When Turkish journalist Ali H. Aslan first arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s, he enjoyed the luxury of being, as he describes it, “invisible.”
“Back then Turkey was more Islamicphobic than the U.S.,” he said, recalling how his homeland wrestled at the time with the roles of government and religion in a modern society.
For Muslim immigrants from around the world, the United States was a place of refuge - one where they could practice their faith in whatever form they chose, Aslan told a small audience in Baton Rouge this week. Many Muslims, whether pious or secular, found they were happier here, he said.
But the airplanes that took down the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2010, also took away the invisibility enjoyed by Aslan and other Muslims in American society.
That new visibility brought such negative experience as hate, bigotry and discrimination, Alsan said.
However, visibility also provides positive opportunities for dialogue and understanding, Aslan said. And it was for dialogue that Aslan, a columnist with Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, traveled from the Washington, D.C., area to Louisiana this week.
The Atlas Foundation, an interfaith organization founded by Turkish Muslims and their friends, brought Aslan to Baton Rouge to participate in a panel discussion on “The Next Ten Years: A Discussion about the Future of Muslim-American Relations Ten Years After 9/11.”
The panel, moderated by Robert Mann, of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, included Margaret Gonzalez-Perez, an associate professor of political science at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, and U.S. District Judge James Brady, who cautioned that he was speaking only for himself, not the federal government.
“In many places around this country there are Americans who are confused, fearful and not all that well educated about the Muslim faith,” Mann said.
But the panelists shared an optimism that Muslims, like previous immigrant groups, will succeed in integrating themselves into American society.
“A pluralistic society like we are in always needs that new blood to come in an enrich it,” Gonzalez-Perez said.
She predicted that because of the pluralistic nature of the United States, it wouldn’t face the problems France and Great Britain face with Muslim populations separating themselves.
Even so, integration doesn’t come easily.
Brady noted how his Irish Catholic ancestors faced bigotry when they arrived in America, while Aslan noted how America has always had groups emerge who would stand up for the persecuted new minorities.
“America often does the right thing - at least eventually,” Aslan said.
Conflicts and misunderstandings are natural as new groups encounter one another, but can subside as people get to know one another, the panelists said.
“Once you’ve lived near people as next door neighbors, as friends, as colleagues, you understand each other much better,” Gonzalez-Perez: said.
The problems now arise because most Americans don’t know much about Islam and what they do know is clouded by a tiny minority of Muslims, the panelists said.
“It’s defined unfortunately by the people who flew the planes on 9/11,” said Brady.
Americans have legitimate concerns about terrorists in the world, Brady said, but need to remember that evil deeds have been done by people of other faiths as well.
“We’ve got to remember that the Holocaust was led by a Christian nation,” he said.
Gonzalez-Perez told of a student who had begun reading the Koran, only to grow disappointed that he hadn’t found anything inflammatory.
The student complained, “It’s was the same old stuff that’s in the Bible,” Gonzalez-Perez said.
She and the other panelists challenged Muslims and non-Muslims alike to learn more about each other and to get to know each other.
“You’ll see they are just like you,” Gonzalez-Perez said. “They just want a good life.”