A Muslim voice for a new generation
AUSTIN - Shahed Amanullah wields a lot of influence from the South Austin coffee shop where he spends most afternoons. Typing away on his laptop, the recent transplant from California is shaping opinion about all things Muslim.
Amanullah, a tall engineering consultant with a trim beard, runs several Web sites in his spare time, including altmuslim.com, an increasingly influential forum for Muslims to write about contemporary, often controversial issues.
What fuels him is a desire to be heard and to offer a platform for people like him - Muslims born and raised in America - to have reasoned, balanced discussions about Islam, world events, culture and politics.
He's encouraging the kind of internal debate he doesn't see reflected in mainstream media or even in Muslim media, which he says is often tied into established political organizations and not truly independent.
Muslims in the United States "have no national newspapers . . . have one national magazine that's not linked to a Muslim group," he said. "You don't have any independent news Web sites with the possible exception of myself."
That concerns Amanullah, 38, who was born in Hollywood, Calif., to Indian parents and earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University.
Estimates of the number of Muslims living in the United States vary widely from 2 million to 10 million, but there's no doubt they are a sizable - and growing - religious minority, Amanullah said.
"For a community that large to be served by such few independent voices, I mean, we are like lambs to the slaughter, because the world talks about us; we're on the news every night," he said. "Every pundit has an opinion about us. . . . Every blogger has an opinion about us. And what is the response back?"
Through AltMuslim, friends say, Amanullah has cultivated young writers, fostered relationships among Muslim leaders and offered non-Muslims an opportunity to see a diversity of thought among Western Muslims. Contributors move beyond the "Islam is peace" mantra that many Muslims clung to after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and tackle weighty topics such as the war in Iraq and genital mutilation.
They push the boundaries with columns on gay marriage and intra-Muslim violence and also produce humorous articles and film and technology reviews.
Where national Muslim groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations take a more defensive line on Muslim controversies, writers on AltMuslim are more likely to be critical.
After a group of imams was detained at a Minneapolis airport in November after praying in the boarding area and allegedly behaving suspiciously, an AltMuslim writer questioned the tactics used by the airline but scolded the imams for being so conspicuous with their prayers. National Muslim groups, on the other hand, demanded justice for the imams, saying they were targeted simply for being Muslim.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he welcomes constructive criticism from within the Muslim community and appreciates Amanullah's efforts in "keeping people honest."
"He's an individual commentator who deals with issues that he thinks are important to the American Muslim community," he said. "He has his perspective. You can take it or leave it."
AltMuslim's mission statement includes "an emphasis on introspection in order to challenge all of us to better our communities."
Zahir Janmohamed, an associate editor based in Washington, said that's part of what makes Amanullah "one of the few visionaries in the Muslim community."
"The genius of that Web site is, it provides a space for Muslim writers like myself who want to write sometimes critically about the Muslim community in a space that's not driven by some neocon political agenda," Janmohamed said. "(With) everything that Shahed does, his primary concern is about empowering Muslims to create a space for themselves."
Amanullah's site has drawn media attention in the United States and abroad. He said the BBC frequently interviews AltMuslim contributors about extremism because "they haven't been able to find Muslims (in Britain) who are willing to speak openly and honestly about it."
In the grand scheme of the Internet, AltMuslim is small, drawing about 7,000 unique users a day, according to Amanullah. But his wife, Hina Azam, an Islamic studies professor at the University of Texas, believes that the site makes an impact.
"There are many, many more sites that put out a more conservative message or a more liberal secular message or take on a more nationalist approach or an ethnocentric approach to Muslim issues," she said. "Sometimes there may only be one or two kinds of alternatives to that, but those one or two weigh more because they are so rare."
AltMuslim is just one of a number of Web sites Amanullah has created in his spare time. He started with restaurant reviews (zabihah.com) and moved on to reviews of mosques written by contributors nationwide (salatomatic.com), a guide to Muslim commerce (halalapa looza.com), political involvement (muslimsforkerry.com) and a site for the best Muslim writing on the Web (brasscrescent .org). And he's planning to launch sites on Muslim parenting and community service.
Amanullah's effort to motivate Muslims extends beyond cyberspace. In Austin, he has lectured UT students on Muslim extremism, has participated in Ramadan discussion groups and is sending one of his two children to a local Muslim school, although he advocates Muslim youths attending public middle and high schools so they can interact with non-Muslims.
"I think (Amanullah) is definitely unique and dynamic," said Yasmin Turk, an active member of the local Muslim community and a friend of Amanullah's. "But I also think he is part of a generation (of) people who are very dynamic and interactive and proactive and doing great things for American Muslim culture."
That generation doesn't receive a warm welcome in some corners of the Internet. Amanullah combs a variety of sites that criticize Muslims and tries to engage bloggers in a respectful dialogue. Some respond; others don't.
Amanullah said he can often find common ground with evangelical Christian bloggers who appreciate Muslims' devotion to God and with political conservatives who respond to Amanullah's stories of Muslim patriots.
He likes to tell people that his father, a structural engineer for Los Angeles County, had the security clearance to inspect the plant where B-1 bombers were built and that his mother works for the U.S. State Department.
Amanullah also has to answer to the older generation of Muslims, mostly immigrants who resist public discussion of problems within their religion.
"One of the things I tell people who say, 'Don't tell people our dirty laundry,' I say, 'Our dirty laundry was blown all over the place on 9/11,' " he said. "There's nothing left to hide. I mean, come on. Let's be real here. It's out there. Let's wash it in public. I'm a big believer in that: Be critical, but be involved."
(Eileen Flynn, Austin-American Statesman, January 8, 2007)
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