Area Muslims say it's time to join together, speak out
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tariq Panni had never been much for political involvement.
The 51-year-old Muslim had a full life, working as a mortgage broker in Bellevue, coming home to his wife and two children, and hiking, bird-watching and playing classical guitar on weekends.
The closest he had come to political involvement was trying to gain recognition for problems facing the garment-importing industry in Bangladesh, where he is from.
All that changed Sept. 11. Panni realized he could not continue living his insular life.
"I think a lot of us have been content to be basically invisible in some respects," he said. "Muslims have sometimes been inadvertently demonized" in America and not drawing attention seemed the safest thing to do. But since Sept. 11, he said, "I think it's important for us not to hide anymore, to speak out."
Like Panni, other local Muslims who have not been much of a political force are suddenly making themselves into one. Spurred by incidences of hate crimes and racial profiling — airline pilots kicking passengers off planes if they look Muslim or Middle Eastern, for example — they are writing letters to government leaders, making speeches, keeping each other informed, meeting with politicians, organizing community workshops and educating the public.
"To survive in this country, any group has to have a political profile," said Jeff Siddiqui, a spokesman for the loosely formed Muslim Community of the Greater Seattle Area. "We have to develop a political profile. Starting right now."
It hasn't been easy. The 35,000 to 40,000 Muslims in Western Washington are scattered from Bellingham to Vancouver, Wash., with most concentrated between Marysville and Tacoma. They come from many countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Somalia, for instance — where for many, political involvement was dangerous and distrust of government rampant.
And there's a wide range of age and experience with life in America among local Muslims — from first- to third-generation to immigrants. But after Sept. 11, many felt an urgent need to organize, to educate the public about Islam and to protest what they say is discrimination and the loss of their civil rights.
For the first time, nine mosques and Muslim groups in the Puget Sound area have come together to sign letters to government leaders, asking them to condemn the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Department and airlines for letting pilots remove from those who appear Muslim.
The Muslim Community of the Greater Seattle Area and the University of Washington's Arab Student Union have teamed up with the World Affairs Council to present a series of open lectures, featuring Muslim speakers talking about Islamic perspectives on topics such as terrorism and peace and U.S. policies in the Muslim world.
Local Muslim groups are organizing meetings with government leaders such as U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee and Adam Smith, both of whom agreed to write letters expressing concern over possible discriminatory policies instituted by airlines.
"Many Muslim Americans didn't think of themselves as anything other than American," said Rizwan Samad, acting president of the American Muslim Alliance's local chapter. "But now people are targeting them, and that makes more Muslim Americans get involved. After Sept. 11, everyone wanted to get involved, even the people who didn't want to get involved in political issues before."
The local arm of the American Muslim Alliance, a nationwide political group, was formed about a year ago; before Sept. 11, it had only 30 or so active members.
When the alliance arranged for meetings with government leaders, about 10 people would attend. Since Sept. 11, similar events have drawn about 70 to 100 people each time.
Siddiqui, a 50-year-old real-estate agent from Lynnwood, is now speaking to groups an average of once a day. Previously, he averaged about one group a quarter.
It's important for local Muslims to speak out, loudly and often, he said.
"Mosques are coming together to agree we cannot just sit there and watch," Siddiqui said. "We've looked at the Japanese-American example. We've seen what keeping a low profile did for them."
Nationwide, too, Muslims are organizing more workshops, open houses and community forums, said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
For Ambareen, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom from Kirkland who declined to give her last name, her most political act was voting. Now, she has begun to speak to churches and other groups, especially about Muslim women.
"What's really motivated me to go out and make myself known is the negative reporting of Muslims in the media, how Islam has become synonymous with the word 'terrorism,' " she said. "Muslim women are perceived so negatively here because the coverage has been about the Taliban beating up on women there. That's not how women are in most of the Muslim countries."
Panni, the mortgage broker from Bellevue, organized a panel, including himself, that spoke on Dave Ross' radio show on KIRO. He was spurred to action after Ross had asked on an earlier show why more Muslims weren't speaking out and condemning extremism.
He also spoke up at a community forum featuring U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott and then reported on the meeting to other Bangladeshi-American and Muslim friends.
The group keeps in touch by e-mail and phone, keeping each other informed about community events — which they didn't used to do.
He's participating in the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, an umbrella organization that serves as an advocate for the rights of Asian Pacific Americans and has shown support for Muslims, Arab Americans and South Asian Americans since the terrorist attacks.
In a way, Panni says, "this is very good for Muslim Americans. I'm by no means the only Muslim American who was keeping a low profile. This will force Muslim Americans to reach out more, to look at themselves more closely, be a little more clear that we're here in America to enjoy what America has to offer and what it means to be good Americans."
Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.