Of Faith and Fear

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It’s pizza time at the Sarasota-Bradenton Islamic Society. Jean-clad pre-teen girls, veils covering some heads, line up for a well-earned couple of slices-learning Qur’anic verses in Arabic and debating religious concepts is hungry work. In a large green field behind the building, a group of boys roughhouse, tackling each other in the sunshine. A woman […]


It’s pizza time at the Sarasota-Bradenton Islamic Society. Jean-clad pre-teen girls, veils covering some heads, line up for a well-earned couple of slices-learning Qur’anic verses in Arabic and debating religious concepts is hungry work. In a large green field behind the building, a group of boys roughhouse, tackling each other in the sunshine. A woman in a blue salwar kameez-loose knee-length tunic and baggy pajamas-nods and gives the traditional Islamic "assalam aleikum" greeting as she walks over to the playground to push her blond daughter on a swing. Around the long wooden picnic table outside, with the business of paperwork and decisions over, the men of the Shura, or governing council, lean forward to munch on the pizza and sip from Styrofoam cups of orange juice, urging visitors to "eat, eat!"

Ikbal Moussa smiles at a toddler with huge brown eyes as she scampers past trying to keep up with bigger kids. "Sweet," Moussa says, touching the child’s cheek. A spry woman of indeterminate age, her hair neatly tucked under a white hijab-head covering-Moussa manages to wrap a visitor in benevolent intensity even as she keeps scanning the screened back porch to ensure everyone has a plate.

It’s not fancy, but the green-and-white house with the sheltering oak trees wreathed in Spanish moss is a fulfillment of Moussa’s-and other Sarasota-area Muslims’-dream of their own corner of the Ummah, a borderless Islamic community. It’s a community Moussa searched for as soon as she moved here from Ohio seven years ago, combing through telephone books for Muslim names and exchanging telephone numbers with women in grocery stores who wore hijab.

In those days, about five Muslim families had sought each other out and rented a room off U.S. 41, where they met for prayer on Fridays and taught children Arabic and the Qur’an on Sundays. Rapidly, the community grew, benefiting from the influx of new and younger residents into Florida over the past decade. Soon the members of the society had accumulated enough money from voluntary monthly dues to put down roots, and when they heard that the one-story house in a large lot on Lockwood Ridge Road was for sale, they snapped it up. Now, more than 100 families belong to the organization. The society is working with city planners to get the necessary permits to build a real mosque on the green field behind the building.

While they converse with each other in English and with Allah in Arabic, the accents of the group gathered at the Islamic Center one warm Sunday morning point to the diversity of their origins: Pakistan, South Africa, Trinidad, Bosnia, West Africa, Egypt, Albania, Iran, Morocco. And from the children come the twang of American syllables.

"From every garden in the world, we have a flower," says one Muslim from Venice.

"There are guys who own pizza shops, guys running investment companies," says one Shura member, Karim Rashad [not his real name, since he, like a number of those interviewed, asked not to be identified in this story], a house inspector of Indian origin who was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. He teaches classes at the Islamic Association’s Sunday school most Sunday mornings.

And while the mood is casual and the classes loosely structured, this house is more than just a gathering place. It is a focal point for many of these families who otherwise would not have a chance to interact with others who share their faith. It’s a place for Muslim kids growing up in a non-Muslim environment to see others like them. On another level, it serves an important role in a religion that emphasizes community worship. The prophet Muhammed likened the entire Muslim community to a single organism: "The believers, in their love, mercy and kindness to one another are like a body: if any part is ill, the whole body shares its sleeplessness and fever."

And now, post-Sept.11, Muslims can come here and feel safe from hostile glances and comments and the discomfort of being allied in many Americans’ minds with the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They can also decide who will speak to interfaith gatherings. Now, more than ever, some Muslims feel, the need exists to clarify what Islam is.

"All the believers have to be together to know more," Moussa says. "I have to keep learning."

