U.S. Muslims pulled in many directions

Bin Laden denounced, but concern remains for causes of violence

November 04, 2001|By Ashanti M. Alvarez | Ashanti M. Alvarez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Umara Suri has been pulled in many directions since the war on terrorism began. Her parents are Pakistani. She is American-born, a Muslim who embraces aspects of Western culture.

And her biggest concern is not who wins or loses.

"It's always hard to hear that there's war going on," the 21-year-old pre-med student said just before grabbing a quick shish kebab lunch. "That's always something you want to avoid, anytime."

However, the Teaneck, N.J., resident hopes that the new war will open up a freer dialogue regarding unrest in the Middle East.

"The issues that [Osama bin Laden] has with Palestine and with Saudi Arabia, it's not completely inaccurate," Suri said. "Those issues do need to be faced."

For many Muslims, the U.S. and British strikes against Afghanistan represent something they hope might lead to good: a change in American policy on dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some Muslims say they are sitting on a fence. On one side is their love of America and the opportunities for personal success. On the other side is their intense desire to quell unrest in the Muslim world.

`Listen to us, too'

"Why are you listening to Israel? Listen to us, too," said Ahmed Sendawy, owner of a South Paterson, N.J., beauty salon. He likened the conflict to sibling rivalry. "If you support one sister and the other one not, you make her an enemy."

Bin Laden's mention of Palestinians' territorial woes in his videotaped address released after the attacks sparked new debate among American Muslims.

Nationally, American Muslim organizations have expressed guarded approval for the U.S.-led military action against Afghanistan, emphasizing that Islam itself is not the target and the United States needs to reach out to the Muslim world.

One local activist, Hani Awadallah, also supported the action.

"We are absolutely behind the president in punishing the criminals who really committed the heinous act [on Sept. 11]," said the president of the Arab-American Civic Organization.

However, "he never really mentioned Palestine before," said Awadallah, a professor at Montclair (N.J.) State University. "He wants to gain favor with Arabs and Muslims when he is in hot water."

Local Muslims denounced bin Laden as a "lunatic" and a terrorist, but some admitted that a few of his words were comforting to people whose Palestinian families in the Middle East live with violence on an almost daily basis.

Especially resonant was bin Laden's statement that "neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine."

"I thought he was nice for saying that," said 15-year-old Baker Assaf, who works at the Amana Grocery in South Paterson. Assaf was born here to Palestinian parents. "A lot of us are dying. He did say that he feels sorry for our people."

A 35-year-old telecommunications professional from Paramus, N.J., said that bin Laden is a "lunatic, even though some of the political views do resonate with Muslims."

"Bin Laden never said he rejected [Western] lifestyle. He's trying to get some of these freedoms and liberties for the Arab world," the man said. He did not want to be identified because "I've heard that some members of my community were being harassed."

Suri, president of the Pakistani Students Association at Stevens Institute of Technology, said that bin Laden's tactics were that of a maniacal genius.

`Fair play'

"In a way he's trying to strike emotions," she said. "It's a very clever scheme."

It's a scheme that has the potential to lure many embattled Muslims, Suri said.

But to combat that possibility, the United States must change its foreign policy, Awadallah said, rather than using violence and intimidation.

"So many Americans ask, `Why do they hate us?'" Awadallah said. "They resent the policy. It is totally lopsided in favor of Israel. We are looking for the American way of fair play."

President Bush's recent indication that a Palestinian state may be one of the end results of the war was "too little, too late," Awadallah said.

"This is a president who has been saying everything Israel wanted him to say," he said. However, Awadallah remains hopeful.

"I hope for my sake as an American more than my sake as a Palestinian," he said. "The root of all problems is the occupation of Israel."

Sendawy, who watched Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite news channel from his Main Street salon, claims he knows what all Muslims are thinking about during this tumultuous time.

"I have nothing to say, except that all of us have to pray to God," he said. "I'm sure nobody wants to die."

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