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Lessons in patience

Muslim-Americans cope with stares, insidious remarks and threats of violence because in some people's minds, their faith links them with terrorism.

By JOCELYN WIENER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002


Muslim-Americans cope with stares, insidious remarks and threats of violence because in some people's minds, their faith links them with terrorism.

TAMPA -- At 6 every morning, before the students arrive, principal Abdulmajid Biuk checks the premises of the Islamic Academy of Florida.

He searches the bushes that line the playgrounds on the 15-acre campus of the K-12 school. He tries the doors of kindergarten classrooms painted with giraffes, elephants and zebras to make sure they've remained locked overnight. He notes any suspicious vehicles.

When he began working at the 300-student school near the University of South Florida 2 1/2 years ago, Biuk never imagined he would start every day this way. But then he could not have envisioned the fear and confusion that have pervaded his communi since Sept. 11, 2001.

Although the ceremonies and media coverage surrounding the anniversary of the national tragedy have come to a halt in recent weeks, many Muslims and Arabs say they continue to be targets of profiling and suspicion. Only two days after the anniversary, three Muslim medical students on their way to a nine-week clinical rotation at a Miami hospital were arrested and held for 17 hours. Eunice Stone, a Georgia nurse, had told authorities she thought she overheard the men making vague threats, including, "They mourned on 9/11, and they are going to mourn again on 9/13." As a result, a 20-mile section of Interstate 75 was closed for most of a day while hundreds of law enforcement officers and dogs combed the area for evidence. Stone's allegation ultimately was determined to be a false alarm.

"We kept saying all along that there's some kind of double standard," Biuk says. "They were not even talking about anything and all of the sudden the media and law enforcement were all over them. It's not fair the way we pick and choose whose character we assassinate."

Biuk and many of the more than 7-million Muslims throughout the nation believe their lives remain fundamentally altered, in ways both dramatic and subtle. In Florida, hate crimes have increased 24 percent in the past year, and a state report attributes the increase to antagonism against Muslims. Many Muslims and Arabs have been victims of death threats and violent assaults.

Most continue to notice the subtler changes, too: a menacing gesture, an unfriendly stare. They feel that marginalization has been officially sanctioned. Muslims and Arabs have been targeted for security checks and removed from airplanes without explanation. Hundreds have been detained for months without charges.

Words of kindness and gestures of solidarity from friends and strangers have made the long days since last Sept. 11 more tolerable. Still, many Muslims say, new wounds continue to be inflicted.

"Sept. 11 was almost a double tragedy for us," says Taleb Salhab, a member of the board of directors of the Arab-American Community Center in Orlando. "On the one hand, we were mourning the loss of the victims like every other American. On the flip side, we had everybody pointing the finger at us as if we had something to do with it."

For Abdulmajid Biuk, this irony has tasted exceptionally bittersweet. In 1981, after he was put on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's "liquidation" hit list, Biuk took political asylum in California and began studying for a Ph.D. in environmental engineering.

"To many of us," he says, "America represented the place where you can be free, be heard, and are not going to have someone knocking on your door at midnight to take you away."

As their children grew older, Biuk and his wife decided to move them to Islamic schools that embraced values of modesty and prayer.

Biuk joined the schools' boards then worked as a science teacher for many years before taking on the job of vice principal and, this year, principal at the Islamic Academy.

He was driving his oldest daughter to USF last Sept. 11 when he heard on the radio that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. When he arrived at the Islamic Academy, he and colleagues watched TV in shocked silence as the second plane hit.

As news reports began linking the action to Muslim extremists, panicked parents began calling. Fearing reprisal, Biuk and his colleagues canceled classes the next day. But when school did come back in session, Biuk and his colleagues began fielding threatening phone calls from people he refers to as "angry patriots." When the school bus driver reported that other automobiles were intentionally swerving in order to frighten the children, school administrators decided to remove the word "Islamic" from the side of the bus. They installed security cameras throughout the campus.

Then, in August, Dr. Robert Goldstein, a Jewish podiatrist in Seminole, was caught with an arsenal of weapons and explosives and a list of 50 Islamic schools and mosques.

Certain the Islamic Academy was on the list, Biuk called the police and sheriff's department to request protection. "Everything is under control," Biuk says they told him. "If something happens, just dial 911."

For Biuk and many other Muslims, the contrast between the Goldstein case and that of the medical students provides further evidence of a continuing double standard in official and media treatment of their community.

"It seems like the media reserve the term 'terrorist' only for Arab-Americans and Muslims," says Taleb Salhab.

Many community leaders say they fear what seems to be a generalized apathy surrounding prejudice and hate speech.

"What I find most concerning is the kind of space that has opened up in our popular culture for defamation of Arabs and Muslims," says Hussein Ibish, communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C. "Most people are not agreeing with this defamatory discourse, but they are accepting it. For us to be outraged is not enough. We need others to be outraged."

Things changed

As long as hate speech is not strongly condemned by the public, activists say, cases such as that of Ibrahim Dremali will continue to surface. Fifteen years ago, Dremali fled to the United States from Egypt in search of religious freedom. For a time, he was certain he had found it. He taught geology and oceanography at Broward Community College. He got his citizenship. He became the imam at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton. No one bothered him when he prayed. In fact, people would sometimes tell him it made them feel good to watch him.