Islam in America

Muslims have worshipped in America for nearly 500 years. Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with somewhere between two to six million adherents (estimates vary)and 2,000 mosques. By the year 2010, America’s Muslim population is expected to overtake the Jewish population in numbers. A Web search pulls up pages of organizations devoted to serving American Muslims, among them the Muslim Student Association, Council for American-Islamic Relations, and the American Moslem Foundation. Muslims can find everything online from books and tapes about their faith to locators for shops that sell halal meat (meat-though not pork, which is forbidden-that is prepared according to scriptures.)

Most historians agree that the first Muslims in America were West African slaves brought over from 1530 to about 1850. Some converted to Christianity, forcibly or otherwise; others practiced their faith and passed it down through the generations. One such documented Muslim is Ayub Sulaiman ibn Diallo, who translated Arabic coin inscriptions and acted as a translator for British and West Africans in Maryland in the 1800s. There are accounts of other slaves who wrote entire chapters of the Qur’an out in Arabic from memory, or who continued to secretly practice their faith in clandestine Islamic schools.

The second major wave of Muslim migration into this country occurred in the early part of the 20th century. Many came from Lebanon, Syria and other countries across the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, some of the first mosques were constructed in the United States. Albanians built one in Maine in 1915, and a group of Polish-speaking Tatars built one in Brooklyn in 1926. Mosques also sprouted up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Detroit, Mich., which today has one of the largest Arab Muslim populations in America (it should be noted, however, that not all Arabs are Muslim). It was also during this time that many African-Americans began Islamic movements of their own, including the Nation of Islam.

The third wave of Muslim migration came during the 1960s and 1970s. Large numbers of foreign students from various parts of the world, including the Indian subcontinent, came to study at universities here and went on to get jobs, marry and raise families in the United States.

Sarasota is no exception to the mix.

Ikbal Moussa, her husband and three children came to Sarasota from Egypt, via Nigeria and Ohio. Another community member-a physician, Salim Ali [fictitious name]-hails from Pakistan via England. But all four of his children were born in America. Adris Khan is from Trinidad. Sarasota’s Muslims are doctors, entrepreneurs, professors, homemakers and financial executives. At home, Moussa speaks to her children in Arabic; Ali’s mother tongues are Urdu and Pashtu; and Rashad speaks Gujarati. Their cuisine varies. The way they dress varies, too: Some women at the center wear ankle-length dresses and veils tightly sculpted around their heads; others just ensure their sleeves and skirts reach the ends of their limbs. Some men wear beards and loose-fitting pajamas; others are clean-shaven and sport khakis with beepers tucked into the belts.

Religion, rather than ethnicity or a shared cultural background, draws these people together at the Islamic Society. Differences in language, culture and profession mean that while almost everyone knows everyone else by sight, if not by name, not everyone socializes together outside of Friday prayer and Sunday school.

And while some tenets of their faith- alcohol, for example, is prohibited, which prevents Muslims from hanging out at pubs or sports bars-lead many to seek out those who share their values, that does not keep them from making friends with other Americans.

While about three quarters of American Muslims are immigrants, a growing number are now American-born children of these immigrants as well as American converts. There also are many African-American Muslims, about 1.6 million; an average of 17,500 African-Americans converted to Islam each year between 1990 and 1995.

Islam is one of the three major monotheistic religions of the world, born from the same cradle of the Middle East that nurtured Christianity and Judaism and sharing the same genealogy and stories of the Old Testament. Many revered figures-Moses, Abraham, Ishmael and Jacob-make their appearance in all three religions. In a primary point of departure from Christianity, Muslims believe that Jesus was one of a line of prophets rather than the son of God.

