In the years following the terrorist attacks that killed and injured thousands, Muslims have been forced to defend their faith. The numerous questions and accusations that have flooded the Islamic community since that dark September day are seen as a way to educate, not punish.
In fact, Imani Aziz of Johnson City, welcomes questions from strangers no matter how politically incorrect they may be.
“I would much rather have people ask me questions because if they’re looking at me and thinking I’m a terrorist, I would rather them just ask ‘Are you a terrorist?’ ” she said. “Though it might come across as offensive, I would rather them just ask that so I can have a chance to correct it. Islam is not about terrorism.”
Omar Nimer, a fellow member of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee, says the questions he receives from co-workers about his religion dramatically increased after the events of 9/11.
“They’re a lot more interested in finding out about our religion and they understand that everything we preach is peaceful so it doesn’t reflect on what these individuals may have done,” he said.
With the questions often come confusion and accusations. The members of the Islamic community sort out these ill feelings by defending their faith through talks and any type of social interaction with the public.
“We are almost constantly in that mode because anywhere I go to speak, I try to talk about what Islam is versus what it’s not,” said Taneem Aziz, president of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee, located at 3010 Antioch Road.
Aziz also describes Muslim women as ambassadors for the religion because the scarves or hijabs they wear often make them more recognizable. His daughter, Imani, says the extra questions give an even greater reason for her to be better educated about her religion so she can give intelligent answers, while also discussing the basic human similarities.
“To actually meet a Muslim and interact with a Muslim is completely different,” said Imani Aziz. “It’s seeing that he has a family, too and he works just like me. Muslims have the same aspirations and hopes as well as family and life values so it’s not something that we need to be afraid of or condemn.”
Despite any negativity that has existed nationally, Muslims living locally say they feel safe and accepted.
“I think most people accept Muslim-Americans as being part of America,” “It’s not like they’re closed minded,” Imani said. “How can you really be in a religion of killing if it’s been around for so long and has so many followers?”
Taneem Aziz says the population of Muslims has grown in the decade following 9/11 with about 400-500 living within the region and about 150 attending Friday evening prayer at the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.
His initial shock when first hearing of the attacks didn’t settle when he found out the plot had been carried out by Muslims. Aziz and others viewed it as a criminal act by a group of extremists much different from themselves, yet a fear of the entire religion enveloped the United States.
“It’s easy to take any religious text out of context and use it and that’s the way it is,” Teneem Aziz said.
“We believe these things that happen are from God, I can’t say why it happened, God knows why, but I do know that he gives us trials for us to get better and to polish ourselves. I hope our community as Muslims have come through this better than what we were before.”
Though the entire religion was shaken by the attacks, Imani Aziz says the best way to correct the stereotypes surrounding them was by setting a positive example.
“We need to be responsible for ourselves,” she said. “If you are an upstanding and good Muslim by showing others what Muslims are can sort of bring them peace of mind that Muslims aren’t terrorists.”
Teneem Aziz is aware the word association between Muslim and terrorist will continue, perhaps even for a generation. That sentiment is hard for Imani Aziz to hear when she thinks about all the Muslims working in the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on 9/11. Yet, through all the sadness, she’s inspired by the uniting of America that followed the event.
“Out of tragedy sometimes you see people’s characters and that is a testament to those people and what our nation can be when we’re all united,” she said.
The last decade has been an emotional one for the Islamic community, but Taneem Aziz views their misfortune as much less than other ethnic groups in the past. He says it’s all part of a test to educate others.
“I know that what happened was just plain wrong,” he said. “Part of our mission is for people to get to know us. And if there is any silver lining in what happened in 9/11 it’s that people wanted to know more and that trend is still going on strong.”