From the Baltimore Sun
attacks, local Muslim-Americans have seen the best -- and the worst -- of their
By Jonathan Pitts
Baltimore Sun reporter and he can be contacted at
September 6, 2006
They begin arriving early - the slightly rusted Toyotas, the spiffy VWs, the
purring BMWs - filling the hillside parking lot under a gleaming afternoon sun.
An old man in billowing white robes and silver beard looks more Bedouin chief
than parking attendant, but with elegant sweeps of his arm guides his brothers
and sisters into their spaces. By a quarter to 1, the lot is jammed.
It's Friday, the afternoon for congregational worship in Islam, and a community
is coming together. Women in headscarves tow grade-schoolers, boys in thobes
(Saudi-style robes) greet each other with whacks on the arm, and men in taqiyah
(flat-topped skullcaps) trade smiles and firm handshakes. They move in a merging
stream toward the Al Rahmah masjid (mosque) in Windsor Mill, to an otherwise
ordinary gymnasium that serves as worship and community center for the Islamic
Society of Baltimore, the largest association of its kind in Maryland.
More than 1,600 will show up for this day's Jumu'ah, the weekly gathering at
which Muslims hear a brief sermon, pray aloud and affirm, in Arabic
call-and-response, their devotion to Allah, to one another and to a humble way
That's barely a sliver of the 7 million Muslims said to be living in North
America, let alone the 1.4 billion who practice Islam worldwide. But it's more
than enough to cram the gym shoulder-to-shoulder, men of all ages standing in
orderly rows, establishing the physical configuration Muslims believe will crowd
out the devil if only they are devout enough.
Long before that terrible, smoke-filled morning five years ago, before the
skyscrapers burned and the Pentagon smoldered and all Muslims came under a cloud
of suspicion in the West, those who practiced Islam in America found the United
States an ambivalent host - a place where they could pursue their dreams and
worship, however they pleased, yet whose natives sometimes saw Islamic practices
as alien, impenetrable, even vaguely threatening.
Take Muhammad Jameel, 61. At Jumu'ah, amid the hundreds gathering in their
Punjab-, Arabian- or African-inspired garments, not to mention many in jeans and
T-shirts, he's the guy in the gray business suit, his tie loosened a few
notches, with wire glasses on his nose. He flits from one person to another,
touching shoulders, shaking hands, making eye contact, speaking encouragement.
He learned the need for such exhortation 36 years ago, shortly after moving to
the United States from his native Pakistan. A midlevel executive for a U.S.
shipping company, he settled into his new job in Baltimore, only to be asked by
his superiors to change his "foreign-sounding" name.
"I guess they knew better," he says evenly.
Jameel quit the job. He started his own consulting company, a move that led to
busy careers in teaching and business. (Today, he owns a photo-finishing company
in Baltimore County.) Yet he'd learned, as many Muslim immigrants do, that if he
wasn't careful, he could embrace his new freedoms and opportunities at the cost
of his identity.
His story is like that of many at salat (prayer) today, the immigrants from
Africa, the Asian subcontinent or Indonesia who came to the U.S. to learn a
trade, go to school or flee societies that felt uncomfortable, oppressive or
backward. He married an American, raised three kids (a son-in-law is a Marine),
became a citizen. Yet he retained a well-tuned ear for notes of Muslim-Western
discord and cultivated a taste for quiet conflict resolution. At the Islamic
Society of Baltimore, he's on everyone's speed dial.
It's a good thing, too. Muslim-American crises, some comical, some not, can
develop quickly. Take the call Jameel got in the middle of the night not long
ago. The husband of an elderly female member had just died, and she reacted the
way Muslimah have for centuries: by wailing at the top of her voice.
Neighbors called the police. "They thought it was spousal abuse," he says, both
wincing and smiling. "Muslim women are taught not to withhold emotion when
grieving. Isn't it healthier that way? This sister didn't speak English well, so
I drove over and explained what had happened."
Such incidents are not unusual for members of ISB, which started as a tiny group
Johns Hopkins University in 1969 and,
since moving to its 8-acre site on Johnnycake Road in 1982, has expanded to
include more than 3,000 families from around the area. Members live in East
Baltimore, Reisterstown, Timonium, but they hail from a mind-boggling 86
Nor are the incidents surprising. Muslim immigrants from volatile or repressive
nations - Ethiopia, Bosnia, Bangladesh - revere America's liberties and
opportunities for advancement. As Jameel points out, they are prosperous: 60
percent of Baltimore County Muslims are employers and almost none is on the
public dole, and ISB boasts dozens of doctors, engineers and educators.
But Americans who live in a post-feminist world can still find it hard to grasp
a religious culture that asks women to dress modestly ("believing women ...
should lower their gaze [and] not display their beauty and adornments," says the
Quran), men to make salat (pray formally five times a day), teens to eschew
dating, and all believers to learn and worship in Arabic.
"Some of these practices may appear to be repressive," says Jameel. "To Muslims,
they promote what is of value in life - modesty, restraint, the development of
relationships based on who people are, not on appearances or external things.
These are qualities many religions favor, including Christianity."
Elemental symbols of such beliefs can inflame those unaccustomed to seeing them.
The head- scarves, or hijab, some women wear in modesty (Islam does not require
them) become a particular target, especially in a society long proud of its
notions of openness.
"Often people will look at a Muslim sister and [think], 'What is she hiding?'"
Jameel says. Recently he had to calm the mother of a 14- year-old girl whose
schoolmate yanked her hijab, calling her a "terrorist."
