Houston Muslims lose a leader, on and off the court

Nadia Siddiqi wants to talk basketball.

She speaks passionately about her favorite player's sweet post fake and his shot-blocking under the net. But for her, one of the most memorable moments in "Brother" Hakeem's career is when the Rockets won a championship during the Muslim holy days of Ramadan - when "The Dream" had had nothing to eat or drink all day.

"I was a very big basketball fan growing up, and seeing a Muslim out there made me feel proud," says Nadia, a biology major at the University of Houston, as she tucks a lock of hair back behind her delicate headscarf.

"I mean, finally, a positive role model."

While the departure of Hakeem Olajuwon has shaken local sports fans, who can't imagine a game without No. 34, a deeper impact is being felt in the mosques of

Houston.

Unlike any other US Muslim before him, Olajuwon raised the level of awareness about a religion that is often misunderstood and characterized by stereotypes.

"I can talk to you all day about Islam, but it won't get people's attention the way Hakeem - a good person, a responsible citizen, a humanitarian, and an excellent athlete - will," says Charles Kimball, chair of the religion department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Nobody thinks he's going to blow something up or menace anybody. All of that challenges the stereotypes in a way that is invaluable."

He sees Mr. Olajuwon's departure from the US as a loss to a community that is struggling to become part of the mainstream. Many first- and second-generation American Muslims have been afraid to speak up about their beliefs during turbulent times.

"You are looking at a very diverse group of people who are living under images and stereotypes portrayed on television," says Dr. Kimball. He says too many Americans have their images of the religion shaped by stories of terrorist Osama bin Laden, World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, and controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. "Something is askew there."

An 'ambassador for Islam'

With his quiet devotion on and off the court, Olajuwon brought Islam into the homes of Houstonians - and Texans - the way no one else has.

"He has been a good ambassador for Islam," says Masrur Javed Khan, emerging from the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. "When he was fasting on national TV, it helped all of us explain who we were." Though he will miss seeing the 7-footer bending into doorways around town, "he will still be close to our hearts." He quickly adds: "Of course, I'll still continue to follow his career."

Olajuwon, who will be playing for the Toronto Raptors next season, will be the first to tell you he will miss Houston, and all his Muslim brothers and sisters. During his time with them, the Rockets made special arrangements for his meals, built him a prayer room at the Summit Arena (where the team practices), and allowed him to take time out of the practice schedule to attend mosque on Fridays.

He says he keeps in touch with the handful of Muslims in the league today, and enjoys playing against them. "There are so few of us. It's refreshing to be in the company of my brothers in the same field," he said after a Friday service at a mosque south of downtown.

But the famous center knows that much more has been required of him than simply playing good ball. Being in the limelight has meant increased attention on his religion - something from which this gentle Nigerian has not shied away. "Part of the duty of this religion is to express it so people in the non-Muslim population can learn about it," says Olajuwon, clothed in traditional Pakistani pants and a long tan shirt. A white embroidered cap rests atop his head. "We are taught not to hide it, but to showcase it."

While not afraid to talk about it, Olajuwon hasn't stirred up controversy with his religion the way other Muslim athletes, such as Mohammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, did. In fact, he spoke up when he thought prominent Muslims weren't acting in line with the teachings of the Koran.

Of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Denver Nuggets guard who converted to Islam and refused to stand for the national anthem in 1996, Olajuwon said at the time: "It's tough for me to understand his position, but in general, the Muslim teaching is to obey and respect. To be a good Muslim is to be a good citizen."

Not a role model for all

Still, not everyone in Houston is happy with the importance Olajuwon places on his faith. "He is a very good man and a credit to our community," says Chido Nwangwu, publisher of USAfrica, the largest Nigerian newspaper in the US. "But he was not a center for the African community. He could have used his star power to bring the Nigerian community into the mainstream the way he did with Islam."

Mr. Nwangwu laments that Houston does not have a community center for Nigerians or local scholarships for Africans.

While Olajuwon returns home to Lagos, Nigeria, to see his relatives, his faith appears to be more important to him than the country of his birth - he's twice made the trek to Mecca. He is just one of 1 billion Muslims around the world - there are between 6 million to 8 million Muslims in the US alone. But even though Islam is the world's second-largest religion, behind Christianity, it is still one of the least understood.

But that is changing, says Olajuwon. "Because of the regular stereotypes and negative publicity that Muslims get, it takes a lot of confidence to stand up for who we are. But as the numbers grow, we will feel more comfortable to be proud to be Americans."

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