Jane Aslam remembers how fearful students and faculty at Brighter Horizon School in Baton Rouge became on Sept. 11, 2001, as news broke of terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia.
“When 9/11 happened, we had 30 kids enrolled in our school,” said Aslam, who was then principal of the Islamic school. “Following the attacks, 24 families took their kids out of school for fear of retribution.”
The school soon accepted support from Nation of Islam members, who set up patrols at the school on that unforgettable September day and in the days following.
Aslam grew teary eyed as she talked about the support from black Muslims.
“They helped keep the fear factor down,” Aslam said. “They understand our civil-rights issues.”
In the 10 years since the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, fear among Muslims in Baton Rouge has greatly diminished as life for those who follow Islam has changed both on a local and national level, Aslam and her husband, Ahsan Aslam, said.
“Since 9/11, Islam has become more visible, though the majority of what people hear has been negative.” said Ahsan Aslam, a systems administrator for Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center who chairs the board of the Islamic Center in Baton Rouge.
The terrorists attacks helped fuel phobias, stereotypes and misinformation about the faith, he said.
But even as some Americans have misunderstood the differences between mainstream Muslims and extremists who follow their own agenda, there has also been increased dialogue and learning. Organizations such as the Atlas Foundation in New Orleans and Baton Rouge have formed to promote cross-cultural, interfaith dialogue and understanding.
Existing organizations such as the Interfaith Fedederation of Greater Baton Rouge, formerly the Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Churches and Synagogues, have changed to include Muslims.
In a national poll of 1,033 Muslim Americans from April through July, respondents weighed in on issues facing the estimated 2.8 million Muslims in the United States.
Almost half of respondents to the poll fault their leaders for not speaking out against Islamic extremists, while a vast majority are far more satisfied than Americans overall with the way things are going in this country, according to a Pew Research Center report released last month.
The survey also showed no evidence of rising support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans, although 52 percent say government anti-terrorism policies single out Muslims for increased surveillance.
“They (U.S. Muslims) are mainstream and moderate in attitude,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “Most Muslims want to adopt American customs, many of their close friends are not Muslims and they rate their economic situation pretty positively. They think like Americans.”
Despite 55 percent saying that being a Muslim in the U.S. is more difficult since 9/11, Muslims are far more positive about the state of the nation 56 percent than Americans as a whole 23 percent.
Ahsan Aslam characterized Muslim attitudes 10 years after 9/11 as “caution and hesitance.
“Rhetoric from national television that has espoused fear and prejudice of religious differences and lack of understanding has created that hesitancy that we feel,” he said.
Ahsan Aslam moved to the United States from Pakistan in 1990 and later married his Mississippi-born wife, Jane, in 1993, he said.
Jane Aslam, who grew up in New Orleans, converted to Islam in the 1980s. She is the director of an Islamic-based disaster relief program.
“After 9/11, we felt that the terrorists did not just hijack our planes, but also our religion,” Jane Aslam said.
“Before 9/11, we felt we could practice our religion freely but after 9/11, it has been a two-edged sword,” Ahsan Aslam said.
Aslam’s brown skin and bearded face often draw stares from people when he enters airports, businesses or rides airplanes, he said.
“You just have to be cautious about what you do,” Ahsan Aslam said. “You have to watch your language at the airport or at work.” He has stopped making trips to airplane restrooms just to thwart stares of fear from among fellow passengers, he said.
His wife also stands out. She wears the hijab, or a scarf used to cover her head. Shortly after 9/11, she said, some Baton Rouge Muslim women reported being humiliated in public places after strangers tore their veils from their faces, she said.
The couple said they use humor and laughter to work through many of the social challenges they face. They spoke casually about the usual “pat downs” they encounter at various airports or of being pulled over in their cars by law enforcement authorities suspicious of their identities.
“I carry my passport with me everywhere,” said Jane Aslam, who said she draws on the teachings of her religion to help her walk through tests of life and remain balanced. “You learn to forgive those who don’t know any better,” she said.
Challenges lie ahead for Baton Rouge Muslims, Ahsan Aslam said. He said about 5,000 to 7,000 people are estimated to practice Islam in Baton Rouge. However, leadership is lacking and so is morale. There is no imam or full-time religious leader presiding over the Islamic Center on Airport Drive, Ahsan Aslam said.
“When you don’t have an imam, people tend to not come,” he said. A full-time religious leader would also provide an Islamic presence in community and civic organizations throughout the Baton Rouge community, helping to open dialogue, he said.
“I’m looking forward to a time when Americans can get over this fear of Islam and judge me as a citizen,” he said.
Ahsan Aslam said some of that could be improved upon through more social involvement.
“I’m hopeful and concerned that as Muslims we have to be more involved in community affairs,” said Ahsan Aslam, who said no Muslims serve on major political seats in Baton Rouge.
On the national scene, Jane Aslam said, she is pleased with President Obama’s initiatives to bring in qualified and key Muslim advisers who can “speak from a Muslim’s perspective” on issues facing their religious group. Those appointments have included a special representative to the Muslim community and an Indian-American Muslim appointed as special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
She said she was discouraged about the organized rallies against the building of an Islamic center in New York. The Aslams said the protests have done nothing more than to falsely demonize Islam.
For Turkish-born Muslim Bilal Haciogullari, the events of 9/11 and its aftermath were negative, yet out of that came something positive, he said.
“That was a horrible thing that happened,” he said. “But I believe America is a better place to live since 9/11. Muslims are part of this country and there is better understanding.”
He was moved to take action and make a difference.
In 2002, Haciogullari worked with others in the Turkish community to start the Atlas Foundation, an organization that regularly holds events to increase understanding and promote dialogue among cultures of the world.
“With Atlas, communities can come together and talk about commonalities rather than differences,” he said.
Haciogullari welcomed about 60 guests for dinner on a recent Friday in August following the ending of Ramadan.
Turkish Muslim Emrah Ceyhan, who attended the celebration at the Atlas Foundation, said more people turned their attention toward understanding Islam following the 9/11 attacks.
“They’d ask me, ?are terrorists Muslims?’ It’s not in our religion to kill anybody,” Ceyhan said he often replied. “You cannot be a Muslim and kill anybody.”
Ceyhan said his experience following the attacks were mostly positive ones. “People in Baton Rouge supported me and asked me if I needed help. They wanted to find out more about Islam, and they found out we are nice people.”
Ceyhan’s wife, Yasemin Ceyhan, moved to Baton Rouge in 2008. “I didn’t have any hesitation about coming here,” she said. “As people get to know us, they feel more comfortable about Islam.”