Basim Elkarra, 32, Sacramento
"Once someone yelled at my sister, 'Go back to where you came from!'" said Elkarra, director of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "They seemed confused and puzzled when my sister, who happens to be a doctor, responded in flawless English, 'I am from here.' "
Life became infinitely more complicated for Elkarra and his family when terrorists attacked America 10 years ago today. Many American Muslims have felt the need to passionately defend their faith and their backgrounds, and to make clear that they do not hold the same values as the men who carried out the attacks.
Elkarra, who is married with a child, has experienced the humiliation of security "profiling," including being held up for hours in Puerto Rico while returning from his honeymoon trip to the British Virgin Islands in 2006, he said. "Security agents at the airport apologized, but said we would have to wait," he recalled. "Another time in New York as I was about to board a plane, I was pulled out of line and searched in front of everyone."
Elkarra said he was as shocked as any American when, following his morning prayers on 9/11, he turned on the TV and saw the flaming towers in New York. One of his thoughts: " 'Oh God. Please don't let the people who are responsible be Muslims.' "
"Shortly thereafter, I felt called to duty, not one on the battlefield but one that would build bridges between communities," Elkarra said. "I felt as an American Arab Muslim that it was my duty to bridge gaps at a time when people were calling for a clash of civilizations."
Elkarra's organization strives to do just that, bringing law enforcement, ethnic and interfaith communities together in an effort to build good will and understanding.
Despite the challenges in a post-9/11 world, Elkarra said, "I have been blessed to also witness the beauty of my fellow Americans firsthand."
Last year at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, he said, hundreds of people of all faiths gathered to hold a Quran blessing following news that a pastor in Florida was planning to publicly burn the document. One after the other, the participants placed a rose on top of the Quran. "Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me," they said.
Editor's note: This story was changed Sept. 14 to correct that Basim Elkarra has one child.