Thinking outside the ‘Muslim bubble’


Maria Khani was at her computer that September morning, working on an Arabic textbook. The small TV on the desk was turned to Al Jazeera. Suddenly, news came: A plane had struck the World Trade Center. Minutes later, she watched the screen as the second plane hit.

Khani sat frozen, questions racing through her mind: “Oh, my God, what do I do right now? Is everything that I built … gone?”

For five years, she had been planting the seeds of goodwill with Americans of other faiths. What if it was all for naught?


Unlike many Muslims who hunkered down after Sept. 11 and let national religious organizations defend their rights and make their case in the public square, Khani resolved not to retreat into the safety of silence, but to press on with her efforts over the years to become a part of her community, one neighbor at a time.

When Khani walked out of her house that day in a well-to-do Huntington Beach neighborhood, on a block of large houses and palm-shaded driveways, neighbors approached with no hint of rancor or suspicion. Their message: “We know who you are, we know about your faith, and we support you and we will take care of your kids.”

This was not the experience of every Muslim American. Many recall the first months and years after Sept. 11 with dread: the detentions, the airport searches, the suspicious stares, racist epithets and worse. In response, some sought safety in a low profile.

The decade since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has seen a shift in the way many American Muslims negotiate their delicate position as a minority group associated, fairly or unfairly, with the perpetrators of the deadliest acts of terrorism in the nation’s history.

As the years wore on and the hostility continued, even intensified, a number of American Muslims became disenchanted with the official campaigns for acceptance. They began to see that a voice — their voice — was missing from the conversation about Muslims’ place in America.

They took matters into their own hands. Their efforts have been as idiosyncratic as the individuals involved. They have been as simple as inviting a non-Muslim neighbor to an iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the fast during the monthlong observance of Ramadan. They have been as life-changing as making a commitment to educate one’s children in a religiously diverse public school instead of a Muslim private school.


Khani and others involved in such outreach attempts believe — and this is supported by opinion surveys — that Americans are less likely to harbor anti-Muslim feelings if they get to know even one Muslim.

When they do, they find that American Muslims, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, share with them many of the same values, including a rejection of extremist violence, appreciation of hard work and support for women taking an active role in society, according to polls.

Remarkably, despite a decade of turbulence and a sputtering economy, Muslim Americans are far more likely than others to be optimistic about the nation’s future.

‘A wonderful family’

There was a moment 10 years ago that Khani now remembers with an approving smile.

It came a few weeks after the attacks, when neighbor Patti Markowitz was washing her car in her driveway and two FBI agents approached. They began asking questions about Khani and her family, angering Markowitz. She still remembers what she said.

“We love having them on our street,” she told the agents. “The family is a wonderful family.”

Markowitz didn’t tell Khani about the incident until months later, not wanting to upset her.

“I had already established a strong relationship,” Khani said. “Doing that made a big difference.”

Khani’s daughter, Dania Alkhouli, was then in eighth grade at Ethel Dwyer Middle School, her local public school. Like her mother, she wore a hijab, a Muslim head scarf. At school, she felt enveloped by support from the principal and teachers, some she didn’t even know.

The previous year, Khani, 48, had begun a tradition of cooking an appreciation lunch — usually food from her native Syria — for the staff at Ethel Dwyer. As she always told fellow Muslims: Get out there — be a part of American society. Get to know your neighbors. And for those who might consider it, enroll your kids in public school.

After the attacks, she could see the payoff. Friends told her stories of harassment. Newspapers were full of those stories. It wasn’t her experience.

Born to Syrian parents in England, where her father was an ambassador, Khani lived in France, the Netherlands, India and Syria, often attending Catholic schools. She grew accustomed to quickly integrating into a new society. She moved to the United States with her husband, Hassan Alkhouli, an intensive-care doctor, 24 years ago.

The family, including two sons, has sometimes had to make adjustments for Khani’s busy schedule. She goes to interfaith meetings; speaks at schools, churches and synagogues; volunteers at a social services clinic in Anaheim; and serves on the Tustin police advisory board, which sought her out even though she lives elsewhere.

“I look around and I see so many Muslims in our community not doing anything, so when I see my mom rushing around doing things, I get it,” said daughter Dania, now 22. “It just builds this reputation: OK, maybe Muslims really aren’t that bad.”

Khani believes that perceptions of Islam have worsened in the last year. Her response has been to beat the drum of integration even louder.

She can’t claim overwhelming success. She has found that many Muslims, especially in the large immigrant communities of Orange County, are content to be socially isolated from the wider culture.

Her victories come one person at a time.

Thirteen years ago, neighbor Maxine Cooper had major surgery. While she was at home recuperating, Khani appeared at her door with dinner — from soup to dessert, enough to last for days. Their friendship endures to this day.

Another time, when the neighborhood kids were playing outside, Khani ordered pizzas, spread a blanket in her garage and called the kids to come eat. A neighbor watched from across the street, and then walked over, expressing pleasant surprise.

Most Americans aren’t interested in listening to officials from Muslim groups, Khani said. They want to see what individual Muslims are doing.

“And we are not doing enough. Once we have Islamophobia going on, it means we didn’t do enough,” she said. “We are doing things, but like a turtle’s [pace]. I don’t want a turtle; I want a kangaroo.”

‘Wake up’

On a warm Friday night in August, a petite woman strode to the pulpit of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, dressed in black slacks and a hot-pink and black tunic, with highlights in her short brown hair.

“In Islam,” she began, “we’re taught that justice is what we should be struggling for. And as progressive Muslims, we believe that justice needs to prevail for everyone — not just straight people.”

