DEARBORN, Mich. — Shortly after Osama bin Laden’s death was broadcast to the world, Linda Sarsour posted on Twitter, “Osama Bin Laden is dead. Good, now can I get my identity back? 10 yrs is a long time. Can being Palestinian and Muslim be cool again?”
In fewer than 140 characters, the 31-year-old progressive activist from New York summed up the views of many young Muslim Americans. They hope the al-Qaida leader’s death, and the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world, help erase the suspicion and fear many non-Muslims have viewed them with for nearly a decade.
The Sept. 11 terror attacks dramatically increased pressure and scrutiny on them, their friends and family. Criticizing U.S. policies while condemning terrorism, or even walking out the door in a traditional Islamic head scarf, sometimes brought insults or threats.
Sarsour said in a phone interview that she noticed a change soon after the attacks, when her Brooklyn neighbors suddenly lost interest in getting to know the Muslims on the block. Bin Laden “hijacked our identity” and made U.S. Muslims “synonymous with a man who was a murderer,” she said.
The May 1 killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan “left a little bit less room for those who use him to instigate Islamophobia to do so,” said Ali Shebley, 31, of the Detroit suburb of Canton. “The public has room to breathe now, away from fear-mongering, and start thinking rationally again.
“The way I can describe it, I feel it in the air. I feel like he’s gone and, with him, weight has been lifted on both sides, Muslims and non-Muslims,” Shebley said after attending Friday prayers at Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America.
Umar Issa, a freshman at Kansas Wesleyan University who grew up in Los Angeles, said by phone he feels he has been discriminated against because of bin Laden — sometimes even by friends who made hurtful jokes. The terror leader “basically corrupted my whole religion,” he said.
“His death brings an opportunity for understanding between Americans and Muslims,” said Issa, 18. “I’m happy about that. The discrimination I’ve faced, my friends have faced — it’s time for that to come to an end.”
Issa said the popular uprisings that overthrew autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia and continue to rage in countries including Libya and Syria help change Americans’ perceptions of Muslims by showing that they too seek democracy and economic opportunity. He said people in those countries are rejecting leaders they believe don’t represent them, much as Muslims are making it clear that they reject bin Laden.
“It’s really kind of inspiring,” he said. “They’re fighting for their rights.”
“There was no al-Qaida ideology-type messages in all these revolutions,” Shebley said. “Although these societies are 80, 90 percent Muslim, it was secular messages and it was Islam the way it was supposed to be represented.”
Saeed Khan, a lecturer on Near East and Islamic studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the Middle East uprisings show how bin Laden “had been rendered irrelevant.”
“Muslims have moved beyond him (and his) domination of the Muslim narrative around the world,” he said. “The counter-narrative has been led by millions of moderate Muslims in a peaceful struggle for regime change.”
Omer Chaudhri, 32, who works in New York’s financial district, said bin Laden’s death won’t immediately change perceptions developed over a decade but he hopes other Americans will eventually come to see Muslims as they would any other neighbors, co-workers or classmates. He didn’t believe it could start while bin Laden was free.
Not all see bin Laden’s death as an end, but rather the beginning of a long, difficult effort to restore Islam’s image.
“He has left a legacy of chaos and we’re the ones left to clean it up,” said Zeinab Chami, 26, who lives in Dearborn, home to one of the nation’s largest mosques and a Middle Eastern community that dates back more than a century.
“Osama bin Laden in the end is one person. There have been many Osama bin Ladens spawned, post 9/11,” she said at the Islamic center in Dearborn. “I’m glad he’s gone but we can’t lose sight of the fact that he’s made people suspicious of Islam.”
Sarsour, in Twitter postings Tuesday, said it’s clear that many are still suspicious. She made reference to three recent bits of news: the removal of imams from planes in New York and Tennessee, a court filing over a proposed Oklahoma ban on Islamic Sharia law and a report that someone put pork on the door handles of a Louisiana mosque so Muslims would have to touch a meat they are prohibited from eating.
“I feel hopeful and optimistic 4 a life after” bin Laden, she tweeted, “but in the meantime I have no anecdotal evidence to support my optimism.”
Issa, the Kansas Wesleyan student, agreed that Muslim Americans must reach out to non-Muslims, even if that means risking rejection.
“The only Quran most Americans are going to read is you,” Issa said, recalling a message to Muslims from Maher Hathout, a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group.
“I think I’m willing to take that sacrifice, and now many more young Muslims are starting to take that sacrifice, facing discrimination in order to help people understand the true meaning of their religion,” he said.