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Reaching Across the Divide
Attacks Prompt Muslim Woman to Teach Others About Her Faith

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March 12, 2002 -- The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks inspired rage at Osama bin Laden -- and, by extension, his religion, Islam. Across America, there was an immediate backlash against Muslims: Many were threatened, harassed, and physically attacked; and at least three killings were attributed to anti-Muslim hatred.

Tammie Ismail

Tammie Ismail wanted to change people's views about Muslims.
Photo: Jackie Northam, NPR

Tammie Ismail, who teaches at an Islamic school in a Chicago suburb, says the Sept. 11 attacks put her religion on trial. Ismail has spent the six months since the attacks trying to dispel myths about her faith, and build understanding. From Bridgeview, Ill., NPR's Jackie Northam reports for Morning Edition.

At the all-girl Aqsa School in the heavily Muslim community of Bridgeview, Ismail and most of her students observe the Islamic dress code, wearing loose-fitting clothes and a headscarf they call a hijab. These days, it's quiet at the school and adjacent mosque. But six months ago, on Sept. 12, several hundred angry people staged a violent anti-Muslim demonstration in the streets near the mosque. Ismail and her husband, Ahmed Abedalull, got caught in the middle of the demonstration as they were driving home.

"I knew we were in danger," recalls Ismail, 25. "I was obviously Muslim. Then they started to approach the car, and the group was getting larger. At that moment, I felt so much fear. And I felt it was just raw hate."

Muslim and Catholic students share a laugh

From left, students Kevin Collins, Areej Malley, Fitzpatrick Decaro, Laura Dorner and Renad Khalil share a laugh.
Photo: Jackie Northam, NPR

The two managed to escape and make it home. Ismail stayed inside for two days: "I was just so upset and hurt and I thought, 'I have the right to mourn like every other American about what's happened,'" says Ismail, born in America to Palestinian parents. "And I shouldn't feel like I have to hide or be targeted."

Ismail decided that hiding wouldn't accomplish anything -- and that what she really wanted to do was help change people's views about Muslims. One of the things she began doing was organizing inter-faith meetings.

One day last week, Muslim students from Aqsa school piled into cars and headed to Nazareth Academy in nearby LaGrange, where they met Catholic students. After brief remarks by Ismail, more than 70 students broke into groups to ask questions about each others' religions and lifestyles.

Ismail addresses students

Ismail addresses Nazareth students.
Photo: Jackie Northam, NPR

Ismail says she could never have foreseen such an exchange happening between Muslim and non-Muslims six months ago: "I think our girls would have felt that they had to defend themselves or they couldn't really express what they felt and who they were. And I think the kids from the Catholic school wouldn't have been as interested. I think it wasn't the right time.

"Six months later, though, I think not only is it the proper time -- but if we don't do it now, then I think we lose it altogether."

Previous NPR Coverage

NPR Special Report: Muslims in America

Other Resources

Aqsa School

Nazareth Academy