The religion originated about 1,400 years ago in Saudi Arabia when Mohammed, who is revered as the final prophet, had the word of God revealed to him through the angel Gabriel. Mohammed, an illiterate man of high moral repute, was born in the year 570 in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca (or Makkah). Orphaned shortly after birth and raised by an uncle, he went on to marry and become a successful merchant. At the age of 40, Mohammed had his first revelation when God spoke to him through the angel Gabriel, but, being illiterate, was unable to write the revelations down. So he memorized them and had his companions write them down. Mohammed is said to have had a visit from Gabriel every year of his life, and twice in the last year of his life. Put on paper in 114 eloquent Arabic chapters, or suras, these words of God as revealed to Mohammed constitute the Qur’an, which Muslims revere as their holy book. In tandem with the Hadith, a second book, which expounds on the teachings and sayings of Mohammed, Muslims look to the Qur’an to provide a guide for every aspect of their lives. As a result of his preaching, Mohammed and his followers were persecuted in Mecca and forced to migrate 260 miles to a city north of them, Medinah. The year of this migration-622-marks the start of the Muslim lunar calendar.

One becomes a Muslim by simply acknowledging that there is only one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet. That declaration- "La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadun rasoolu Allah" -known as the shahada , is one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four pillars are salat, prayers Muslims must perform five times a day as they face Mecca; sawm, a 40-day fast during the month of Ramadan; zakat, which requires Muslims to give a portion of their annual income to charity; and the hajj , an annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who can afford to should make at least once in their lifetime.

In Muslim cities, a muezzin (preacher) calls the faithful to worship through a loudspeaker in the minaret, or tall tower atop the mosque. He cries out the traditional "Allah-u-Akbar," which means "God is great," and calls the public to come to prayer and salvation, adding the phrase "prayer is better than sleep" as an incentive to sleepy-eyed worshippers before dawn prayers. Friday is the day for communal prayer, when Muslims gather in mosques at noon for a sermon. Just as there is no formal procedure for becoming a Muslim, there is no formal hierarchy of clergy; Muslims believe in direct interaction with God without any intermediaries.

Every aspect of how to live a righteous life is outlined in the Shari’a, a system of laws developed from the Qur’an and the Hadith. This clarifies for Muslims the rights and wrongs of everything from business to hospitality to the role of women. Despite abundant media images of heavily veiled women in Middle Eastern countries, the Qur’an actually gave women many rights not available to them during Mohammed’s time, including the right to maintain their family name, retain property in their own name and inherit. Men are allowed to take up to four wives, but only if each wife agrees and if they can give each wife equal attention and affection. Mothers hold an especially privileged position in Islamic society, as one saying beautifully elucidates: "Heaven lieth at the feet of mothers."

Being Muslim in America

The word "Islam" translates roughly into entering a condition of peace through submission to Allah. The Arabic letters of the word closely resemble the Hebrew word "Shalom" or peace. That’s why Salim Ali resents the connection of the Islamic-American community with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

He notes that that many terrorists grew up in a climate of desperation, alienation and brutality. "It is not a profession," Ali says of terrorism. "They [terrorists] turn into what they are based on the circumstances." But, he stresses, the terrorists’ self-proclaimed brand of Islam has nothing to do with the religion as he and the majority of Muslims practice it.

"It (the events of Sept. 11) must not be given a religious coloring," Ali says. "To commit suicide, to perpetrate atrocity.these are un-Islamic acts. Neither our religion preaches it [terrorism] nor do we personally practice it."

Americans speak of losing their belief in the safety of their world after Sept. 11; but American Muslims might have lost something more, the notion that they belong in that world at all. In addition to the loss and grief most Americans are dealing with, Muslim-Americans also are grappling with fears of reprisals and backlash from neighbors, co-workers and strangers. "I’ve seen so much anger that I’ve learned not to look at people," says Nuha Abdel [not her real name-she was afraid a bigot might look her up in a phone book]. "We got a double dose of fear." She even asked her 13-year-old daughterto remove her veil before going to school Sept. 12.

"I took it off her," she says. "I was so afraid."

