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From the Baltimore Sun

Keeping the faith

Since the attacks, local Muslim-Americans have seen the best -- and the worst -- of their countrymen

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 of life.

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.

A similar story

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 at the 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 countries.

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 do.'"

Twisting jihad

"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 struggle."

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, were Muslims.

"We did absolutely everything we could," he says. "These things were simply not reported."

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 thought.

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.

Day-to-day hurts

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 here?"

"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 themselves.

"Just look at the way we live," Abed Husain says. "We are true Americans. We are not very different from you."

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