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Keeping their faith


07 2 05

 

 

 
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR And RINKER BUCK, July 2, 2005
 
Syed Ibrahim Quadri of Hillsborough, N.J., whose family immigrated to America from Pakistan when he was 3 months old, holds down three jobs, is active in local politics and spends most of Saturday at his local mosque.

And, like thousands of his fellow Americans in the New York suburbs, Quadri still lives with the searing memories of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. A close friend, Tariq Amanullah, who was a bank vice president and the treasurer of Quadri’s statewide Islamic group, was killed at the World Trade Center that day. DNA evidence recently allowed authorities to identify another of his body parts, and Quadri recently attended a graveside service with the family to commit the additional remains.

“Now, do you think that I could possibly feel any differently about that loss, and that day, than any Christian who lost someone?” Quadri says. “But if I march in the Fourth of July parade in my Muslim robes and prayer cap, carrying an American flag, I’m looked upon as some crazy terrorist trying to make a statement. I’m an American who has to live with contradictions like that every day.”

The ironies and discomforts of living as fully committed Americans, but still strangers in a strange land, was one of many themes highlighted as the annual three-day convention of the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society began Friday at Hartford’s new convention center. While determined to retain their identity as practicing Muslims, many of the convention-goers also described the difficulties of embracing American citizenship at a time when millions of mainstream Americans still blame Islam for the horrors of 9/11.

Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Freedom Foundation, the civil rights arm of the Muslim American Society, said Muslim families often feel they are viewed as second-class citizens. They are painfully aware that some Americans fear them, he said.

Bray recalled a recent Cornell University study that found that 44 percent of those polled felt it would be “OK” to take certain rights away from Muslim Americans.

“These are your neighbors,” Bray said. “If you’re a doctor, these are the people you treat. If you’re a taxi cab driver, these are the people you give rides to. But at the same time, here is this fear factor that permeates society.”

The legacy of 9/11 and the suspicion among many Americans that Islam is a forbidding, exclusionary religion was one reason, conference organizers said, that they dispensed with the routine security precaution of installing metal detectors and armed guards at the entrance to the Connecticut Convention Center.

“Two months ago we met with the Hartford police and the convention center staff and told them, `No, no, no, we’re not having metal detectors and all that security at the entrance, no matter how worried you are,’” said Naeem Baig, director of public relations for the Islamic Circle. “This is an open conference for anyone, Muslim and non-Muslim, to attend, and we didn’t want anyone to feel there was a reason to fear what went on here. We always have the security of the Almighty God to protect us.”

But the first booked convention of the new center at Adriaen’s Landing required other special arrangements. In public settings, Muslims do not encourage the mixing of sexes and so the dining areas, conference halls and seminar rooms of the convention center had to be broken up into discrete seating areas, distinctly marked for “Brothers” and “Sisters.”

Most Muslims also follow the dietary practice of halal, which bans pork and pork byproducts and alcohol and requires specific slaughtering practices for all other meat. At the convention center, a recognized halal caterer from New York, Kabob King, set up a large dining hall – with separate wait staffs for the male and female seating areas – and the convention organizers also met with Hartford hotels to familiarize them with halal requirements.

“They basically agreed to buy a lot of fish,” Baig said.

On Friday afternoon, the convention center was bright with the colors of the long robes and matching veils of Islamic women from as far away as California and the Midwest, while many of their husbands and visiting speakers strolled in ankle-length robes and bright vests. In the commercial booth area on the fourth floor, vendors offered everything from Muslim clothes to video games.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the call to prayer echoed from the speakers throughout the convention hall. Several hundred people knelt on a wide blue tarp on the floor of a wide open convention hall. Dozens of shoes lined the walls. Among several hundred women was Rubina Tareen, who pressed her forehead to the ground.

A native of Pakistan, Tareen said she drifted from her faith as she was growing up in the U.S. “There was a confusion in myself,” she said. “Where do I belong? Am I a Muslim, a Westerner, an American?” That changed when she married Tariq Scherfen, a former first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Scherfen, originally a Lutheran from New Jersey, was first introduced to Islam while serving in the Persian Gulf War in Saudi Arabia. When he returned to the United States, he began to attend a mosque in New York and ultimately converted to Islam. Scherfen recently was recalled to serve in Iraq, but he does not plan to return and is applying for conscientious-objector status. “The weapons and the way they are used, you can destroy a village just to get one man,” he said. “War is not just.”

Their 15-year-old daughter, Fajjr, attends public school in Pottsville, a small town in the coal region of Pennsylvania, where they are still the only Muslim family in town. Fajjr said she feels accepted by her school friends and tries to ignore occasional comments about her hijab, or head scarf, and about Muslims in Iraq. Like many devout young Muslims, she doesn’t date or attend parties or school dances.

“There are things most of my friends do that I don’t do,” Fajjr said. “When I was younger it used to bother me, but I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t feel that I’m missing out on a lot.”

Article Courtesy: Hartford Courant