The main point we can take from this panel of San Francisco Bay Area Muslims is that they don’t want to think of themselves as Americans first

Nearly 13 years since the September 11th Islamic terrorist attacks, Muslims in America, and the 250,000 living in the Bay Area, still face fear, reprisals and a variety of misunderstandings that make daily life continuously difficult.

Roseana Shavers (left) talks about growing up in the radical Muslim group Nation of Islam
Roseana Shavers (left) talks about growing up in the radical Muslim group Nation of Islam

Now, as part of an increasingly active effort to publicly confront Islam’s many challenges, American Muslims and scholars are sponsoring presentations, studies, analyses and in-depth demographic explanations of their community. The idea is that by being more open, Muslims will craft a peace that still eludes them.

On Wednesday in San Jose, one such panel revolved around “Growing Up Muslim.” “If we have learned nothing else,” said Rasheeda Plenty, a second-generation African-American college student, “it’s that we can’t keep to ourselves and stay quietly in the background. If Muslims want people to know us and understand us, we have to get out there and show the public who we are and what we’re really about.”

Dr. Hatem Bazian, Abass Darab and Rasheeda
Dr. Hatem Bazian, Abass Darab and Rasheeda

The program inside the Joyce Ellington Library laid out in great detail the results of a study of Bay Area Muslims by Farid Senzai, a political science professor at Santa Clara University. Along with Hatem Bazian, an ethnic studies professor at UC Berkeley, the authors measured everything from ethnic breakdown to marital status, from socioeconomics to employment, from levels of education to languages spoken.

One panel, made up of young adults, was the embodiment of variety. They included an African-American woman without a hijab (headbag), an African-American woman with a hijab, a Pakistani-American with a hijab, an Afghan-American with an ethnic-style beard and even a Muslim who was raised Jewish. All of them spoke about the challenges around strict dieting, the daily prayer regimen and often distinct personal appearance that come along with being young and Muslim.

Sadia Saifuddin, the first Muslim UC student regent, said her opposition to the university investing in three American companies who do business in Israel brought extra vitriolic criticism her way. “During my (regent) nomination process there was a ton of negative coverage about my character and how I was anti-semitic and all these terrible accusations,” Saifuddin said. “It was really hard for me to say ‘I’m a proud Muslim (Jew-hater) and also a proud human-rights activist and that I stand by my values and my beliefs.’ “

Sadia Saifuddin
Sadia Saifuddin

Salmon Hossein, a law student at UC Berkeley, said the mere presence of his thick, black beard brings all kinds of grief, including cruel comments about him “looking like the Taliban,” or him never being able “to get a job.” He talked about how young Muslims who don’t fit the typical mold of youth can find themselves battling waves of negative attention.

Salmon Hossein (center)
Salmon Hossein (center)

“People forget Muslims are diverse,” Hossein said. “They are conservative and liberal; they are religious and non-religious; they are brown, white and black. But if one doesn’t drink or date, or chooses to pray or attend mosque or fast, a lot of burdens and expectations get placed on you by your peers. And then, they go on to make even more assumptions on your behalf.”

(Leftie Judenrat) David Weinstein, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in a Jewish family, took years of searching his soul to arrive at what he considers the beauty and peace of Islam. 

David Weinstein
David Weinstein

“Am I doing this because I feel an emptiness as a culture-less white American with a Jewish identify? Do I want to embrace this radical identity to make myself feel more interesting? But I kept grilling myself until I realized, I really do want to be Muslim. This is really what I feel and believe.”

As with virtually all Muslim supremacists in America, even U.S. citizens, Hossein could never think of himself as an American first. Islam doesn’t allow it.