The speaker was Ani Zonneveld, a singer, producer and self-described progressive Muslim. Her interfaith audience had gathered on the eve of the annual OC Pride festival, a celebration of gay rights, and Zonneveld, 48, was voicing sentiments rarely associated with Islam.

She began to sing of ummah, or “community”: “Come, my ummah, wake up, our jihad is long overdue. Come, my ummah, wake up, coz you and I have much to do.”

It is easy to imagine the circumstances in which such lyrics would be less than fully appreciated. But this was a friendly crowd that included Christians, Jews, Buddhists and pagans. Zonneveld made a point of explaining that the Arabic word “jihad” means “struggle,” and not necessarily the kind of violent struggle that has come to be associated with radical Islam.

Her audience sang along.

This, for Zonneveld, is what it means to be Muslim in America after Sept. 11 — tolerating differences, breaking stereotypes, finding a voice.

The desire to reach out began incubating just after Sept. 11, but she didn’t act on it until much later. The catalyst was a confluence of events.

One was the rise of the conservative “tea party.” Activists from the movement were prominent in the attempt to stop plans for an Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan.

Similar battles erupted over new mosques in Riverside County and elsewhere. About the same time, a movement arose in more than a dozen states to ban the application of Sharia law.

Finally, there was the threat by a Florida pastor to burn the Koran.

The hatred had become tangible, Zonneveld decided.

Last fall, after a friend’s son was attacked on a school bus for being Muslim, she knew she had to do something.

The result was a soon-to-be-released book, a collection of essays and poems titled “Progressive Muslim Identities.” It features writers who are gay or transgender, feminists, converts and people married to non-Muslims.

As Zonneveld demonstrates, no community is monolithic.

Born in Malaysia and raised in Germany, India and Egypt, she grew up in what she called a traditional but pragmatic family that didn’t try to impose its beliefs on others. Today, she remains a practicing Muslim but is far from orthodox. Her husband is non-Muslim, but she insisted they raise their daughter, now 13, as a Muslim.

Nowhere, she said, did she see an organization that represented her ideal of a progressive, inclusive Islam. She helped found a group, Muslims for Progressive Values, which supports gay rights and gay marriage, advocates for female prayer leaders and supports women marrying outside the faith.

Zonneveld said she wrote “Ummah, Wake Up,” in anger at extremists and those who claim to speak for all the Muslim faithful. The song, she said, was a challenge to the Muslim American community “to rethink our belief system.”

“Ummah, Wake up” was just one of those songs that came very quickly,” she said. “I think it’s just been brewing inside of me. What I’ve seen and what I’ve read has been percolating in my head and in my blood.”

‘Get involved’

After a monthlong food drive he organized at a mosque last year, Omar Ahmed spent an afternoon moving more than 1,000 items into his van to take to the Foothill Family Shelter.

A man from the mosque walked over and asked where the food was going. When Ahmed told him, he asked: Why don’t you give it to the Muslims?

“It was just kind of upsetting to hear that. As a community … I don’t think we do enough work outside the Muslim community,” he said. “A person in need is a person in need regardless of faith or race.”

For Ahmed, it epitomized the problem of what he called the “Muslim bubble.”

He and his wife, Dunia Ramadan, had heard similar sentiments in other Muslim organizations, experiences that left them a little wary of the tendency of some Muslims to keep other Americans at arm’s length.

“We wanted to move away from being isolated in the Muslim community and get involved in our greater community,” said Ramadan, a 27-year-old statistician who grew up in Boston with Lebanese parents. “We really felt like it was a big bubble and that we needed to move past that.”

Less than a year after the couple married in 2008 and moved to Upland, they began a book club about civic engagement. They chose books that would foster their growing interest in the integrated role they believed Muslims must play in the U.S.

After a year — as the tea party was growing in influence, and protests were forming outside the proposed mosque near the World Trade Center site — the club’s half-dozen members were eager to translate their readings into action.

Ramadan wondered: “Would people really be thinking so badly about Muslims if they were really involved in their community?”

In the last two years, she has joined interfaith groups and over the last year has given invocations at a high school graduation and several city council meetings, and she joined the Claremont Committee on Human Relations.

Ahmed, who was born in India and moved to the U.S. at 5, said his outreach was based on prophetic teachings that emphasize the need to serve others.

For the last year, the couple have been part of a group called M&M, for Muslims & Methodists. It began when a member of the Claremont United Methodist Church reached out to Ramadan.

Unlike interfaith groups that are organized around meetings or social service events, the M&M group revolves around a monthly potluck. There is no real agenda; the members just socialize, learning about one another along the way.

The Methodist members at one point got a quick lesson in Muslim dietary laws, shopping at a halal grocery for foods their Muslim counterparts would eat.

At a recent dinner at a home in Fontana, the group’s dozen or so members sat around tables pushed together, digging into lentil soup, spicy meat, green beans and rice.

Ahmed, slightly hunched over his plate, talked about wanting to improve the weekly food bags he and his wife began putting together for the homeless a year ago to serve their community.

“And when you say ‘your community,’ what do you mean by that?” Alex Morales asked carefully, glasses low on his nose.

“The whole community, anyone, Muslim or not Muslim,” said Ahmed, 32, who owns a medical software company.

Morales paused before saying, “Before this, it would not have occurred to me that the Muslim community would try to help someone who isn’t Muslim.” He added: “The general public, I think, would be a little more like me and be surprised to hear that.”

The comment — upsetting to both Ramadan and Ahmed — underscored what they already felt: that more Muslims must reach beyond their community and engage with other Americans.

But in an echo of his own experience, Ahmed sees more Muslims coming to a social awakening.

People say it’s about time we talk about these issues, and that gives me hope, he said. Whether they’re moving in that direction or not, they’re thinking in that direction, and that’s good.