On the morning of September 11, political scientist Dr. Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance was at his hotel in Washington, DC preparing for a meeting with President Bush. He was there with a delegation of fellow Muslim-Americans to talk with the President about the role of Muslims in American politics. Alas, thanks to a different group of Muslims and their appointment with 72 virgins in Paradise, the meeting with Bush was canceled.
Like all other Americans traveling on business during that first horrible week, Dr. Saeed was stranded. Five days later, he managed to get a seat on one of the first flights out of Baltimore. All he had to do was make it through the airport. Tall, dark, and, well, Muslim-looking, he was immediately surrounded by five FBI agents. The agents, Saeed says, were very polite. "They asked what hotel I had been staying at and what my business in Washington was. I told them I was there for a meeting. They asked with whom. I said, 'With the President of the United States.'"
It was a Kafkaesque moment. "I looked at the FBI agent. He looked at me, trying to gauge whether I was for real. One of the other guys disappeared and then came back. Maybe he made a telephone call." The whole thing took only four or five minutes. Then Dr. Agha Saeed flew back to his home in Hayward and, like other Americans, began to learn how to live in a new and suddenly vulnerable America.
Two weeks later, Saeed and company were back in Washington to talk with President Bush. This time, the President kept the appointment. Their conversation, oddly enough, was little different from the conversation Saeed had planned to have before the terrorist attacks. The delegation's members spoke about political participation, civil rights, and economic concerns. The majority of Muslims in this country are small businessmen, and many find Bush's pro-business, anti-tax policies very appealing. (Though Saeed will not say how he himself voted, his organization endorsed George Bush, and Bush won the Muslim bloc handily.) The only part of the White House discussion that reflected the changed world after September 11 was some urgent talk about hate crimes.
Civil rights issues were and continue to be very much on the mind of Saeed's constituency. If American Muslims had long felt like members of a silent and invisible minority, the events of September 11 changed that forever. Suddenly America's seven million Muslims feel like they are members of the most visible minority there is. Now everyone wants to talk them: journalists, academics, inquisitive neighbors, and friendly folks from the FBI and the INS. The government has detained some six hundred people from the Mideast (most of them noncitizens) in connection with the attack on the World Trade Center, and the FBI recently announced plans to question five thousand more.
Dr. Saeed understands the fears all this attention has engendered. A professor of political science who teaches at both UC and Cal State Hayward, Saeed is disturbed by what he calls "the shrinking of cultural and civic space" that his community has experienced since September 11. But he says that the bigger danger to Muslims, both here and abroad, is the growing body of opinion among American intellectuals that Islam itself is somehow to blame for the terrorist attacks. Although President Bush has repeatedly said that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam, a significant number of influential intellectuals -- including Bernard Lewis, Thomas Friedman, Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, Salman Rushdie, and V.S. Naipaul -- are publicly warning that the secular West and the Islamic East are on a collision course.
Is there is something inherently violent and backward about Islam, something that is propelling the world toward what Samuel Huntington has called "a clash of civilizations"? Saeed doesn't think so. As president of the American Muslim Alliance, his goal is to educate Muslims about America and to educate Americans about Islam before the sword-rattling culture warriors both East and West get the clash of civilizations they've been asking for.
The office of the American Muslim Alliance in Newark is located in a post-industrial landscape of big-box stores, residence hotels, and corporate offices, separated by weedy vacant lots. The office building that houses this far-flung outpost of Islamic culture could be anything: a bank, a doctor's office, or, as is actually the case, a warren of computer start-ups populated largely by the sons and daughters of South Asia come to America to seek their fortunes. The office itself is small and hand-me-down, with donated computers and mismatched office furniture. "We hope to win the prize for surviving the longest period of time on the least amount of money," quips Saeed, who works for the AMA thirty or forty hours per week pro-bono.
Saeed is a tall man, large and professorially rumpled, with caramel-colored skin, thinning curly black hair, and the harassed, somewhat harried manner of an untenured academic. He is an eloquent speaker, the sort of man who speaks not only in complete sentences, but in outline form -- "Point one; point two; Point two is divided into four parts" -- all in a clipped Pakistani accent. Raised in an upper-middle-class family with intellectual and left-leaning political connections, Saeed came to the United States as an undergraduate in the 1970s. His undergraduate degree was in philosophy, but he went on to get an MBA and spend ten years in the business world before his wife convinced him that he really was an academic at heart. He subsequently studied at the Harvard School of Government and has a PhD in rhetoric, specializing in political theory and discourse, from Cal.
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