UA Muslims Speak Out : Islamic community remembers the day its world changed


Men exit the Islamic Center of Tucson after Friday prayer during the week of 9/11. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

He noticed UA students surrounding a TV, but did not know what they were watching. When Kamel Didan finally got to his office and saw the World Trade Center burning on his computer screen, the first question he asked was, “My God, what happened?”

He called his wife to ask her to pick him up so he could avoid facing possible backlash on the bus. On the way home from work, they stopped at a red light near a high school when students began crossing the street. As the kids walked by, they noticed his wife’s hijab (veil). Immediately, they started cursing and yelling through the couple’s windshield.

“That’s when I knew America changed,” said the associate professor of electrical and computer engineering research and Tunisian immigrant. “But I understood. They were emotional and they reacted.”

A decade later, his sadness, anger and confusion remain, he said.
Michael Gatto, a systems programmer at the BIO5 Institute, said he was stationed in Hawaii during the attacks.

He speaks one of the main Afghani languages, which is the primary reason he was deployed to Afghanistan. The Marine, who converted to Islam about 20 years ago, said he had no internal battles going to war with other Muslims. He never had to fire at anyone, but Gatto said if the situation required it, he would pull the trigger.

“As far as fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban, no problems whatsoever,” he said.

He received criticism from other Muslims who thought it was wrong for him to be fighting in a Muslim country. Many Muslims        in Tucson did not want to be around him either, he said.

“People know you were in the military and they distance themselves from you,” he said. “But just like I’m not shy about my religious identity with other Americans, I’m not shy about military service with Muslims.”

Government action in the aftermath

Government initiatives responding to 9/11 like the USA Patriot Act and the formation of the Transportation Security Administration, continue to intrude on the privacy of all Americans, said Maha Nassar, a Muslim and assistant professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies.

Trey Terry, a political science sophomore, vice president of the University of Arizona College Republicans and Iraq veteran, declined to comment on the Patriot Act because of the division in opinion within his organization regarding the Act of Congress, he said. But don’t forget that it took both Democrats and Republicans to pass it, Terry added.

Misinformation playing on American news stations inflames Muslim stereotypes, but is not the cause of them, Nassar said. Islam was synonymous with terrorism before 9/11 because of the US’ perception of the First Intifada and Iranian Revolution, she said.

“I don’t think of terrorism when I hear Muslim, just religion,” said Albert Casella, an archeology junior. “Why should I judge someone based on anything other than the way they act? The whole Civil Rights Movement was about stopping that.”

Osamah Eljerdi, a pre-pharmacy junior, said he’s still targeted when he tries boarding a plane.

“The TSA thinks ‘randomly searched’ means Muslim,” he said.

Being named Osamah in America feels like a bad joke, Eljerdi said. When his name was called off an attendance sheet or at a doctor’s office, the entire room would turn and stare.

“But I didn’t care,” he said. “My name is Osamah, and I’ll never be ashamed of that.”

But the comparisons to Osama bin Laden have diminished since, he said.

“Yeah, now people call me Obama instead,” Eljerdi joked.

Issues of perception 

Casella said he thought Muslim perception of Americans was probably the same before and after 9/11 because of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

“I wouldn’t be excited if the Chinese military came to Tucson,” he said.

Gatto and Terry said the violence stems from somewhere else.

“It depends almost entirely on their opportunity, the level of corruption in their own society and what kind of brutality their society visits upon them,” Gatto said. “Does that mean I agree with all of our foreign policy? Of course not.”

Didan, who has been to three Middle Eastern countries, said many Arabs, regardless of religion, are frustrated with U.S. foreign policy, but they also have a lot of respect for American values and freedoms.

“If America and other Western countries opened up their borders today, the Middle East would be empty by tonight,” he said. “People go insane because of what they have to put up with (in the region). I know how privileged I am to be an American and I never take it for granted.”

Didan said Muslims need to do a better job of getting involved in their non-Muslim communities to improve American society and stop stereotypes.

“We can’t contribute to America if we’re always in the mosque,” he said.

After the attacks, Gatto, Didan, Nassar and Eljerdi received support from non-Muslims, they said. All four are treated well on campus, they added.

Eljerdi said Americans from all backgrounds offered his family support.

“Atheists, Jews, Christians … When I see that type of kindness, I know America’s spirit is alive and well,” Eljerdi said. “And I hope it lives forever.”

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