Muslims find mixed reactions in polarized post-9/11 world

Zohra Saiyed initially could not believe people of her faith brought down the World Trade Center towers five years ago.

The 20-year-old, who was born and raised in the Sunset district and was in high school at the time, said she was sad and scared after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I thought I would probably get teased about Islam,” she said. “I was really scared for my parents because I thought they would lose their jobs.”

Five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Muslim community in the Bay Area has undergone many changes, while living in a protective bubble of the region’s tolerant politics, according to some Muslims.

Some, such as Saiyed, who started wearing the headscarf a year after the attacks, had a religious awakening, while others have made a conscious effort to educate people about their faith. Others have tried to keep a low profile.

Saiyed said she recalls the incident that spurred her to begin wearing the hijab: As she was getting onto a Muni bus with her older sister, who was wearing a headscarf, someone yelled at them to go back to their own country.

“That was weird because my sister didn’t stand up for herself, but I did,” she said. “Instead of being rude, I just explained it to him.”

Her decision to wear a hijab after the incident was an easy one, she said, partly due to living in the Bay Area. She said she has never once feared physical harm. Instead, people ask her about her faith.

Basim Elkarra, the director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said many indigenous American Muslims have made an effort to reach out to their neighbors, but some immigrant Muslims are scared to get involved because of bad experiences in their home countries.

“You find a lot of immigrants are still reserved, [especially those from regions] where the regimes are still very brutal and oppressive,” he said.

Elkarra said 9/11 has caused the Muslim community to hold its breath when Muslims — such as Omed Aziz Popal, who allegedly ran over 18 people in the streets of San Francisco two weeks ago — make headlines for the wrong reasons.

Others are more concerned about being looked at with an suspicious eye themselves, especially at airports.

Adisa Banjoko, an author and African-American Islamic convert, said he is often treated differently outside of the Bay Area.

Recently, on his way home from delivering a speech at Harvard University, Banjoko said he was pulled aside for extra questioning at Logan Airport.

“I hate flying,” Banjoko said. “I’m more afraid of flying than anyone.”

sfarooq@examiner.com

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