For Tacoma Muslim, post-9/11 scrutiny echoes his boyhood in Jim Crow South

Marotha Pasha converted to Islam in the middle of the last century and moved to Tacoma in the 1980s. Now 81, he looks back at those decades as a time his faith was an obscurity in his country.

“Twenty years ago, the only thing Americans knew about most Muslims was Malcolm X,” he said in a Tacoma coffee shop.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and a series of attacks by a handful of men who professed to share his faith, wars in two Islamic countries, and a national climate of terror watch lists and various see-something-say-something alertness campaigns.

Pasha was born in New York City and raised partly in South Carolina, where his parents were from, during segregationist times.

He is African American. He dresses according to the tenets of his faith, with a skullcap, a knee-length shirt and a beard.

When he discusses American life as a Muslim in this century, the conversation tends to include comparisons to the scrutiny he saw in Jim Crow society as a boy.

“The average American, when he sees me, goes, ‘I better watch him. He’s a terrorist,’ ” said Pasha, a retired human-services worker. “Well, I don’t look at somebody and think, ‘He’s a terrorist.’ 

This experience became a lasting national change as people grappled with the consequences of the 9/11 attacks.

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One product was hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls anti-Muslim groups a “relatively new phenomenon” that sprang up after Sept. 11 and counts 34 of them active in the country today.

One is in Washington: Faith Freedom of Bellevue, whose website calls the religion “a cult created by a psychopath.”

Karam Dana, director of the American Muslim Research Institute at the University of Washington Bothell, has worked to measure the changed climate, for Muslims and in how the rest of America responds to them.

“Muslims, right after 9/11, were pushed into a corner for a long time,” said Dana, who is Muslim.

One example, he said, is a national poll he conducted that was published in 2009. In it, he found that 92 percent of Muslims said members of their religion were, tacitly, the specific targets of airport security measures.

Such perceptions don’t play out in a vacuum.

Dana said they have played out in a cycle of alienation still reverberating across American civics.

An earlier poll, not his, found that in 2000, for the first time, a majority of Muslim voters in America — 72 percent — were registered as Republicans.

In 2008, Dana’s poll found that, after the 9/11 attacks, the foreign wars and hostile perceptions of domestic policies, 8 percent of Muslims identified as Republican.

“Many felt disenfranchised,” he said. “They became not affiliated with any party if you asked them. … They felt that the political process completely ignored them.”

Today, in another election year, Dana said, the distance of time — and “someone like (Republican presidential candidate Donald) Trump using terminology that has been problematic” about curtailing Muslim immigration — has led to a climate in which Muslims have been courted by Democrats as an available voter group.

It has, he said, followed a pattern in which America’s Muslim population has become more civically engaged after years of feeling marginalized by government scrutiny and active bigotry.

In a 2011 paper, Dana reported that Muslims had become increasingly active in their mosques and in domestic politics. There are two Muslims in Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana, both Democrats.

“American Muslims felt isolated in the years after 9/11, politically and socially,” Dana said, “and that somehow is being reversed slowly.”

Pasha lists the “circus” of this year’s presidential campaign as one of a long series of factors in his personal political considerations.

He said he was not politically active for much of his life, but discussed in depth a series of recent years’ foreign and domestic events, from Pakistani politics to Occupy Wall Street, as matters he has become a careful observer of, and said he supported Democrat Bernie Sanders in this year’s presidential election.

He worries about the world his 20 grandchildren are growing up in and whether they might know the feeling of being regarded as an outsider, as he has.

“I have generations of family here,” Pasha said. “I’m not newly arrived.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally