Catherine Lafuente had just turned 21 when her father was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Since then she has learned Arabic and become a public speaker on topics related to Islam and anti-Muslim bias. While of course remaining critical of Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism, she has also become an advocate for the rights of Muslim Americans, and an opponent of religious prejudice.
Here, she is interviewed by four Wait, What? bloggers: amazonziev, kalimat, addsrules, and emeraldmer.
amazonziev: Did you know anything about Islam before 9/11?
I knew about Islam before 9/11 mostly because of the Muslims who lived in my community of Poughkeepsie, NY, a small city of 30,000 people 70 miles north of New York City. I also knew about it because one of my best friend’s fathers is a professor of religion at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, whose name is Dr. Lawrence Mamiya.
The Muslims in my community were mostly African-American, and either considered themselves to be Sunni Muslims or were affiliated with the Nation of Islam, mostly the former. I also encountered members of the 5% Nation when I would take daytrips into Manhattan, where they would often preach on the street corners.
I did not know much about Muslim religious practices and rituals, knowing only that Muslims prayed on prayer rugs and believed Mecca to be a sacred place. I had heard the name Muhammad, who was the Prophet of Islam, and that Muslims were monotheistic. I also knew that Islam was practiced in the Middle East in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran and other Arab states. Finally, I knew that Islam was practiced in India because my uncle, Majeed Kazi, was born a Muslim and is from India.
There was a lot I did not know, such as the fact that Islam is practiced in Indonesia, or that Muslims fasted during Ramadan. I did not learn about those details until after 9/11.
amazonziev: What was your initial reaction to your father’s death? How did your family and friends react to the news? Were you ever angry with Islam?
My initial reaction to my father’s death was mostly shock. Our family did not know that my father was in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and only learned about it later. It was a gradual process of acceptance when the days and nights passed and he just never came home. That was very hard for my family, because we were worried, and scared for the worst, but still wondered if maybe he would come home after being in a hospital or being trapped somewhere in the rubble. We eventually gave up hope that we would ever see him again. Those were very sad days.
My friends were all very supportive, as was our entire community. To this day, I have fond memories of the many, many people who stepped forward and did everything that they could to help us.
I was never angry with Islam, nor do I blame Islam for 9/11. However, I do have some anger toward the Muslims who carried out the attacks and toward those who celebrated it. I think that the 9/11 attacks are very un-Islamic, and contradict the Qur’an, such as Q. 5:32.
I am more sad than angry though, much more. My sadness is much bigger and much more powerful than my anger was or ever could be.
kalimat: What inspired you most, while educated yourself/being educated, to become an activist?
It’s funny. I am not sure that I would call myself an activist, but that might be because of how I imagine an activist to be. I don’t go to many protests, although I did go to one when Gaza was being bombed, and I don’t do many public speeches, although I did speak at the 2008 CAIR banquet in Tampa, Florida.
But I think in some ways, your question has forced me to evaluate myself. I really am an activist simply because of who I am and what I do. Choosing to learn about Islam as a 9/11 victim’s family member does make me a public figure.
So, to answer your question. What inspired me the most, other than a desire to have a career that would help people live better lives, were the people I met along the way. The friends I have made, both teachers and students, are all united in our desire to end prejudice against Muslims in the United States. Many of the people I met were Muslims, and are now some of my best friends. When I consider that I would have never met my dear friend Syed, or my beloved Arabic teacher, Randy, had I not chosen this path, it reminds me that I am on the right path.
addsrules: What is the goal of your work? Or how do you want your work to have effect on people?
I often ask myself the same question, as I am not sure what exactly I will end up having as my profession. Because of finances, I will not be finishing my doctoral degree for a long time, if ever I can. But I still have other goals that are not attached to how far I take my education.
One goal is to master the Arabic language. I have studied it for 3 years now, and I am about to spend the summer in Amman, Jordan, which I hope will help me become a fluent speaker of Arabic. I think that a woman such as myself – a Cuban-American woman born in New York – I think that for me, to learn the language makes a certain statement. I do not know many people who are trying to learn Arabic, and of those that do, they often don’t understand how much of a commitment it is. What do you think it says about me?
Another goal is to be a person that someone can go to when they have questions about both Islam and September 11, 2001. I do not know many people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks who went into Islamic Studies, so I feel that my perspective can help people. I do think that I am unique, and I do try to remember that I am doing something important just by being me.
Lastly, I will talk about what I want to be “when I grow up.” I either want to be a journalist, or I want to continue the work that I do now, which happens to be working with people who have problems with drugs and are at risk for getting HIV/AIDS. The people that I work for really like that I know about Islam and Arabic, and in the future, they have said that I could be very helpful in doing work in countries where Islam is the primary religion, or where Arabic is the native language.
addsrules: What do you think is the biggest problem/setback that Muslim Americans face currently? Is there any specific stereotype or misconception that particularity annoys or bothers you and why?
