muslim americans
Muslim-Americans reach out

Whether in the mall or at the park, actually any place where unknown ears can listen in, Ola Rafeh hesitates to call hertwo children by the names she gave them.

The names are common in her native Egypt, the Briarcliff Manor resident says, but in today's America, they sound distinctly Muslim.

So Rafeh keeps quiet in public, worried about who may be judging her and what they might do.

Although there have been only isolated incidents of harassment against Muslims in Putnam, Rockland and Westchester, other olive-skinned people around the country have been physically attacked, and at least two killed, since Sept. 11.

"September to December was extremely stressful for me," said Rafeh, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. "It was the first time in my life that I was afraid to speak Arabic to my kids in public. I've never felt this self-conscious before, ever."

Like many other Muslims in New York's northern suburbs adjusting to life after Sept. 11, Rafeh has limited how much she wants society to know about her personally, while she has actively been working to change the way her neighbors see her universally.

Although she shares the same fears others have about the Indian Point nuclear power plants becoming the next terrorist target, Rafeh also has felt the pressure to become an expert on her religion.

She believes Muslims must do more to explain Islam so Americans can understand the difference between its message and the perverted, politicized version radical zealots have used to justify killing innocent people.

"We have to do a lot more outreach than we ever did," said Rafeh, who helped organize a panel discussion on Islam last fall at the Ossining Public Library. "The average Muslim doesn't mingle enough. They stay within their own communities. If anything, this has taught us to go out there and say 'hi' to your neighbor and let them know how good we are."

A poll released last month by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil-rights group, revealed that 57 percent of 945 American Muslims surveyed experienced bias or discrimination since the terrorist attacks, and 87 percent knew of a fellow Muslim who experienced discrimination. The same poll also found that 79 percent of American Muslims also felt kindness or support from friends or colleagues of other faiths because of the backlash.

Nime Jamal, a native of the Palestinian town of Jericho who now lives in New City, has felt both extremes in the past year.

Jamal said her relatives around the country have been threatened. Someone tried to run her sister, who wears a head scarf, off the road in Poughkeepsie, and her uncle's rug warehouse in Florida was ransacked after the terrorist attacks. Jamal, a dressmaker who works out of her home, has had customers walk out on her when they found out she was a Palestinian Muslim, she said.

But those incidents haven't changed her impression of the United States. Many more people have called to see how she was doing and have offered their support.

"I really don't know what's going to happen after this Sept. 11," Jamal said. "I can't believe it's been a year. I'm just hoping everything will be all right. Even now, when I pass by the fire station and I see signs up with all the names, it's too much. I think I'm still numb about the whole thing."

Tosun Bayrak, a local spiritual leader, has hosted hundreds of Christians and Jews at the Jerrahi Mosque in Chestnut Ridge since Sept. 11, although the mosque had opened its doors to the community long before the attacks.

"Strangely enough, that horrible incident served to bring people together," Bayrak said. "People thought it would be opposite, but that wasn't the case at all."

Rabia Harris, coordinator of the Muslim Peace Fellowship, an associate group of the Fellowship for Reconciliation in Upper Nyack, said she has noticed a change in attitudes among both local Muslims and non-Muslims, which she credited to the diversity and high levels of education in the region.

"There was an immediate galvanization of the community," said Harris, who converted to Islam 25 years ago and regularly spoke about her faith at libraries and universities soon after the attacks. "Anybody who was remotely qualified, and even some who weren't, were out there speaking to the non-Muslim community letting them know what we were all about."

Yet for the successes felt locally, some Muslims are discouraged and angry by what they are seeing done by the federal government and the depiction of Muslims in the media.

They have witnessed more than 1,100 people, mostly Muslims from Arab, Middle Eastern or south Asian countries, being taken into custody and held, often on charges related to immigration.

Muslims are concerned that they are being targeted by several new laws that expand government's power to track people. For example, the Justice Department last year sought to question about 5,000 men, primarily from Muslim countries; and there have been changes to the national immigration laws, which require fingerprinting foreign visitors.

Ghazi Khankan, executive director for the New York chapter of CAIR, the Muslim civil-rights group, said the measures, some of which he described as "a natural response to tragedy," have made Muslims realize they must become proactive, not reactive.

"It has pushed us to get more involved in the political process," Khankan said. "We're calling for voter-registration drives across the country. If we don't register to vote, we will be marginalized. Our rights will be trampled upon. No one will speak on our behalf."

Some Muslims are also upset with the way the media has portrayed Islam during the past year.

Shafi Bezar, chairman of the Westchester Muslim Center in Mount Vernon, said some talk-show hosts have depicted the religion as violent, taking chapters from the Koran out of context. The same impression would be left if you took select passages from the Bible or Torah, he said.

"The venom that is being spread against Islam is unbelievable," Bezar said. "After Sept. 11, Americans were asking, 'Why do they hate us?' Now, Muslims are asking that question."

Manal Jamal, Nime Jamal's 21-year-old daughter, was born in Manhattan, where she works and studies today. It's been hard listening to people condemn her faith and heritage, she said.

What they don't understand, she said, was that "a crime was committed against me, too."

Fatima Fasihuddin, a 24-year-old from West Nyack, said Muslims have to take responsibility for educating others about Islam and eradicate prevailing stereotypes.

"We need to show others we're peace-loving citizens," she said. "Just like everyone else."


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