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Overcoming intolerance one story at a time

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Wednesday, July 5th, 2006 — Political and racial profiling are not new for Americans.

We have justified these activities in the name of national security. But profiling becomes a pernicious form of stereotyping when it arises from motives like self-righteousness, resentment and revenge. Left unchecked, political profiling creates entirely new groups of innocent victims.

This time, Muslim-Americans are the immediate victims but all Americans are affected. Not just because certain of our freedoms are restricted, but by fearing this group we cut ourselves off from the moderate Muslim voice voice that can bridge intolerance and help chart a course to a solution in the Middle East.

Maha Elgenaidi is one Muslim-American woman who is speaking out. She wants to help set the record straight and address the fears, putting profiling to rest.

As founder and president of Islamic Networks Group (ING), Elgenaidi is bringing her story to countless people. Since 9/11 ING has grown to a dozen offices across the country. Still concerned about security, their offices in San Jose are nondescript and unmarked.

Elgenaidi, whose parents are Egyptian, was raised in a secular household in Long Island, New York. She grew up with kids of all faiths and feels she has always been a religious seeker.

Her family sent her to American University in Cairo. After four years of studying and, she says, living the good life, she returned to the United States. Only then, as a young adult, did she find her way to Islam. When she did, she knew she had come home.

Elgenaidi has a deep affection for her faith. She came to her religious convictions the long way around, and because of that she is especially sensitive to the personal nature of religion.

"There can be no compulsion in religion," she says.

Her parents have returned to Egypt. On one visit, her mother was alarmed by the traditional hijab that Elgenaidi chooses to wear. She worried her daughter had joined a cult. Now, her 81-year-old mother wears the hijab as well. Solidarity with her daughter? Or maybe simply enjoying her own freedom to choose.

In a sense, this is what Elgenaidi would like to accomplish: To establish Islam as a religious choice, equal to all others on the American landscape of religious freedom under the First Amendment of our Constitution. It is a single agenda with huge implications.

In many ways Muslim-Americans are some of the more privileged members of society: 75 percent of U.S. Muslims are college educated, many are physicians, engineers and entrepreneurs. More than ever, young Muslim-Americans are enrolling in law school. There are hundreds of Muslim owned businesses in Silicon Valley.

But there is more to the picture. Last year, the Associated Press reported that 44 percent of Americans favor "at least some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans." More than one in four, 27 percent, said Muslim Americans should be put on a government roster indicating where they live.

Numbers like these are disturbing. Being an American has given Elgenaidi a freedom she cherishes. Like other Americans, she fears fundamentalist Muslims and the potential for another terrorist attack. Like other Americans, she could not live under a Taliban-type government. But as a Muslim-American, she also fears the prejudice, anger and retaliation of her fellow American neighbors.

Elgenaidi puts her hope in cross-cultural education, and believes that "cultural competency" comes with understanding. That happens when we meet each other face to face, which is how I happened to meet Elgenaidi.

A group of Palo Alto friends, curious about Islam, asked her to come and speak to us. We asked questions about topics such as the treatment of women, the interplay of sharia (Islamic law) and civil law, and radical jihad. Elgenaidi candidly concedes there are abuses and misinterpretations of Islamic laws. Others are archaic carryovers from pre-modern times.

Along with other moderate Muslims, Elgenaidi focuses her practice of Islam on developing her relationship with God and striving for excellence in character and actions. These, not rigid adherence to rules, are primary.

As for jihad, she says, "the attacks of 9/11 were not jihad at all, but murder."

Islam teaches that a Muslim's primary jihad is the lifelong struggle against one's inner negativity and destructiveness. Lesser jihads involve the struggle against injustice. Authentic jihad does not include senseless self-destruction or killing.

Justifiably, most Americans have a hard time believing this. Without hearing the outrage of decent Muslims against the actions of ruthless Islamic extremists, claims about the spiritual nature of jihad can seem insincere.

Fear and even a desire for revenge are natural reactions to terrorism and other acts of violence. But ignorance and misunderstanding fuel these fires. Innocent people have been demonized. U.S. efforts at stabilizing the Arab world are caught between extremist factions, and are losing the support of millions of Muslims who would like to consider themselves our allies.

Overcoming intolerance is a two-way street. Both sides need to be heard.

As Elgenaidi says: "We can't do this alone. We need your help."