Boston bombings test strength of new Muslim role in American society

For many, the tragedy last Monday is the first gauge of efforts to find a place in US political and civil life after 9/11. Taimur Khan reports from Boston

"One of the many reasons we are so proactive is that we are the ones who have to set the tone for how people perceive the Muslim community," says Suzan El Reyess.

BOSTON // News of the Boston Marathon bombs sent the young staff at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre into action.

They organised blood donations, and offered their facilities and the services of the many doctors among their numbers.

Suhaib Webb, the centre's imam who was travelling at the time, took to Twitter and offered his home to stranded runners.

The message was clear: Boston's Muslims, as an integral part of the community, stood with fellow citizens in solidarity and support.

In many ways, the attacks are the first real test to efforts by Muslim organisations across the US to alter ugly misperceptions after September 11, and become a visible, vocal presence in political and civil life.

"September 11 taught many Muslim communities that if they did not step up and speak for themselves and represent themselves, people acting in bad faith were going to do so," said Sahar Aziz, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of American Muslims. "The marathon has been an example of how that's come to fruition."

Many of those who led efforts to integrate Muslims into American society after the 2001 attacks came from the post-9/11 generation.

"Because they grew up during the post-9/11 era they quickly realised insularity was not an option and they had a responsibility to be very active in public policy issues, faith issues and civil rights advocacy," said Ms Aziz.

"And I think that's been a benefit not just for Muslims, but has enriched American society."

Yusufi Vali, 29, a Princeton graduate who is executive director of the Islamic society centre, said: "There's a number of us here now who have said, 'the older generation has done a great job of building the buildings and now it's our turn to take them and do something higher'."

Mr Vali, who was born in the UAE and grew up in Missouri, added that September 11 prompted many young American Muslims to want to re-engage with their faith but in a way that made sense to them in the US context, with emphasis on tolerance, pluralism and good works.

"Muslims believe in creating a just society and serving the people that live here, so we have a real responsibility of doing something that's good where we live," he said. "And our institutions are becoming places that serve everyone."

At the centre, a major part of that goal is medical outreach, which is possible because 40 doctors and healthcare professionals work at the centre and practise and study at Boston's prestigious hospitals and universities.

Some of the doctors who operated on and treated the bombing victims as they came in hospitals are members who also work as volunteers to services to the underprivileged Roxbury neighbourhood around the centre.

Sara King, who coordinates the centre's medical outreach and is an internal medicine specialist at the Harvard hospital system, organised a team to survey Roxbury residents about what kinds of care assistance they needed.

"Help with navigating the healthcare system and counselling were the two main issues," said Ms King, a Muslim convert.

The centre now offers weekly assistance with insurance issues and free health-screening clinics every month.

The centre has also focused on interfaith activism. On Monday, Imam Webb received calls of support from the area's Jewish leaders who said they understood the bombings put Boston's Muslims in a delicate position.

A report late last year by the Centre for the Study of American Muslims, in Washington, found Muslims have become much more politically engaged in the past 10 years.

In some key swing states during the last presidential election, the Muslim vote was an important factor.

"One of the many reasons we are so proactive is that we are the ones who have to set the tone for how people perceive the Muslim community," said Suzan El Reyess, 27, a young Palestinian-American and Boston native who is the centre's development director.

This has had an effect on the way Muslims are represented and perceived within the US, said Muqtedar Khan, a politics professor at the University of Delaware.

"There has been a lot of social interaction and in some ways the terrorism label doesn't stick to American Muslims in the same way," Mr Khan said.

"But you have to remember, there haven't been any major terrorist attacks since September 11 and this is the biggest one."

On Wednesday the Islamic centre's front doors were guarded by two police cars and plainclothes officers appeared to guard the back entrance. The protection had been requested by the centre, Mr Vali said, because "every community has their crazies".

After afternoon prayers, he told worshippers to remain vigilant and to thank the police for their service.

That some media commentators immediately blamed Al Qaeda for the Boston attacks, and an innocent Saudi student who had been injured in the attacks became a suspect, reveals what kind of stereotypes American Muslims still face.

"Muslims organisations have gone above and beyond to condemn violence and offer support, and have worked very hard to change perceptions, but it's hard to measure how much this has changed things," said Aziza Ahmed, a professor of law at Boston's Northeastern University.

"Somehow we are still the scapegoats."

While the centre may be taking precautions, Mr Vali said he was not worried personally, even if the bombing perpetrators were found to be Muslim.

"I don't think anything bad is going to happen because the majority of people here have our back," he said. "That's what is profound and inspiring about Boston."

twitter: For breaking news from the Gulf, the Middle East and around the globe follow The National World. Follow us

* Sahar Aziz is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of American Muslims and a law professor at the Texas Wesleyan School of Law, not a professor at the former, as previously reported.