The girl, a Pine View School for the Gifted student, who sits in an adult discussion class at Sunday school because her reading is so far ahead of most teens’, obliged reluctantly, but put it back on the next day.

"Kids are usually more accepting," Abdel observes; it’s adults who often react more strongly to her name and appearance. "I carry my banner with me," she laughs, pointing to her hijab, the cloth that is wrapped over her head, around her neck and clasped with a tiny clip on one side.

Ever since she started wearing the hijab last March, she has attracted curious stares and gazes.

"It was very hard to wear it in the beginning, Abdel says. "I went out to the store, kept looking at people." Finally, one day at Publix, her daughter said, "Look, mommy, that woman is staring at you," and the fed-up Abdel said, "Oh, let her look."

After soul-searching about how it would affect her at school and with her friends, Abdel’s daughter, too, adopted hijab. To her, it was a way of jihad- striving to be a better Muslim-in a non-Muslim society.

"I think of it as an identity and a shield," the girl says. "It makes me feel safe." She says it also helps her avoid things her classmates find normal but that are forbidden to Muslims-attending dances and dating, for example. She writes and plays the piano and violin, but has decided to stop swimming when she becomes an adult; she predicts she will be uncomfortable wearing a revealing swimsuit, which clashes with the Muslim emphasis on modesty. Their religious belief helps the children-even the 8-year-old-accept the non-observance of personal celebrations, such as birthday parties and events like Halloween.

Although those years are long behind her, Ikbal Moussa remembers the struggles of raising her now-grown daughter in a non-Muslim society. She faced the same dilemmas as many other Muslim immigrants, drawn to this country for college, job opportunities and a comfortable lifestyle: an easy interaction between sexes in schools, constant exposure to forbidden or haram activities such as drinking alcohol, dating, premarital sex and dancing at nightclubs.

"In Columbus we had a hard time," Moussa recalls. "Her friends, they tell her, your mommy is old-fashioned."

It was hard to enforce the rules that set her children apart from other children their age or to refuse to listen to what they had to say until they repeated the English words in their native Arabic. Her children often faced ridicule from people who were ignorant about Islam, Moussa says. Tears and fights were not unusual, but Moussa’s daughter lived at home until she started working. And to this day, whenever any of her children call from their homes in Miami, Atlanta or New York-where her son escaped from one of the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11-they speak entirely in Arabic during the hour-long conversations.

Now, it will be even more difficult, Ali predicts. Over his 30-year career in the United States, he has taught at various American universities and research centers, and considers being viewed as in some way "in league" with terrorists merely by sharing the same religion as them poor reward for his years of service to this country. He also resents having to field questions about his beliefs and opinions.

"It’s day in and day out," Ali says of the Muslim community’s sudden shove into a glaring spotlight. "Educated Muslims are angered by it. This dialogue means you’re differentiated. It’s so inflammatory. It’s invasive."

Mostly, he worries about how this will affect Muslim children growing up in America.

"It’s not a comfortable feeling for numerous children of parents who are trying very hard to bring them up patriotic Americans," Ali says. "We want the new generation to be free from racial and religious prejudice. We want them to be first-class Americans. Society has made our task difficult by indiscriminately sowing seeds of hatred."

Sarasota likes to view itself as a city with cosmopolitan and educated residents. That’s why some Muslims say they are surprised to feel backlash even here.

"It’s scary, too, that people in your own country would treat you like that," Abdel says. But she adds that not everyone shows fear and mistrust. A few weeks after Sept. 11, she received phone calls from friends and neighbors offering her support, and a Lockwood Ridge resident stopped by the Islamic Center to ask if anyone needed anything.

When she goes to Pakistan to visit her family, she says, her children miss America. When they land in the airport in New York, she says, "it’s good to hear the American accents, good to see the pizza.

"This is our home," Abdel stresses. "This is our children’s home. They don’t know anywhere else. We just have to stand up for ourselves. There’s no turning back."