Things changed at 10:30 on a Wednesday night a few weeks after Sept. 11, when two men arrived at Dremali's house. Each held a gun. The following morning, Dremali was scheduled to lecture on terrorism at one of the local churches.

"If we see you at the church," Dremali says the men told him, "we'll kill you."

Then they left.

Dremali, 41, canceled the lecture. He and his wife, Safaa Eissa, 35, forbade their four children from playing outside. Dremali told the congregants at his mosque to have patience. But every Friday after prayers, Dremali emerged from the mosque to see people honking their horns and sticking up their middle fingers. His oldest son's sixth-grade teacher demanded that the boy be moved out of her class. Eissa was harassed several times at Kmart and Publix while wearing niqab, the traditional veil that covers both hair and face.

"This guy was so mad, he was looking at me with a fire in his face," Eissa remembers. "He was shouting in my face, 'She's here to bomb the place!' "

Eissa told the man she was an American citizen and that he had no right to tell her to leave. She has since stopped wearing niqab, opting instead for hijab, a scarf that covers just her hair. It forces those who insult her to hear her reply, she explains.

One month ago, returning from a visit to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Dremali and his oldest son were detained by the INS for three hours at Miami International Airport.

"Three hours was like 300 years in my life," Dremali says. "The way that guy looked at me and my son, it's like we were terrorists." When he asked what he was being charged with, Dremali says, he was told to "sit down, or you'll go to jail."

When he finally got home, he and his wife decided it was time to leave the country. They just don't know where to go.

"Our Constitution says justice for all," Dremali says. "I'm going to send a letter telling Bush that he should add 'except Muslims.' "

So many Arabs and Muslims have reported mistreatment while traveling that the American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations have sued four major airlines -- American, Continental, Northwest and United.

Hussein Ibish, whose organization has joined in the lawsuits, says more than 70 people have been forced off airplanes when other passengers complained, even though the airlines themselves did not view the people as a security threat.

In many ways Muslim women have borne the brunt of the backlash.

Those who wear scarves to cover their hair or face are particularly vulnerable. Several women have reported harassment by the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, where employees have insisted they remove head coverings to be photographed.

Howard Marks, the attorney for one of these women, Sultaana Freeman, says Florida issued more than 5,000 temporary licenses -- without photographs -- in the past three years. With so many exceptions, Marks contends, the issue at stake is one of religious freedom. "The state cannot allow accommodations for some people, and not for other people," he says.

Malice and kindness

Not every change carried in the turbulent winds of the past year has been negative, however.

Non-Muslim neighbors have offered to buy groceries for women afraid to enter supermarkets alone. Strangers have carried bouquets of flowers to mosques. Dremali's neighbors have rallied around his family. A third-grade class from a public school sent handmade cards to the children at the Islamic Academy.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., calls these gestures of goodwill "scattered, random acts of senseless kindness."

Many people also have taken it upon themselves to learn more about the tenets of Islam. In fact, a recent Knight Ridder poll suggests a flip side to the Florida hate crimes study. About 58 percent of those interviewed said they had favorable feelings toward Muslim-Americans, up from 45 percent six months ago.

For Amal Kurdi, 19, the year has brought both malice and kindness. When she went horseback riding with other members of the Sisters United Muslim Association, she says, someone suggested they ride their camels back to Saudi Arabia. When she was at the mall with her two sisters, a man began yelling obscenities. "Go back to Afghanistan!" he told them, unaware, Kurdi notes, that she was born in Gainesville to a mother who is an American-born convert. Kurdi and her sisters just rolled their eyes and kept walking.

"I'm not the type of person that gets upset about things," she explains. "He looked stupid, not me."

But as president of the Sisters United Muslim Association at USF, where she is finishing degrees in communications and Islamic studies, Kurdi also has discovered a unique opportunity to educate others about Islam.

The day after Sept. 11, at her parents' urging, Kurdi stayed home from school. When she returned the next day, students she didn't know kept approaching her, stopping to ask if everything was okay. When a professor wrote a letter to the student newspaper comparing Muslims to dogs, the religious studies department issued a statement in support of Muslim students.

A few days later, the mosque near USF held an open house. People asked a lot of questions about the role of women in Islam. Kurdi was able to explain that Islam gave women the right to vote, own property and retain their last name after marriage thousands of years before those things happened in the United States. Wearing hijab, she told them, was both a personal choice and a religious obligation.

"When I walk around people, don't just gawk at me for my body, my makeup and my hair," she explained. "I'd rather walk into a room and have people listen to what I have to say."

This Sept. 11, after much deliberation, Biuk and his board decided to keep the Islamic Academy open. Parents took off work to stand guard. A sheriff's deputy checked cars at the entrance.

More than half of the students stayed home. Those who attended participated in round-table discussions, mourning the loss of innocent life during and after Sept. 11 and talking about fears for the future.

As Biuk sits behind the cluttered desk in his Islamic Academy office, worrying about how to protect 300 children, he rubs a small, worn volume between his fingers.

"A lot of people felt that they wanted to do something nice for Muslims," he muses. "After Sept. 11, a lady sent us her Koran from 1880. She wasn't Muslim. She was probably in her seventies. She sent it with a nice letter."

Such gestures, Biuk says, help him to move forward. But still, he senses that something has changed for the students at his school, for their families and for him.

"We'll try to go back to normal and hope for the best," he says. "But I think we will have to live with this for a while."

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