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The Difficulty of Being American and Muslim Post-9/11

"Too many Americans today believe that being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive," writes professor Jen'nan Read.

As 9/11 approaches, the question I keep hearing is whether someone can be both an American and a Muslim?

My research into understanding where Muslims fit into the larger picture of American life started before 9/11, so I'm able to assess the previous question both before and after the tragic events of nine years ago. The short answer is not only is it possible for a person to be a Muslim and an American, but that it is already a reality. National surveys show that the majority of Muslim Americans are U.S. citizens. Most are registered voters participating in the electoral process. And like other Americans, Muslim Americans are worried about the economy, health care reform, taxes and the security of their children's futures.

That said, it has been more difficult to be both a Muslim and an American post-9/11. Too many Americans today believe that being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive - that practicing Muslims cannot possibly hold beliefs that would also allow them to be supporters of America. Such beliefs did not exist - or at a minimum were not expressed aloud - nine years ago. Before 9/11, my students who were Muslim were just students. My colleagues who were Muslim were just colleagues. Being a Muslim wasn't an issue, just as my being a Christian wasn't an issue. Being an American was taken for granted.

After 9/11, I vividly recall one of my students grappling with her newly assigned "Muslim" identity. She was a second-generation, U.S.-born American who had not questioned her religious identity to that point. After a few months, she decided to start wearing the hijab despite her family being worried about her safety. She explained to me that she wanted people to know she was a good American before 9/11 and she was a good American after 9/11; she was Muslim American.

Since 9/11, the words "Muslim" and "American" have endured a rocky marriage, one that is being put to the test once again as the anniversary of 9/11 coincides with the end of the holy month of Ramadan. For Muslims around the world, this is a time of celebration and socializing after a month of fasting. For Americans, this is a time of mourning the events of 9/11 that forged a national identity around fighting global terrorism.

The problem is that terrorism has become synonymous with Muslim. Muslim Americans feel as if they are in the unenviable position of choosing between celebrating their faith and mourning their country - not able to do both. But data from national surveys of Muslim Americans indicate this need not be the case. Muslim Americans are more likely than the general public to believe in the American work ethic -- that working hard will get you ahead. They are also more likely than the general public to say they are satisfied with American life.

The controversy over the building of the mosque near ground zero is the latest to pit national identity against religious identity, to test the relationship between "Muslim" and "American." How can we move past this? As in all relationships, there are two sides to every story, and for the relationship to succeed, each side must be sensitive to the other.

In the case of the mosque controversy, Muslims need to be sensitive to the fact that ground zero is a sacred place in the heart of Americans. The intent may be to build a place for healing, but if it is not viewed that way by the majority of Americans, then it will only lead to more strife.

For other Americans, it is important to remember that the majority of Muslims in this country are U.S. citizens who share many of the same values that define America. And, from a practical standpoint, Muslim Americans play a key role in identifying to law enforcement disenchanted Muslims who could pose a risk.

So can someone be both an American and a Muslim? In the case of this weekend's religious holiday, we must remember that America is a land of freedom and opportunity, a place of refuge and hope. What could be more American than celebrating one's faith, free from persecution and religious extremism? Conversely, what could be more un-American than preventing people from exercising that right?

Ask any couple you know -- not every battle is worth fighting. Concessions are needed from both sides if we are to all move forward together as Americans.