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U.S.: Opportunity, Religious Freedom Leave American Muslims Mostly Content

Last month's bombings, and attempted bombings, in London drew attention to the resentment felt by many Muslims in Britain. Some may assume that such hostility also exists in the United States. After all, it is American foreign policy that is seen as the foundation of the Islamic world's differences with the West. In fact, that does not appear to be the case. Surveys show that many Muslims in America may disagree with U.S. foreign policy, but they don't resent America. In fact, for the most part, they like living there.

Washington, 15 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Zaffer Mirza says his experience as an immigrant has been a reflection of what is commonly called "the American dream": finding a land of economic opportunity and religious freedom.

During a long interview with RFE/RL at the Muslim Community Center in a suburb of Washington, Mirza said he came to the United States from his native Pakistan in 1973 at the urging of his brother, who already lived in the United States.

Mirza said he was reluctant at first, because he already was doing well in the pharmaceutical industry at home.

Eventually, however, he agreed to move, and still works in the same field. He said he is glad he lives in the United States.

"I do believe, deep down in my heart, that the best country is your own country, if you can live there. But for whatever reason, if you cannot live [there], I believe America is the best country God has given to mankind. It gives you opportunity," Mirza said. "In the Third World countries, the opportunities are not there, even if you are willing to work hard. This country gives you opportunity, and if you are willing to work hard and you are willing to live within the law, there's nothing like this country. I believe that, I really do."

This sentiment is echoed by Mohammed Babah, a native of Ghana. He said he emigrated first to Britain, where he worked as a stenographer. In 1973, however, he moved to the United States and began to study finance. He now runs the accounting department of a medical-research company.

Babah said that Muslim immigrants can avoid culture shock by learning about the United States and by seeking out resources such as the Muslim Community Center, of which he is vice president.

"We came here knowing that there are cultural issues that would clash with our beliefs. We came here knowing that there are people already in this country who are Muslims," Babah said. "We came with the mindset, saying, 'As long as you identify with that [Muslim] group and [are] not swayed by the glitter out there in the general public, you'll be fine.'"

Babah said his community center is an ideal place for him to maintain his close connection to Islam. But he said it would be wrong to call it a refuge from American society, which he does not find alien or hostile to Muslims.

Still, Baba and Mirza said they have no illusions about life in their adopted country since the attacks of 11 September 2001. Because Al-Qaeda says it has been acting out of religious ideals, they said, some Americans evidently believe that all Muslims are somehow to blame.

Mirza said he faults American Muslims for being too silent about their own feelings after 11 September. As a result, they did not define themselves as political moderates. Instead, he said, they let others define them all as potential terrorists.

The experiences of Mirza and Babah tend to be representative of American Muslims, according to Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group based in Washington.

"I think American Muslims have some challenges they have to face in terms of discrimination and bias and the growing level of anti-Muslim rhetoric," Hooper said. "But on the whole, I think the situation of the American Muslim community is quite good. We're free to practice our faith, we're free to participate in the society. So in some ways you're freer to be a Muslim in this country than you are in many so-called Muslim countries."

Hooper noted that countries such as Turkey forbid overt religious expression -- for example, women wearing head scarves -- in government buildings, as a way of strictly separating religion and state. And Uzbekistan, he said, sees the practice of Islam in a form not sanctioned by the state as a form of political dissent.

According to Hooper, America's long tradition of religious freedom has made Muslims comfortable about practicing their religion here. Still, he said, some things have changed since 11 September.

"I think America's tradition of religious diversity helps," Hooper said. "I don't think even post-9/11 that American Muslims feel restricted in practicing their faith at all. If we feel restrictions, it's in terms of civil liberties, it's in terms of bias and discrimination, but not a systemic bias and discrimination. It's generally from individuals who are acting out their own personal prejudices."

Overall, though, Hooper said he believes Muslims have done a fairly good job of integrating into American society.