'American Islam Crystallized After 9/11'

Mehdi Bozorgmehr and colleagues have indexed U.S. policy towards various domestic groups following international crises that produced major backlashes. (Photo by Jonathan Friedlander)

CUNY's Mehdi Bozorgmehr, a sociology PhD from UCLA who directs a research center on both the Middle East and Middle Eastern Americans, explains the importance of religious identity in post-9/11 advocacy for groups affected by backlash.

Their issues are, "What we want is to be able to pray. What we want is to have a space where we can bury our dead."

"When there's a war in Iraq, hate crime in the United States sort of pales in comparison," said Mehdi Bozorgmehr, noting one of the more recent obstacles faced by groups trying to rally Middle Eastern Americans to their own defense in the aftermath of 9/11. Bozorgmehr was guest lecturer at a public meeting of a UCLA sociology course on April 9, 2007, where he shared results of federally funded research on the backlash produced by 9/11 against Muslim Americans, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and individuals seen as "look-alikes." By a tabulation he cited, there were well over 600 hate crimes and at least four murders nationally in the days immediately following 9/11 that could be connected with the terrorist attacks.

Taught by Samy Swayd and organized by the Centers for Near Eastern Studies and European and Eurasian Studies on campus, the course on Muslim communities in Europe and North America has been offered each spring for the past four years with backing from the U.S. Department of Education. Half of the class sessions are public events with guest lecturers.

Even if American Muslims from the Middle East think in global terms, many of the advocacy groups that represent them in this country avoid foreign-policy issues, said Bozorgmehr, who is founding co-director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) within the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.

Instead, the focus has been on ameliorating the backlash produced by 9/11 in concrete ways, and that has encouraged an emphasis on the Muslim religious identity of most Arab and Iranian and many South Asian immigrants. To oversimplify: while U.S. Arabs want a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to other multifaceted, international problems, U.S. Muslims seek halal foods in schools, holidays on the calendar, and similar accommodations.

"Their issues are, 'What we want is to be able to pray,'" Bozorgmehr said, "'What we want is to have a space where we can bury our dead.'"

"Once you bring in [foreign policy]," he added, "all bets are off. These guys are not invoking that at all, because they know better."

With initial funding from the National Science Foundation, Bozorgmehr, MEMEAC Associate Director Anny Bakalian, and colleagues interviewed 60 leaders of Middle Eastern and Muslim American grassroots and advocacy organizations—the best known is probably CAIR—and conducted 15 more interviews with civil rights groups and government officials.

For a comparative perspective, the researchers looked at international crises since World War I that affected U.S. communities. Specifically, they compared domestic policy responses at the federal level and found that U.S. citizens had been targeted far more aggressively in nearly all previous cases. Think of the rounding up and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. The exceptions are the most recent cases: the Iran Hostage Crisis and 9/11.

(Well into his university career in the United States when the hostage crisis erupted in 1980, Bozorgmehr found himself hiring a lawyer for the first time to avoid deportation to his native Iran. "These populations from the Middle East are vulnerable populations," he said in a telephone interview, adding, "The idea of 'passing' does not work.")

Whether because of gains won by civil rights groups in the interim or other causes, Bozorgmehr said, non-citizens have taken the brunt of the official backlash after 9/11. That response has included detentions, deportations, and voluntary interviews, with progressively greater concentration on "young Arab immigrant males."

But the mobilization, such as it is, has happened less among Arab Americans ("the next most effective" organizers) than within a Muslim American community that is of course many communities, and not simply because of ethnic or even theological divides. As Bozorgmehr pointed out at the talk, there are "cultural" Muslims of all sorts. For example, they may observe dietary restrictions but not pray.

"This is what the American experience of Islam is," he said.

Published: Monday, April 16, 2007