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The Muslims who keep us safe

I was 14 on Sept. 11, 2001 and president of my sophomore class at Atholton High School in Columbia. I was also a young Muslim American girl and had founded the Muslim Student Awareness Club at Atholton the year prior. When the Twin Towers were struck, classmates and acquaintances of mine shouted slogans such as "Let's kill all the Muslims," "America will have its revenge on Islam," and "Go home, towel heads."

In response to such hatred, the Muslim Student Awareness Club mobilized and held an Islamic awareness event with community leaders, students, faculty and parents to increase understanding about the religion of Islam, as well as to discuss how Muslim communities can combat extremism and how non-Muslims can help protect their Muslim friends against hate crimes. More than 150 members of the Atholton community attended this event, a few weeks after Sept. 11. During the last 10 years, similar events were held around the country as Islamic communities struggled to redefine Muslims as partners — rather than threats — to our national security.

After Sept. 11, many Muslim American communities were viewed with suspicion by local authorities, who wanted to ensure that extremism was not being cultivated in the homeland. And yet, at the same time, many Muslim Americans were joining security institutions in attempts to show that Muslims were deeply concerned with protecting our nation and combating potential threats.

I was one such Muslim American. In my senior year, I applied for a Department of Defense scholarship, which provided me with full tuition to the college of my choice for four years, with an obligation to work for the government for four years after graduation.

I knew little about how the security sector operated and what was expected of me. Nevertheless, at age 17, I took a risk and committed the next eight years of my life to the Department of Defense. Much to my surprise, I discovered many other Muslims in analytical positions, uniformed services and the police force. Many had the same goal in mind: to help make this country a safer place and to change people's perceptions of Muslims by positioning themselves as assets in our national security framework.

Recognizing the talent of this demographic group and working to retain their skills — especially in language analysis — many government agencies have honored their Muslim employees and provided them with suitable accommodations in the workplace so that they may practice their religion without discrimination. For example, the Pentagon has a permanent prayer space for Muslims. The Department of Homeland Security and many more government institutions showed deep appreciation for their Muslim workers by holding Iftaars, dinner ceremonies for Muslims who were fasting in August for the Islamic month of Ramadan. I was honored to attend the White House Iftaar during which President Barack Obama said: "Across our federal government, they keep our homeland secure; they guide our intelligence and counterterrorism efforts; they uphold the civil rights and liberties of all Americans. Make no mistake: Muslim Americans help keep us safe."

My agency's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity created an Islamic Cultural Employee Resource Group earlier this year — a mechanism through which Muslims and non-Muslims work together to plan seminars and social events. Through such exchanges, the group is able to provide a more nuanced portrait of Islam, thereby creating greater sensitivity toward Muslims in the workplace and improving accuracy of strategic reporting in the Muslim world.

Local governments have also honored Muslim Americans for their contributions to protect the homeland. On Saturday, during the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Sept. 11 10th anniversary commemoration event in Los Angeles, more than 200 people gathered to recognize Muslim first responders — the police officers and firefighters who dedicated their lives to protect their communities after Sept. 11.

Many Muslim Americans commemorated the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 with pride, knowing that they have attempted to make the country a safer place and minimize threats to the homeland. Some Muslims, however, continue to struggle for their acceptance, as they still endure bigotry and hatred for practicing their faith. Nevertheless, I believe this intolerance is decreasing as Muslim Americans are increasingly valued as part of the security solution, not the problem. Thank God, we are finally being viewed as integral threads in the colorful American fabric.

Salmah Y. Rizvi, an analyst for the Department of Defense, is serving a two-year appointment as chairperson of the department's Islamic Cultural Employee Resource Group. Her email is salmah.y.rizvi@gmail.com. This article does not reflect the official views of the Department of Defense.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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