by Muslim extremists. He and his mother and four brothers came here as refugees five years after 9/11. Perhaps because he is black, he said, he has not experienced discrimination because of his religion.
“It was not obvious that I am Muslim like it is for people from the Middle East,” Mbow said.
The Spokane Islamic Center, probably Spokane’s most ethnically diverse religious institution, is attended by about 1,500 people from nearly every Muslim nation – Egypt, Palestine, Bosnia, Jordan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Turkey. There also are students from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
“We are all created differently, different colors and different backgrounds,” El-Aarag said. “God created us that way so that we can learn from each other and become stronger and wiser.”
When El-Aarag heard the news of 9/11 on the radio, he remembered “hoping it had nothing to do with Islam.”
Like most Muslims, he said, he believes there is no religious justification to kill innocent people.
“The beautiful thing about this country and about us as Americans is that we are always going to seek the truth for ourselves,” El-Aarag said. “Once they come, they see that we are Americans like anyone else.”
His views were echoed by Raymond Reyes, associated mission vice president for intercultural relations at Gonzaga University, who said the Inland Northwest has a history of rallying together in response to hatred by such groups as the Aryan Nations, The Order and the Christian Identity Movement.
Perhaps that’s why in the days following 9/11 the community saw the demonstrations of solidarity at the Islamic Center, which were attended by local dignitaries at the time, including Mayor John Powers, police Chief Roger Bragdon and Rabbi Jack Izakson.
Repeating the maxim that tolerance is a journey, not a destination, Reyes said, “Every day you wake up and have to make a renewed commitment to it.”