Invisible Neighbors: SA's Muslim Community Perseveres Despite Facing Discrimination

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Islamic Center of San Antonio - Sarah Brooke Lyons
Sarah Brooke Lyons
Islamic Center of San Antonio

There are approximately 30,000 Muslims who call San Antonio home and they come from 57 different countries, Husain said.

"It's a very cosmopolitan, diverse group," she said. "The customs are different. The languages are different. We all look different. It's fun to be that way because we are a global community."

In 2005, Husain told the Current that roughly 13,000 Muslims lived in the Alamo City. So the population has more than doubled over a decade, which doesn't surprise Gabriel Acevedo, a sociology professor at UTSA.

While there's no real empirical data on Muslims in Bexar County, Acevedo said they're mostly immigrants.

"It is possible, like with other parts of the country, that Muslims may be highly-educated and work in very specialized fields," Acevedo said.

Muhammad Palthau, and his wife Fehmida Khanum, owners of Ali Baba restaurant near the Medical Center, fit that bill.

"I came here 20 years ago," said Palthau, a pathologist by training.

Khanum was also a physician when the couple lived in Pakistan. Now she works as an ultrasound tech.

Their children grew up in the U.S. and are now in college.

If there's xenophobia here, they said, it'd be news to them.

"We are proud here. We are safe here," Palthau said. "I don't see that discrimination. My first name is Mohammad and I don't feel a thing. I'm proud to be American."

Syed Hussain, who also has a stake in the restaurant, emigrated from Pakistan to New York City 35 years ago. He also practices medicine and learned to speak Spanish while living in the Big Apple.

But he's got a different take than Khanum and Palthau on discrimination.

"We are the new scapegoat," he said.

Hussain blames mainstream media for conflating Muslims with terrorists, leading to ignorance and hatred.

For instance, Hussain said media doesn't specify the religious background of terrorists operating in South America or Central America.

"No one says anything like that," he mused.

Yet, ironically, extremists across the world do have a common trait, according to Hussain, echoing a sentiment with which many Americans would identify.

"Those terrorists don't have religion," he said.

He speaks not only from conviction, but also from experience.

"I was 10 blocks away from the first World Trade Center when it was going down," he said. "That was a sad day in the world."

Khanum said she cried.

That's when life for Muslims in the United States turned upside down. They became scapegoats for the attack.

"When my daughter was in third grade, she was 6 or 7 after 9/11, she came home and asked if I was a terrorist," Hussain said.

Adopted Country

Khanum, Palthau and Hussain — all longtime Alamo City residents — reflect the national Muslim demographic.

They're mostly foreign imports who take pride in embracing their new home and becoming Americans.

According to a 2011 national survey by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Muslim-Americans who are 18 or older are immigrants and 25 percent of U.S. Muslim adults arrived post-2000.

So they may have come from elsewhere, but most clearly made it a goal to integrate and gain citizenship (81 percent of those surveyed said they became Americans).

Most Alamo City Muslims are immigrants who followed the American dream. Yet they are often asked to apologize for extremist fundamentalists who commit violent acts against innocent people in the name of Islam.

Mainstream media distorts their religion. This convolution trickles into millions of households across the country, which in turn negatively molds perceptions of Muslim-Americans.

And Tea Party Republicans pandering for votes and financial contributions add fuel to the fire with their incessant xenophobic rhetoric.

A 2014 Pew Research Center study shows Republicans generally view Muslims through a negative lens.

Researchers used a scale of zero to 100 to measure how Americans felt about all religious groups, with a low score indicating a negative view. Republicans rated Muslims at an average of 33. They rated atheists at 34.

Evangelical Protestants seem to shun Muslims the most. And as we well know in SA and Texas, they're not in short supply here.

But there is a more visceral reason for discrimination. Many Muslims look and speak differently than the stereotypical white American.

According to Acevedo, discrimination often targets women who wear a hijab, or veil which covers everything but the face. He calls the practice an external display of faith.

"I think a second area would be for men who, frankly, have physical characteristics of being Middle Eastern," he said. "Men often report discrimination because of physical appearance — skin tone or sometimes they wear a longer beard."

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