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Muslims deal with grief - and prejudice

In wake of attacks, American Muslims struggle to defend their faith against stereotypes.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2001



NEW YORK

As Reda Ragoui knelt to pray last Friday, his mind was swirling with a host of conflicting emotions - gratitude, sadness, and a sense of fear.

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As he recited his prayers and pressed his forehead onto the soft carpet of an Upper East Side mosque in Manhattan, he felt fortunate to be alive. He had been only minutes from the World Trade Center Tuesday morning, heading to a 10 a.m. business meeting on the 45th floor of the north tower. Caught in the ensuing chaos, Mr. Ragoui was one of the thousands who fled as the towers came crashing to the streets.

Yet even as he's thankful, Ragoui, like many Muslims across the country, is gripped with an unsettling apprehension that he and other immigrants from Islamic countries will become pariahs in their own communities and the objects of mistrust and rage.

"It's so bad when people who live with you, who used to be your friends, don't trust you," he says. "I mean, there is no trust to us now, which affects us. It is not good for us."

Last week, sporadic acts of vandalism and anger directed at Islamic communities sprang up in a host of US cities. Shards of glass littered the ground in front of an Islamic center in Irving, Texas, after a gunman sprayed dozens of bullets into its front windows. Bricks, with scraps of anti-Muslim slurs, were heaved through the windows of an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, Va. Police in Bridgeview, a suburb north of Chicago, blocked 300 people marching toward a local mosque, waving US flags and chanting, "USA, USA!"

And several shooting deaths over the weekend - including one in Mesa, Ariz. - are being investigated as bias-related.

Last week's terrorist attack came at a time when Muslim groups were becoming a more visible and integrated part of American society. The number of mosques in the US has increased 25 percent in the past decade, and the average attendance at Jumah - the Arabic word for Friday, the holy day of Islam - has increased more than 300 percent, found the Mosque Study Project 2000. More and more, mosques across the country are becoming involved in their communities' social and political activities.

Indeed, today more than 6 million Muslims live in the US, and the State Department expects Islam to become the second-largest faith practiced in the country by 2010.

This visibility has been in New York for some time. The unease that Muslims and Arabs now feel is in stark contrast to the normal rhythms of the city, which has always pulsed with the sounds and sights of cultures from lands across the globe.

This past weekend, familiar mosques in Brooklyn and Queens were guarded by police, and extra officers were patrolling markets usually frequented by shoppers dressed in the hijab, the veil worn by some Muslim women.

In other areas of the country, integrating into American society has not always been easy. Even before last Tuesday, many Muslim groups often complained that their faith was too easily identified with terrorism. For them, the anti-Muslim incidents are not so surprising.

"This anger is misdirected," says Abdul Raouf, the projects manager at the Islamic Center in Irving. "We have families, we are good citizens, we even know some of the victims," he says.

At Jumah services across the country this past Friday, imams inveighed against the violence, and even felt the need to defend their faith from false stereotypes.

"This attack was against the teachings of Islam," proclaimed Talal Eid, imam of the oldest mosque in New England. Citing the Koran and the words of the prophet Muhammad, he said, "Belief in Islam requires respect for the sacredness of human life." Seeming almost weary of having to defend his religion, he went on: "Terrorism is no more Islamic than it is Christian. It is simply evil."

Still, there have been threats against this Islamic center in Quincy, Mass., as well as taunts that the imam "go home." He has stopped his wife from going to the grocery store by herself and told his daughter not to leave the school until he can go and pick her up. When his other daughter, a computer engineer, returned to work on Friday, he insisted she drive instead of using the subway.

Here at this mosque, a police car stands on guard 24 hours a day. Even with added protection, worshipers remain uneasy. Shareda Hosein, who prays regularly at the mosque, says her headscarf makes her feel as if she's wearing a big sign with a bull's-eye on it. "My fear is that women will become prisoners in their own homes," she says. Although her husband asked her to take off her hijab to protect herself, she says she needs to wear it to know what her Muslim sisters are feeling.

Despite the apprehension and fear, however, many Muslims simply want to do what they can to help during the crisis. Randa Jamal, a Palestinian graduate student at Columbia University in New York who is active in the Palestinian cause, says, "What I want to do now is just be part of this community.

Even so, with the recent anti-Muslim incidents in the city, "I'm always very cautious, very afraid," Ms. Jamal says. "It could happen at any time."

Staff writers Kris Axtman in Houston and Susan Llewelyn Leach in Quincy, Mass., contributed to this report.

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