By Henry Schuster
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Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's investigative unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror" he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- More than 300 people crammed into a hotel ballroom near LaGuardia Airport to spend a Sunday evening in an attempt to understand both sides of the hyphen that defines their lives.
The event was billed as a conference on "America's War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations," and the audience of high school and college students was supposed to be asking the questions.
But the night -- beginning with a recitation from the Quran and the Pledge of Allegiance -- was also about self-identity.
Because like many Egyptian-Americans or Iranian-Americans, young Pakistani-Americans are worried about how their identity as Muslims is perceived in their adopted country.
The meeting was the brainchild of Suhail Muzaffar, a Pakistani immigrant who is chairman of a mosque on Staten Island.
He told me he began to worry about young Pakistani-Americans after the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London when three of the four suicide bombers were discovered to have been young Britons of Pakistani descent.
"We realized the first generation of the [immigrant] Pakistani Muslims was losing touch with the younger generation. We said, 'Wait a minute, God forbid it might happen here,' " Muzaffar said. "Talk to us, this is your country and your homeland and this is where your loyalties lie."
Muzaffar wasn't alone in his concern. He found that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were also eager to hear what was on the mind of the younger generation of Pakistani-Americans and other young American Muslims.
What's more, the government agencies were willing to help underwrite the event, which they used to make a recruiting pitch. Outside the conference room, agents set up booths and handed out brochures touting careers in law enforcement along with pens and calculators.
The tough questions
Inside, senior agents from the FBI and DHS faced tough questions. They were up front along with Muzaffar, some community leaders and a British member of Parliament.
One young man drew cheers from the crowd when he challenged Martin Ficke of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency about the detention of Muslims after the attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington.
Another asked if the federal government kept a list of Muslims in America. No, was the quick and forceful response from FBI agent Andrew Arena.
Why, someone else asked, had the British MP Shahid Malik been detained at the airport for 40 minutes when he arrived from London?
A young woman said she was interested in joining the CIA, but was also scared about the possibility of hate crimes.
Another plaintively asked the panelists, "What have we gained in Afghanistan and Iraq?"
After one of the federal agents said the FBI had gained a great deal of intelligence, the moderator broke in and asked the crowd, "Are you satisfied with his answer?"
"No" came the answer from the audience.
It was evident that most in the crowd identified with the idea that Muslims were under attack around the world and sometimes, as some perceive is the case in Iraq, by America.
There were conspiracy theories and complaints of discrimination. If the agents thought they were going to have an easy time with the young crowd, they were quickly disabused of that.
And often the lawmen seemed to be on the defensive, stressing that their agencies were sensitizing themselves to the concerns not just of Pakistani-Americans but the wider American Muslim community.
"The basic issue is ignorance [by some in law enforcement]," said Arena, who argued that the FBI was becoming far more sophisticated in training agents to be aware of cultural sensitivities.
More than once, Arena told the crowd that "Muslims did not attack the U.S. on 9/11. Extremists attacked the U.S. on 9/11." He also talked about Christians, who he said used the Bible to justify attacks on abortion doctors.
For many students -- and for some of the community elders on the panel -- their remarks revealed the difficulty in balancing the Pakistani or Muslim part of their identity with the American side.
It was a question much asked on both sides of the Atlantic after 7/7 in London.
There are about a half-million people of Pakistani descent in the United States, according to Tufts University professor Adil Najam, who has spent time studying the community's demographics.
They are, as with the wider American Muslim community, better off and better educated than the average American.
That's in contrast to the Pakistani-British community, which Najam said is poorer than British society at large and keeps more to itself.
But resolving the paradox of being Pakistani and Muslim and American was clearly not easy, even on this night.
Najam, who ran almost 50 focus groups in the Pakistani community here while working on his book "The Giving Community," said the younger, more American generation is conflicted about its identity.
"This is a community angst because the hyphen has become the defining feature rather than the two words around the hyphen," he said.
The Sunday night gathering got some bracing advice from panelist Abdul Malik, an American-born Muslim cleric who quickly became a crowd favorite for his eloquent thoughts.
There was a hint of Dr. Phil as he told the crowd to just get over it and not be paralyzed by any sense of conflicted identity.
"You don't have to decide between being Muslim and American. When America is wrong, stand up and tell them they are wrong."
Angst or not, tough questions or not, those who organized the meeting were hoping to take their show on the road to such as Chicago, Illinois, and Washington.
Neither Ficke nor Arena was sure they had recruited any new agents by the end of the evening, but they were optimistic about the dialogue.
So, too, were some of the students.
The stakes are high.
Just a few days after the meeting, casting an eye toward the next generation of Pakistani-Britons, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of Britain's internal security service, issued a dire forecast about the likelihood of more al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism in that country.
"That threat is serious, is growing and will, I believe, be with us for a generation," Manningham-Buller said.
For his part, Suhail Muzaffar offered a hyphenated alternative to the younger Pakistani-American generation, noting at the La Guardia conference that election was taking place just two days later.
"There is no greater jihad than casting our ballots on November 7," he said.
Men kneel during Friday prayers at a 2004 protest in New York's Times Square.
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