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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
South Asians in US remember 9/11
By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Washington

Arun Gandhi says that religion needs to be redefined so that it is no longer associated with terrorism and violence

South Asian celebrities, peace activists and religious leaders have been taking part in events to mark the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World trade Centre in the United States.

At the "Hope not Hate" youth summit in Washington this weekend the Pakistani rock star, Salman Ahmad, performed John Lennon's "Imagine" as well as his own hits.

For the past five years, the lead singer of the group, Junoon, has been on a personal mission to educate young people about his faith through pop music.

He says the tragic events of five years ago have made him "delve deeper" into what Islam is and what the religion means to him.

'Distinctly American'

The singer, who moved to New York four years ago, believes the attacks "changed the American Muslim identity". They put it "under a huge microscope", he says.

Salman Ahmad
The men who hijacked four aircraft on 9/11 also hijacked Islam
Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad

Many South Asian worshippers from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (Adams) in Virginia share that view.

"We've realised that being an American Muslim means something and being an American means that we have responsibilities to this nation," reflects Afeefa Syeed, who moved to the US with her parents from Kashmir when she was two.

Esa Syeed was born in Indiana and recently graduated from university.

He has always felt "distinctly American" but suggests September 2001 had the biggest impact on immigrant Muslims.

It "really shook" a lot of people into thinking "ok, well maybe I really am American", he says.

"Right after the 9/11 attacks was the first time I felt like a minority," says Amer Ahmad, who has Pakistani roots, but was brought up in Virginia. He believes the coverage of recent news events has shown Americans need "a broader understanding of Islam".

The Unity Walk
People from various faiths participated in Sunday's peace walk

The Adams mosque was one of many vandalised after September 2001 when hate crimes against American Muslims rose dramatically. It has since hosted regular interfaith events, inviting visitors to share a meal and presenting them with a copy of the Koran.

Hindu and Sikh communities in the US have also stepped up efforts to educate other Americans about their faiths, after experiencing increased harassment and attacks over the past five years.

Two days after the 11 September 2001 attack, Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, a Sikh priest at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, Maryland was driving to a hospital to take part in a blood drive.

'Sikh first'

He remembers how the drivers of two other vehicles saw his turban and open beard and then yelled abuse at him and made threatening gestures as they tried to force him off the road.

"It was really terrible," he says. "I have a little American flag in my car, I tried waving it, but it did not help."

Bhai Singh says his religion is the most important part of his identity.

"I'm a Sikh first, then nationality comes in," he explains.

"The American constitution gives me the right to religious freedom, but other people don't always recognise that."

In Washington, hundreds of believers from different religions gathered on Sunday for a Gandhi-style "peace walk" led by the late Indian leader's grandson.

Celebration at the end of the Unity Walk
The events of 9/11 had a 'big impact' on religious minorities in the US

Arun Gandhi, founder of the MK Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, says the afternoon-long event was significant because it brought people together "in unity".

Participants set out from the Washington Hebrew Congregation, heading to the National Cathedral and the Islamic Centre before massing round the Gandhi memorial.

"We need to redefine religion," Arun Gandhi says. "No religion should be talking about hate and violence and killing. Religion is about love and compassion and understanding."

On the anniversary of 11 September, 2001, Mr Gandhi thinks the focus should be on what happens next.

"We have to do something to put an end to terrorism and violence," he says, "and I am hoping I can inspire all people to take action."


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