PITTSBURG – Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and late Army Capt. Humayun Khan are two examples of stories of American Muslims’ contributions and positive acts that are usually eclipsed by the news of a very small violent minority.
“There are so many Muslims, including myself, who have dedicated their personal and professional lives to serving our country,” Nadia Khawaja, who works in the outreach department of the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh in Richland, told Pittsburg Post Gazette on Monday, September 19.
She admits, however, that due to the intense focus on an “extremely small, violent, and terrifying minority” who call themselves Muslims but don’t practice or represent Muslims or Islam, the positive contributions of Muslims aren’t highlighted.
In the middle of heated political anti-Muslim rhetoric, Khawaja said that the achievement of Ibtihaj Muhammad, as the first Muslim woman to compete while wearing her hijab, offered a lasting moment of pride.
Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun Khan was killed in combat in Iraq, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention and condemned Republican nominee Donald Trump for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Army Capt. Humayun Khan was one of several US Muslim soldiers who fought and died for their country.
Khawaja had tears in her eyes when she watched Khan speaking at the convention in Philadelphia.
For the Muslim woman, a Miami native now living in Pine, Khan’s words brought to light “the amazing contributions” that Muslims have made to help protect and defend the US.
Khawaja is not the only American Muslim woman who shared those feelings.
Safdar Khwaja of the Pittsburgh-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) agreed.
“The contributions of Muslims are ignored by the media and politicians,” he said
Khwaja said Muslims need to speak up about their presence, noting that they are highly represented in such fields as medicine and science.
A smaller number, yet increasing, pursued political careers, including the two current members of Congress who are practicing Muslims — Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indiana, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota.
Though Khizr Khan’s message boosted the process, changing the perception of Muslims in general needed more efforts.
“We have to build on [Khizr Khan’s] message,” Salam Al-Marayati, the president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said in an emailed response to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“Others are still trying to apply loyalty tests on us. We can only remind other Americans about American values.”
Most of the estimated 3.3 million Muslims in the US participate in the same activities as many Americans.
According to a Pew Research Center study, 75 percent of Muslims (compared with 76 percent of Americans) recycle on regular basis, 48 percent (vs. 47 percent) regularly watch pro or college sports and almost 44 percent (vs. 59 percent) display the American flag.
In Pittsburgh area, with an estimated 10,000 Muslims and 11 mosques, there are over 100 Muslim-owned businesses that employ over 1,500 people, according to CAIR.
Nevertheless, the increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric by several political figures, on the top of which is Donald Trump, has made life more difficult for the area’s Muslim community.
“We have too many in the political sphere right now who are touting complete fabrications and misrepresentations of Islam in order to appeal to a portion of the population who may want to believe these falsehoods,” Khawaja said.
One example of such hateful rhetoric was the one led by Ben Carson, one of the leading former presidential candidates in the Republican primary field, who said Islam is not compatible with the US. Constitution.
Khwaja countered that Shari`ah tells Muslims to obey the laws of the land where they live, so American Muslims are obliged to obey the Constitution and laws of the US.
“Have some minority Muslims done some terrible and tragic horrific deeds? Yes,” she said.
“But some Muslims behave the way they do because of Islam, other Muslims behave the way they do in spite of Islam. This is difficult because the average person of any other faith doesn’t have to defend their beliefs in this country.”
During the panel discussion “Diversity through the Eyes of Women,” which Khawaja moderated at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh in May, she said Pittsburgh turned out to be a friendly city for many minorities.
Local Muslim leaders have continued their efforts to educate others by reaching out for dialogue through discussions organized by the Oakland-based Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, the Muslim Association Of Greater Pittsburgh and others.
“The biggest difficulty is manufactured fear, marginalization and stigmatization of Muslims,” Khwaja, of CAIR, said.
“There is a multi-million dollar industry focused on this irrational media campaign. There are multiple interest groups in play. But we need to tell our real life stories, and how we contribute to America — by serving as professionals, paying taxes and living with the ideals of America.”