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Hundreds of Muslims serve up another image of Islam

Hundreds gathered in Riverside Park in Tampa on Sunday for a day of prayer, fellowship, and performing good deeds.

By RON MATUS
Published March 22, 2004

TAMPA - The images are beamed around the globe and seared into psyches: In Iraq, hotels bombed into rubble. In Spain, twisted metal where commuter trains used to be. People covered in blood.

Dr. Husain Nagamia knows many Americans watch their TVs and think Islam is the common denominator. But rather than counter with words, he and hundreds of other Muslims came together in a Tampa park Sunday to offer competing images.

Muslims, serving barbecued chicken to the homeless.

Muslim children, chasing a clown.

Muslim men and women, praying for world peace.

"Look: Islam is a beautiful religion," said Nagamia, a Tampa heart surgeon who heads the Tampa Bay Muslim Alliance, a coalition of mosques, schools and community centers. "This is exactly what we are trying to tell the world."

The alliance was the driving force behind Sunday's Eighth Annual Islamic Charity Festival. A year and a day after an American-led coalition began bombing Iraq, more than 700 people gathered in Riverside Park for food, fellowship, prayer and good deeds.

Syed Hussain, 44, drove from Kissimmee with 33 other members of the Jaffaria Islamic Center, a Muslim school. They brought 35 bags of clothes to give to the poor and seven trays of goat-meat curry.

"If people are hungry, we provide food," said Hussain, who was born in Pakistan. "Everybody. Doesn't matter."

The festival included several high-profile guests, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank; Tampa police Chief Stephen Hogue; Hillsborough County Chief Deputy David Gee; and U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor.

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, touched on the culture of suspicion that has grown since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - a culture some Muslims say has tilted too far in their direction.

Davis recounted his own experience in attracting unwanted attention, when he got lost driving around Washington, D.C., and ended up in front of the Egyptian embassy, police in tow. When he stepped out of his minivan before being asked, jittery police unfastened their holsters.

"It doesn't feel good," Davis told the crowd. "We're still struggling with that balance between freedom and security."

Davis spoke beneath a tent next to the Hillsborough River, before a group that was black and white, immigrant and native-born. Some men wore beards; some were clean-shaven. A few wore flowing white robes, but most preferred jeans and T-shirts. Many women wore the hijab, or traditional head covering, along with striking robes or flower-print dresses.

But some wore jeans and platform shoes.

"People here know so little about Islam," said Naushad Virji, 33, of Orlando, sporting a goatee and trendy glasses with round frames. "They are shocked about how much we have in common."

Virji doesn't lay the blame completely on Americans for linking Islam with terrorists, even if the two have as much in common as the Ku Klux Klan and Christianity, he said. Muslims should do more to counter the image, to explain that "terrorism goes against the principles of our religion."

True Islam, he said, was on display in the park.

The festival is based on charity, one of the five pillars of Islam.

To that end, more than 100 homeless people lined up for chicken, pasta, rice, salad, cake and Dunkin' Donuts. At one tent, people could be screened for high blood pressure and diabetes. At another, they could take what they wanted from stacks of used clothes.

Latisha George, 27, brought her two sons to get new toys and a hot meal.

"That's Muslim food down there," she said, pointing to a giant grill where a man was turning chicken breasts in a cloud of smoke.

Sure enough, barbecue chicken is Muslim food, confirmed the man, Abdul Rauf, a Puerto Rican who converted to Islam 14 years ago.

"Nobody discriminates against barbecued chicken," he said.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 22, 2004, 01:20:26]


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