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Two years after terror attacks, U.S. Muslims work past the shock

Toms River, N.J. — (AP) Within hours of the 2001 terror attacks, the windows at the Masjid Bilal mosque were smashed, and someone had left a message on the answering machine threatening to burn it down.

In the weeks that followed, when the mosque's president and imam, Mohamed Elmasry walked to a nearby store for coffee, people driving past would scream curses at him, and yell, "Hey, bin Laden!"

"It got to the point where I was afraid to even argue with my neighbor if his dog came and peed on my lawn because he might report me as a terrorist," Elmasry said.

But that was then. Now, two years after Islamic terrorists hijacked four jets and killed more than 3,000 people, American Muslims are re-emerging in more active, visible roles in society.

Some are teaching classes on Islam to non-Muslims, while others organize voter registration drives, or speak out against laws like the USA Patriot Act and its anti-terrorism provisions they consider discriminatory.

Most of all, many have moved beyond the fear and isolation they experienced shortly after the attacks to reclaim a place in this country.

"In this society, with the way things are today, isolation is like guilt," Elmasry said. "And we are not guilty."

More than 1,200 people, mostly Muslims from Middle Eastern or southern Asian nations, were arrested and detained after the attacks for months while federal authorities tried to determine whether they were terrorists.

"There are two choices before the Arabs and Muslims in America," said Osama Siblani, publisher of the weekly Arab American News in Dearborn, Mich. "One is pack and leave, which is not an option. The other is to stay and get involved. Most Muslims feel this is the country they want to live and die in, the country where their children are going to grow and prosper."

The Arab American Political Action Committee in Dearborn is registering Muslims to vote, stressing the role they have to play in the upcoming presidential election.

Local Muslims meet monthly with the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan to keep the lines of communication open, and they have met several times with regional immigration officials as well.

The Council on American Islamic Relations started an ambitious effort last year on the first anniversary of the attacks to have educational materials about Islam placed in 17,000 public libraries in the United States.

"In the first year after 9-11, we were pretty much in a reactive mode, trying to state our opposition to terrorism and showing we are not a fifth column in the U.S.," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. "Now, Muslims are realizing we really have no choice but to become more active in defending our civil and religious rights. It took the first year just to get out of that mode of shock."

The group also launched a nationwide advertising campaign depicting American Muslims in various roles in society. One included Dr. J. Aisha Simon, a family physician, wife and mother who was shown examining a young boy with a stethoscope and declaring, "I'm an American, and I'm a Muslim."

Islamic groups in California and elsewhere have held town hall meetings with the FBI, conducted sensitivity training for local police departments, and held rallies and public seminars on the Patriot Act.

On Long Island, N.Y., the Roman Catholic diocese of Rockville Center is producing a series of cable television programs with the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America called "Our Muslim Neighbors" to explain Islam. The first show, to be aired in October, deals with what goes on inside a mosque.

Elmasry, the Toms River imam, recently held a public forum on the Patriot Act in this Jersey shore suburb, and was gratified to see more non-Muslims than Muslims in the audience.

"I get involved in public. I have to," he said. "There is still bias and prejudice against Muslims. It's up to us to change that."

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