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Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
US Muslims find a voice
Parents and teachers at Sunrise school
Sunrise: An American school but an Islamic one
Barnie Choudhury, Social Affairs Correspondent

Muslims in America feel they are being asked to prove their loyalty to the USA. So what are they doing and what is the way forward? Barnie Choudhury reports from Columbus in Ohio.

"11 September was a wake up call to all Muslim-Americans. We need to get out there and get involved."

Arsalan Iftikhar is having dinner in one of the Turkish restaurants in Columbus with his colleagues from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). They have just returned from a successful convention in the nation's capital, Washington.

Thirty thousand Muslims discussing their futures post "Nine-Eleven" over the Labor Day weekend. Politics was the hottest topic of conversation.

Arsalan Iftikhar
Arsalan Iftikhar: 'Muslims need to get involved in civic activities'

During the last Presidential elections CAIR says Muslims flexed their political muscles for the first time. There was a block vote for George W Bush because Muslims believed they shared many of the core Republican values.

But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks many Muslims felt let down by their president and the Republican party.

No-one doubts that 11 September shocked the nation, they say. But America reacted by introducing new laws - like the US Patriot Act - that gives the government wider powers to carry out surveillance.

So Mr Iftikhar - who at age 25 is CAIR's youngest spokesperson - says Muslims can, if they so choose, flex their muscles once again and give the Republicans bloody noses.

"We have to get out of this coma of apathy. Every congressman, senator, city council have campaigns and need volunteers. Muslims need to get involved in these civic activities. They cannot live in the caves of their own homes."

'The Columbus Way'

Across the city the Mayor of Columbus Mike Coleman is talking to a group of residents. His aides say he does it every day and he never forgets to whom he is accountable.

If anyone knows about battling their way to the top it is Mayor Coleman. He is the first African-American mayor in Columbus' history and the first Democrat for 32 years.

The mayor introduced what he called "The Columbus Way" - a guide on how people in the city should treat one another.

He describes the threats and attacks on the city's 30,000 Muslims as unacceptable. He is evangelical about how citizens should behave.

Mike Coleman, Mayor of Columbus
Mike Coleman, the first African-American mayor of Columbus
"The Columbus Way is not just to tolerate but to accept fully any race, all religions into our soul because we are the example I want the world to know about. Frankly it makes me angry to even hear the questioning of their (Muslims') loyalty."

At the moment there is not a single Muslim in Congress or the Senate in any state, according to CAIR.

Mike Coleman knows he owes a lot to the Muslims of Columbus.

"When I ran for office the Muslim community stepped up to the table. We came together and it was very clear from the outset that they supported Mike Coleman."

Mayor Coleman wants Muslims to run for political office and believes it is only a matter of time before they break through. He offers this advice.

"You've got to reach out to a broad audience. I don't just deal with African-American issues. I deal with all communities' issues."

But it is not just in politics Muslim-Americans are trying to make an impact.

Islamic-American education

"Assalaamu-alaikum (peace be upon you)," says Sister Leah Mohiuddin to a class of four year olds.

"Walaikumu assalam (and may peace be upon you)," they chant back, so cutely, in unison.

She is the Principal of "Sunrise", the only private Islamic school in the city. The school started with nine students and now has 200.

This is an American school but an Islamic one

Sister Leah
As she shows me around the new $650,000 extension a question pops into my mind. Surely by being a separate religious school non-Muslim Americans will never get the chance to mix with Muslim children.

Sister Leah has her answer.

"We have soccer teams and they play against other schools. We have children who are on youth camp with other cities. They are being raised in an American system. This is an American school but an Islamic one."

That integration and reaching out has now been formalised across America.

Reaching out

Every month this year, the Council on American Islamic Relations hosts an "Open House". This is where groups from all faiths meet and discuss anything from street lighting problems to politics.

Indeed, at the open house I attended while I was there those gathered talked about meeting the aides of a senator in the state to try to stop any attacks on Iraq.

The President of CAIR in Ohio, Ahmad Al-Akhras, is clear that meeting regularly has helped quash stereotypes and myths that all Muslims are terrorists.

"We want them to see who we are, the real people, the real Muslims. So when they come here they can see that these Muslims are their friends, their neighbours, their teachers and doctors. It is reaching out."

I would estimate that in 10 to 15 years we'll have our first Congress person and another 25 years before we get a Senator

Arsalan Iftikhar

He knows that on a human level CAIR is making huge inroads. But it is in the media that the organization needs to get its message across.

That is why since the attacks CAIR has set up a rebuttal unit. CAIR's website suggests it has become more skilled in handling the media.

"We're not in the business of converting people to Islam," says Mr Akhras, "we want to inform and educate people about Islam and the true message of Islam."

The next few years are going to be crucial for Muslim-Americans.

Only by organising the seven million Muslims in America can they hope to get one of their number elected to political office.

Something of which Arsalan Iftikhar is fully aware.

"We are a child right now. We are young and we will mature. I would estimate that in 10 to 15 years we'll have our first Congress person and another 25 years before we get a senator."

It remains a dream.

But then who would have thought that Colin Powell the son of Jamaican immigrants, would become a four star army general and climb to become the fourth most powerful man in the world. Anything is possible.

Barnie Choudhury's full report for Analysis was broadcast on the BBC's World Service on 10 September 2002. You can hear the report by clicking on the link at the top of this page.

New York despatches





See also:

10 Sep 02 | Americas
05 Sep 02 | Americas
31 Aug 02 | Americas
12 Aug 02 | Islamic world
23 Jul 02 | Americas
26 Jun 02 | Americas
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