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Tampa Bay area Muslims share their thoughts on life after 9/11

Published September 9, 2006

Dr. Ahmad Batrawy

Dentist, St. Petersburg


Sept. 11, improbably, drew people closer to him, says Dr. Ahmad Batrawy.

Patients and neighbors wanted to know more about Islam. Batrawy, a dentist, welcomed the questions, speaking at schools, community groups and churches.

"It opened a little bit of a dialogue on a positive level about what happened," said Batrawy, 58, an Egyptian who lives in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood.

He has faced increased security checks at airports, Batrawy said, but other than that has had few negative experiences because of his faith.

But he knows well the slights foisted upon the larger Muslim community. The mosque he attends in Pinellas Park, the Islamic Society of Pinellas County, was the target of a bomb plot. Vandals also tore down the mosque's signs, damaged playground equipment and slathered its doors with feces and eggs.

"It showed the ignorance of the ones who did it more than anything else," he said. "On the other side were people who really want to learn and know."

Suhad Abukhdeir

School director, Brandon


Without her hijab, Suhad Abukhdeir looks Hispanic. With it, she's undeniably Muslim.

Abukhdeir, 26, is easing into covering. She knows her religion requires it, a show of modesty in a decidedly secular world. Still, the stares she gets from non-Muslims disturb her. She thinks people equate her hijab with Sept. 11.

"I don't like that feeling of being the minority, the terrorist," she said.

For now, Abukhdeir only wears the scarf at her mosque. She fears wearing it to Publix, where she has made Christian and Jewish friends. They might not understand her life story. Born in Maryland, she's 100 percent American and 100 percent Muslim.

"I feel like I have to preach everywhere I go," said Abukhdeir, the daughter of Palestinians. "I'm American. It's hard that people don't think that."

Danya Shakfeh

Law student, Brooksville


The moment Danya Shakfeh heard about planes crashing into the twin towers, she steeled herself for the worst. Then a student at Land O'Lakes High School, Shakfeh expected a backlash because of her faith.

Turns out, she needn't have worried so much.

"It hasn't been that bad at all," said Shakfeh, now 20. "I had threatening phone calls, and I had people throw racial slurs at me at school. But, I wasn't hurt specifically."

Shakfeh says the constant barrage of negative news about Muslims and Arabic countries inspires her life's work. She is a first-year student at Florida International University's law school. She wants to specialize in international human rights law, helping defend the poor, unemployed and starving against oppressive governments.

"I don't agree with suicide bombers, but at the same time you have to address the reason they're blowing themselves up," she said. "If you address the reason, the problem will go away, and people will feel safer."

Mohammad Sultan

Imam, Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, Tampa


As leader of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, Imam Mohammad Sultan serves 1,500 Muslims who attend weekly services at his mosque, the largest in the bay area. Since Sept. 11, he has learned the importance of reaching out to non-Muslims.

"Muslims took things for granted," said Sultan, 53. "They thought not interacting with people was okay. This came back to haunt us since Sept. 11. People, right away, hated Muslims."

Sultan has set about bridging the gap. He hosts open houses at the masjid and travels to churches and community groups as an ambassador for Islam.

"It's a constant challenge," Sultan said. "One channel, one radio station, in an hour can destroy what you do for a whole year. You're always trying to break fences that the media build every day. It's like you're living a constant war. It's not a war of weapons. It's a war of words."

Aisha Waheed

Women's leader and activist, Tampa


The public's perception of Islam drove some Muslims undercover. Aisha Waheed stepped into the light.

Waheed, 54, began leading the United Muslim Association of Tampa Bay Women Inc. shortly after Sept. 11. The group's leaders, primarily immigrant women, stepped down after their husbands expressed concern for their safety.

Waheed didn't stop there. Frustrated by the media's portrayal of Islam and Muslims, she studied television production classes and began making plans for her own television program.

"When someone is defining you erroneously, it becomes very important that you expose yourself, not hide," said Waheed, who converted to Islam 30 years ago.

Waheed created One Nation Under God's Rule, a one-hour television program that discusses issues of faith. It airs twice a week on Tampa Bay Community Network, a public access station.

"I have responsibilities," she said. "I have to carry them out, and if something happens to me in the process, then that's just a blessing."

Fatimah Barazanji

Eighth-grade student, Largo


The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was different, recalls Fatimah Barazanji.

Teachers at her Muslim school watched the news and sent everyone home. The ensuing chaos was a lot for an 8-year-old to understand.

People gawked at Barazanji's family when they went shopping. Men harassed them and made threats as they drove around town.

The message from her elders was clear.

"Some Muslims misunderstand," said Barazanji, now 13. "They think what they're doing is right, but we know that it's against our religion to do bad things and hijack and bomb and even suicide and stuff. What they did was wrong."

Last year, having reached puberty, Barazanji began wearing the hijab. Strangers see the covering as a license to ask about her faith.

Do you wear the head scarf in the house? What about the shower? Where are you from?

Sometimes the attention scares Barazanji, who was born to Syrian parents in St. Petersburg. Still, she understands the public's interest and the need to answer with grace.

"Of course it would be nice if no one would look at (me), if I was just like a normal person," said Barazanji, who wants to be an optometrist. "I'm not different from any other person."

[Last modified September 9, 2006, 01:53:43]

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