The biggest problem that Muslim-Americans face is prejudice against them by non-Muslims. Because of 9/11, there are some people who think that any Muslim supports the 9/11 attacks. However, I have learned that those perceptions are mostly because of ignorance about Islam. I would like to see people who think that all Muslims support 9/11 given a chance to be taught that the vast majority of Muslims, especially Muslim-Americans, do not support 9/11, or killing anyone, ever. It can be difficult to try and teach that to people who are very hateful, but I hope that maybe they would listen to someone like me.
The stereotype that bothers me the most is that Muslims cannot be Americans, and vice-versa. Muslim Americans were not only killed on 9/11, but they were also among the fire fighters and police officers that responded to the attacks, ready and willing to give their lives. The United States is a country where religious freedom is supposed to be a guaranteed right, so people who think that Muslims cannot be Americans are, in my opinion, being VERY un-American.
amazonziev: What levels of prejudice do you see in Americans against Islam? Has it died down since 9/11 or has it gotten worse?
I think that the main prejudice I see is that all Muslims are Arabs and not Americans. Sometimes people are not educated about the many places that Muslim-Americans come from – Pakistan, Indonesia, China, etc. Also, I think a lot of people can’t separate Muslims from other countries from African-American Muslims.
I think that the prejudices against Muslims have definitely gotten worse since 9/11.
amazonziev: Do you think America is properly educated on Islam?
I do not. Outside of Muslim-Americans and people who are distinctly trying to learn about Islam, I do find that the “average” non-Muslim American does not know very much about Islam. There are a lot of people who are trying very hard to change that, though, and that gives me hope that people will learn more about Islam.
On Bin Laden’s death
kalimat: Do you feel vindicated in any way by the death of Bin Laden?
This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about. And the answer is no and yes.
No, because I never wanted anyone killed to avenge my father’s death. The Prophet Muhammad was against the practice of vengeance, and I agree with him. To be very candid (and this is difficult to admit) – I hate to think that someone else has now lost a father, no matter what kind of man he was. I think of Q 5:32 when asked this question.
Yes, because I think my country has been tormented by this man for many years, and he became a symbol of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I think that today, if you asked Americans if we thought we were winning the “War On Terror,” they would say yes. Also, I think that with Bin Laden gone, he can no longer try and kill more people.
All of us are forced to look within ourselves for this answer: Is it ever okay to kill someone in order to save the lives of others?
kalimat: As someone affected by it directly, do you think some people should be more or less pleased by his death?
This is a difficult question for me to answer simply because I try not to tell anyone how they should feel about anything. I think that there are reasons to be pleased by his death, but I also mourn the loss of human life. I suppose we are all entitled to our opinions. What you address here, for me, is that you can be pleased and displeased at the same time for different reasons.
Above all, I just wish we did not have to resort to violence, ever.
emeraldmer: How do you feel about the current threat that al Qaeda poses after bin Laden’s death?
I think that al-Qaeda’s influence has drastically decreased for two reasons.
1 – Osama Bin Laden was the leader, symbolically, financially and maybe even strategically of al-Qaeda. He was a figurehead who motivated people to commit murder. With him dead, he can no longer help to orchestrate another attack, or inspire someone to be like him.
2 – The protests in the Arab World, known as the Arab Spring, have shown to both myself and many others that al-Qaeda has already failed to have an influence on the Muslim and Arab world. I think this quote from an Al-Jazeera article by Robert L. Grenier:
“In truth, the promise represented by Saddam Hussein was not a dream, but a nightmare. It should not be the fate of the Muslims to be “liberated” by mass-murderers, whether Saddam or Osama, whose contempt for the core beliefs and aspirations of most of those whom they pretended to lead was palpable.””
addsrules: – Do you think that the fact that Bin Laden has been killed will change any aspect of the lives of Muslim Americans?
I do, but I think it will take time to tell for sure.
emeraldmer: What do you think is the best way to eliminate prejudice against Muslims in society today (especially America) in light of the terrorism that we generally associate with Islam?
I think that people just need to be educated about Islam. Non-Muslims need a forum in which they can ask Muslims about their beliefs, and hear for themselves what Muslims have to say about how they interpret their religion. Again, I think of my friend Syed, a Muslim who left his very lucrative career in finance to become an academic who knows as much about Islam as he can. We need to support people like him!
amazonziev: What do you think is the first step in battling prejudice?
I think that reading the Qur’an in its entirety would be the first step on the path to ending prejudice against Muslims. And, I think that Muslim-Americans should reach out to their non-Muslim friends, family, and neighbors to do so. Being proactive and asking people what they want to know can often open a dialogue between people that leads to a better understanding.