Moving Beyond Stereotypes

Shortly after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the calls began. As after most any disturbing event in the Middle East, the phone at the Islamic Center in Quincy, Mass., rang with messages from angry New Englanders speaking their minds about Muslims. But this time one caller said, "The center is going to blow up in 15 minutes."

"It was scary," says Imam Talal Eid, the center's religious director. "We called the police and they came and searched. There was no bomb."

But Mr. Eid had reason to be worried. The Islamic Center of New England, founded by immigrant families from Lebanon who worked in the Quincy shipyards during both world wars, had suffered an arson attack in 1990 that destroyed part of the center and damaged the rest.

The imam - an affable man with a ready smile - seems to take the situation in stride. He was once imam at the mosque in Tripoli, Lebanon, in a neighborhood split between rival militias in the civil war. His house was in the territory of one group and the mosque in the other.

He, his wife, Hend, and two children came to the United States in 1982. For 16 years, as the family grew to six children, he has led the center through a host of challenges. (He also earned a masters degree at Harvard Divinity School.)

Seeking to expand beyond the rebuilt Quincy location, they encountered resistance in other communities. After they paid a deposit on a property in Milton and met zoning requirements, a small group bought it out from under them. When they found farmland in Sharon two years later, again residents objected.

"You cannot assume a good welcome anywhere," Eid says. "Not because people are bad, but because they have many negative stereotypes from the media and even school textbooks." They don't distinguish between Islam and Muslims generally and those who do bad things, he says, whereas they make those distinctions with Christians. They don't realize they are often dealing with third-generation Americans thoroughly versed in American civilization, he adds.

But this time, the clergy in Sharon "gave us all kinds of support," and many faiths shared in the groundbreaking. Now there is a K-7 school, with eighth grade to be added next year, and a social hall for gatherings, including two annual feasts that can draw more than 3,000 worshippers.

Eid spends much time talking to churches, schools, and other groups about Islam. Once Americans understand the basic teachings, he says, they will no longer fear it.

"The environment in America encourages openness, recognition, and respect," Eid says, "and US Muslims are more open than Muslims anywhere else." They seek to make their way and contribute to society. But there are challenges to practicing their faith fully. "Our congregational prayer is on Fridays. [Given work demands] how many Muslims can do Friday prayers? ... There are many challenges for Muslims, no doubt, but they can be dealt with," he muses.

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