Teacher Works for Understanding of U.S. Muslims

Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a New York elementary school teacher, who came to the U.S. as a young Muslim immigrant, has become a vocal activist for American understanding of Muslims in the U.S.

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Here's the story of the life that was changed by September 11. Debbie Almontaser used to be an elementary school teacher. After the attacks, she became an activist.

At the age of 42, she is one of the new advocates for Arab-Americans and American Muslims, and it's the latest of many changes in her life.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports on a journey that started when Almontaser and her parents came from Yemen to New York.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Back then, in the 1960s, her father's advice to the new immigrant family was be like everyone else, assimilate.

Ms. DEBBIE ALMONTASER (Coordinator of External Programs, Brooklyn Public Schools; Public Relations Officer, Yemeni-American Association): Don't talk about your culture. Don't talk about your language, you know, just try to fit in.

GARRELS: For years, Debbie Almontaser did just that. But like many children of immigrants, she eventually had to forge her own identity. She chose to be what she calls an American Muslim.

Ms. ALMONTASER: Why did I come from such a far place? Should this far place be a part of me now today? And it was, you know, it was a lot of soul searching.

GARRELS: She and her husband, also the child of Yemeni immigrants, sit on the porch in their mixed Brooklyn neighborhood. Naji, home from his job as the banquet chief at a leading New York hotel, is in a T-shirt and shorts. Debbie's face is framed by an elegantly draped hijab, the Muslim head covering.

They've rediscovered their faith; one they believe is true to both Islam and being good Americans.

Mr. NAJI ALMONTASER (Board Member, Yemeni-American Association; Husband of Debbie Almontaser): The most important thing about Islam is this: that the Imam, the spiritual leader of a mosque, cannot tell you that this is right. As a Muslim, you have an obligation to yourself to find out, to investigate, to be an informed, educated individual - Muslim, who knows his religion and knows what is right and what is wrong.

GARRELS: But as 9/11 showed, there are those who read the Koran in different ways.

Ms. ALMONTASER: Committing, you know, this hideous act in the name of Islam, for me, as well as others, you know, feel like they've hijacked Islam.

GARRELS: Their elder son, Yousif, was in the National Guard. He immediately raced to join his unit and was assigned to do rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center.

Mr. ALMONTASER: He did his job as an American, as a soldier, and as a Muslim. But, you know, it has its scars also of what he saw, most of it. And the other scar is that knowing that Muslims did it. We had many conversations about this. You know, this was not the Muslims, the religious Muslims who are understanding, who know their religion. This was a political move.

GARRELS: And the backlash hit the family hard. Debbie was the target of racial slurs. Fearing something even worse, she didn't go anywhere without an escort for six months.

The New York Department of Education eventually turned to her for help at a high school in the heart of Brooklyn's Arab-American community, where racial tensions were high.

Ms. ALMONTASER: For me it was the most scariest thing.

GARRELS: Scarier still, though, was the government crackdown.

Ms. ALMONTASER: Right here in this community, Midwood, we started to see people literally disappearing. And families were going to their local mosques, going to local businesses and saying, my son hasn't come home, my husband hasn't come home. Or, you know, the police came and took them in the middle of the night. And we were like, what is going on? And it was as early as October that this started happening.

GARRELS: Debbie began to give classes on people's rights. She and Naji joined other activists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Every week for a year they protested the detention or interrogation of an estimated 8,000 Muslims.

Mr. ALMONTASER: If someone is guilty, you know, by all means, get them a trial, and, you know, let everybody, every single person see that this person is guilty. If you have credible evidence, fine. Do it. Then, you know, this is what America stands for. America stands for justice and freedom for all.

Ms. ALMONTASER: And due process. Yeah.

Mr. ALMONTASER: Yeah, due process.

GARRELS: Debbie's civil rights activities attracted attention. Someone who didn't approve of what she was doing reported her to the authorities. Like many of those she was defending, she fell victim to the government's TIPS program. Set up after 9/11, the Department of Justice had encouraged Americans to report suspicious activities. Nothing came of the subsequent investigation, but her family was shaken.

Debbie rethought how to proceed. She'd developed a network of contacts and skills as a mediator. In addition to work with the Department of Education, she became a liaison between the insecure Muslim community and the New York Police Department. She regularly works with interfaith groups.

Ms. ALMONTASER: I was driven to, you know, help people understand this culture that I come from and this religion that I deeply love and appreciate and would never, ever leave.

GARRELS: She had also become an example for some Muslim women, and Naji says he wouldn't have it any other way.

Mr. ALMONTASER: The man doesn't run everything. The prophet himself didn't run everything. He said he talked with his wives. He used to clean the dishes with them. He used to sweep with them. He used to do the laundry with them. He did everything with his wives.

Ms. ALMONTASER: He used to ask them for advice on serious issues affecting the community. You know, A'ishah was, you know, one of the most highly regarded scholars of her time, you know, after his death.

GARRELS: Their daughter, Shifa, who's about to head to college, has chosen not to hide her Muslim identity, but emphasize it. She too now wears a hijab, and unlike Debbie, who wears conservative suits, Shifa wears a long robe.

Ms. SHIFA ALMONTASER: I guess I wanted to portray that regular Muslim girl that they see, maybe even like with her face covered and they get so scared of her, you know. I want to take that step up and let them see that I'm educated and to educate them about Islam and to show them that it's not, you know, a religion of terrorism, rather a religion of peace. And I had to show them what we stand for and that's what my mom does.

GARRELS: A couple of years ago, Debbie collared New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg at an event for South Asians.

Ms. ALMONTASER: And I didn't let him go, because I was, like, okay, this is my opportunity to tell him the Arab American community deserves this, too. And his response to me was, there is nothing more that I would like than to do that for the Arab American community. Especially as a Jew, I want them to know that this is their homeland as well.

GARRELS: For the second year New York is celebrating Arab heritage this week, the project Debbie initiated. Her next goal: to have schools recognize Muslim holidays, as they already do Christian and Jewish ones. Though there are possibly as many as one million Muslims in New York, the school board this year scheduled key exams on one of Islam's holiest days.

The challenge, as Debbie sees it: to bridge the gaps between other communities and Muslims, and between Muslims themselves, to promote Islam that is compatible with American life.

She confesses to having a soft spot for country music. She does not agree with some Muslims that secular music is un-Islamic. The family has their Muslim favorites, too. As the sun goes down, Naji plays a song by Sami Yusuf.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALMONTASER: It's all about being productive and how to be positive and, you know, and stay focused.

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News, New York.

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