"She came home in tears, of course," he says. "The Muslim way is to counsel
something Jesus himself preached: 'Forgive them, for they know not what they
"East is East and West is West," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "and never the twain
shall meet." If ancient custom divided Muslim-Americans from the community
around them, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - mass murder carried out in the name
of Islam - hammered in the wedge. What once amounted, in most cases, to mutual
misunderstanding born of ignorance or incuriosity morphed in a single, historic
morning into full-fledged suspicion.
To ordinary Muslim-Americans - that vast majority who work hard (in many cases
at several jobs), save carefully, donate 2.5 percent of their income to charity
by custom, and teach the importance of education - it's axiomatic that the
terrorists of five years ago were demented killers with a false and twisted
notion of Islam.
"It is unfortunate but true that in any large group, you'll have a small
percentage of psychos," says Akbar Ansari of Lutherville, director of the
Baltimore County Muslim Council.
"Extremely stupid fellows did 9/11," adds Habeeb Ashruf, an Islamic scholar and
former ISB president. "They twist the concept of jihad, which means a spiritual
Abid Husain, a real estate agent and an officer at the Islamic Society, cringes
at the memory of those days. He insists he sent news releases to local media
outlets that clearly and officially condemned the attacks on behalf of the ISB.
He even oversaw the hanging of banners along the outer fence that expressed
solidarity with Sept. 11 victims, at least 200 of whom, he and others point out,
"We did absolutely everything we could," he says. "These things were simply not
That's one reason many Muslim-Americans have lost faith in the nation's press.
In a meeting at ISB one recent evening, Raees Khan, a postal service manager who
lives in Pasadena, laughs ironically. He used to disbelieve 10 percent of what
he read in the papers, he says; now he assumes news stories are at least
half-wrong and goes from there.
"If you speak and speak, and no one listens," he says with a shake of the head,
"what can you do? I can't say why the message is lost. We are delivering it,
again and again. Perhaps it is that people don't want to hear."
Shortly after Sept. 11, ISB members say, tensions were high. It is the practice
of devout Muslims to lay out traditional rugs and pray wherever they happen to
be during the five prescribed times (Fajr, at 5:20 a.m.; Zuhr, at 1:30 in the
afternoon.; and Asr, Maghrib and Isha, all in the evening.)
To Muslims such as Ahmed Bendebba, a Timonium real estate agent, those occasions
are the essence of his faith. "Something about praying those five times, bowing,
touching your forehead to the ground, is so humbling," he says. "It's so easy,
and unwise, to get swept up in ego. Humility is very healthy."
If so, Muslims grew ill for a while. Husain stopped praying in public. Rizwan
Habeeb, a medical student at the time, said he and his friends debated whether
to continue greeting one another, when meeting in the wider community, in the
standard Muslim fashion (as-salaam o alaikum, or "peace be with you"), or to
adopt American salutations or say nothing at all.
Not all Muslims had such experiences. Many say their faith in American
open-mindedness was renewed after Sept. 11, when they found themselves
unbothered in prayer, even in the aisles of American jetliners. After the
attacks, neighbors inundated Khan, the postal worker, with cards, flowers and
letters of support.
Jameel, who has 60 first cousins in Pakistan and contacts all over the world,
says Muslims around the globe still love Americans, even if U.S. foreign policy
seems disproportionately to favor Israel, and such times showed why.
One Baltimore County police officer, he says, came by the ISB the day after the
attacks and gave Jameel his personal cell number. "Call me, day or night, if you
need anything," he said.
On another occasion, fear somersaulted into gratitude. A burly stranger from the
neighborhood sought Jameel out just after the attacks, walked straight up to him
and, alarmingly, started jabbing him in the chest. It wasn't what Jameel
Said the man: "I'll leave you my picture, sir, and you can stick it to the fence
with a big sign under it that says, 'This is my big brother, and if anyone
bothers us, he'll beat the crap out of you.'"
Jameel fights back tears. "Some people do understand," he says.
Tales abound of Muslim friends and relations, especially in the New York area,
who packed up and returned to their homelands in 2001. Other stories, of Muslims
being detained, never to return, are harder to substantiate but no less vivid on
the rumor circuit.
Then there are the day-to-day hurts. Not long after Sept. 11, Tooba Ahmed, then
a University of Maryland student, decided for the first time to "begin covering"
- wearing a hijab - as an affirmation of her faith. In chemistry class, she
found the seats around her suddenly empty.
"It was a very different feeling," she says.
If tensions have eased in the past five years - and incidents are fewer and
further between - it may be because of the initiative of Muslim-Americans like
Jameel, Ansari and Bendebba, who work to counter the Muslim tendency toward
self-effacement. "It is crucial to build bridges," Jameel says.
To that end, he speaks at churches, sharing Muslim perspectives. Ansari helps
organize dinners, inviting the wider community. Bendebba, ISB President Umar
Mustafa and others encourage members to take part in the U.S. political system.
Just last month, ISB held two "Meet the Candidates" sessions that brought scores
of aspirants to the center to answer questions. Jameel, Ansari and others have
given their names and cell numbers to FBI and police officials in case
translators - or ambassadors - are needed.
It's still an uphill battle. When Israel's war with Hezbollah began in July, a
local TV reporter visited the ISB for reaction. Ansari was disappointed at the
first (and only) question: "Do any members of [the terrorist group] Hamas belong
"I mean no disrespect," he says patiently, "but how do you answer a question
that shows such a gap in awareness? Hamas? To us, they are what the Ku Klux Klan
would be to Christians. Why even ask us? If people like that were here, we'd
have handed them over a long time ago. ... We don't want that kind of trouble
any more than you do."
As years continue to pass and Sept. 11 recedes in memory - and given better
communication from non-Muslims and those who practice the faith - the world
outside the ISB's cyclone fence will come to see those inside it as they see
"Just look at the way we live," Abed Husain says. "We are true Americans. We are
not very different from you."