tampabay.com

Faith's friction

A Tampa woman who lost eight relatives in the attacks converts to Islam as tensions simmer from the memories and new terror plots. But she presses on.

By SHERRI DAY
Published September 9, 2006


Her mother named her Elizabeth after the queen of England. More than four decades later, she took another name: Safia Al-Kasaby, reflecting her new identity as a Muslima.

Safia, 43, is an unlikely candidate for conversion. She claims Jewish and Puerto Rican ancestry. She is a former sergeant first class in the Air Force National Guard. And she lost eight relatives - one uncle and seven cousins - in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Back then, Safia did not imagine the faith professed by the hijackers would one day become her own.

"It didn't really matter who did it," says the Tampa woman now, reflecting on the 2001 attacks. "I just never hated Islam. I never hated Muslims. For me to be angry about what happened to the twin towers would be like me hating all the Germans that killed the Jews."

Safia embraced Islam last year, coming to the faith at a time when it is seemingly maligned anew with each new report of terror plots, wars in far away lands and dead American soldiers.

Like other Muslims, Safia feels the tension all around her: curious stares because she wears the hijab or head scarf and store clerks who ask for extra identification.

Just last month, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo turned down an initial request from Safia's Egyptian fiance for a temporary visa. Safia was certain bigotry played a role.

Her new faith also has widened the chasm among her Christian family. Her mother, three sisters and one of her daughters question her choice.

Safia presses on.

"For her to accept Islam, making that decision especially in this day and time, it says you're ready to step up and deal with the challenges of this journey," said Pat "Aliyah" Cruse, a fellow Muslima and 11-year convert.

* * *

Some demographers consider Islam to be the fastest-growing religion in the world. Of the 1.3-billion Muslims worldwide, 4.7-million live in the United States, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

One of the world's oldest religions, Islam has been in the United States for generations. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, thrust the religion and its adherents into the spotlight. Before the attacks, American Muslims largely kept to themselves. Now, many feel the public expects them to answer for the actions of those who commit heinous acts in the name of their faith.

Across the country, some Muslims complain of stereotyping, racial profiling and discrimination. Others pine for the days when Islam was rarely mentioned in headlines. Most dare not complain openly, religious and civic leaders say, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or sympathetic to extremists.

"There's a certain sense of indignation to being treated the way they've been treated," said Imam Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. "There's a kind of rage. The challenge is to make that a healthy rage."

Many American Muslims say extremists misrepresent their faith. But convincing the public to separate Islam from terrorism at times seems an insurmountable hurdle.

Opinion polls back up what American Muslims say they feel every day: Masses of the U.S. populace view them negatively. In a USA Today/Gallup poll released in August, 39 percent of Americans said they feel prejudiced toward Muslims. Nearly one quarter of Americans polled said they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor. Another 39 percent want Muslims to carry special identification at all times and undergo enhanced security checks when boarding airplanes.

Anti-Muslim sentiment also has popped up in the Tampa Bay area, home to an estimated 45,000 Muslims. In 2002, federal agents arrested a Seminole podiatrist, Dr. Robert Goldstein, on charges of plotting to blow up a mosque.

Fearing for their wives' safety after Sept. 11, husbands of immigrant Muslim women pulled them out of leadership roles in Islamic women's groups. Fathers encouraged daughters to remove their hijabs in public to avoid harassment. Muslim women complained of verbal abuse in retail stores. One woman's hijab was ripped from her head by a customer in her husband's store.

Children get few passes. Last spring, athletic officials benched Temple Terrace's Briana Canty when she refused to remove her head scarf in an amateur youth basketball league tournament. Rather than recognize Islamic holidays, the Hillsborough County School Board voted to rescind all religious holidays, a move it later reversed.

This is the new reality for American Muslims. Advances are often eclipsed by setbacks.

Quoting Charles Dickens, Ihsan Bagby, a leading Muslim demographer and associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, said this is the best and worst of times for Muslims in America.

"This frustration, this pressure will ultimately produce positive results as Muslims continue to strive to become full members of this society," Bagby said. "Overall, everybody will look back at this period, they'll see this possibly as a turning point in the history of Islam in America."

* * *

Despite challenges for Muslims, Islam continues to grow, buoyed by births and new converts such as Safia.

Raised by her grandparents in Puerto Rico, Safia grew up in a home of melded cultures and faiths. Her grandfather was a Jew, who fled Germany during the Holocaust. Her grandmother was Catholic. Safia ultimately chose Judaism, a faith she believed was her birthright.

But Judaism eventually let her down, Safia said. In 1997, nearly destitute, she approached a North Tampa synagogue for help. Officials at the shul wanted to know if she was a member. She was not. They asked her if she was really Jewish.

"They said just because I had a relative along the line didn't make me Jewish," said Safia. "That was the first wall. That I wasn't pure."

Battling rejection, Safia left the synagogue. For eight years, she did not participate in organized religion.

She found Islam in 2005 on the third day of a Moroccan vacation.

"I just felt like God was there," she said, recalling her visit to a mosque during the call for prayer. "I said, 'This is it. I believe there is only one God. His name is Allah, and his messenger is Mohammed.' "

At first, Safia's family didn't take her seriously. And some colleagues at her banking job looked askance at her new Moroccan-inspired Islamic attire. Safia quickly toned it down, wearing scarfs only around her neck. She dared not pray at work.

Mostly, Safia kept her new faith at home, learning about her religion on Web sites and Islamic chat rooms.

Safia went to the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area in June and asked for the imam. She wanted to renew her shahadah, the formal declaration of the Islamic Creed. Safia also was out of work. The imam gave her a job managing the society's office. The group also stocked her refrigerator and paid her rent and electricity bill.

At last, Safia said, she had found a spiritual family. It helps blunt the sting of the rejection from her biological one.

Safia's eldest daughter, Sylvia, wants little to do with her. A Baptist and young military widow, Sylvia berated Safia when she showed up at her husband's funeral wearing a hijab and carrying a Koran.

At home in Town 'N Country, Safia raises two daughters. Ten-year-old Natalia says her mother's religion is cool. Ada, 18, appreciates Safia's transformation and doesn't put up with people who make fun of Islam or stereotype Muslims.

"I say, 'Wait a minute. My mom's a Muslim,' " Ada said. "She's not a terrorist."

Safia hopes the world will see her as an example of what Islam really is. Still early in her conversion, she is a Muslima in transition.

She studies the Koran and prays five times a day. She also wears makeup and has French-manicured acrylic nails. Sometimes she covers and sometimes - when she fears heckling or worse - she does not.

There are victories: Her fiance received his visa and the two married Friday.

She looks forward to the day when her religion is not an issue.

"I don't want to have whispers behind me, whispers in front of me," she said. "I want to be able to blend in, keep my faith and blend in."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or 813-226-3405.