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New York Muslims feel the glare

[Times Photo: Carrie Pratt]
Yosuf Tabish, a Muslim from Pakistan, helps a customer on 37th Avenue, an area in Queens with a large Muslim population.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001

NEW YORK -- The muezzin's call to evening prayer intoned across Atlantic Avenue -- over the head of the police officer named Shapiro, past the Islamic bookstore -- and drifted north, where the droning cadence mixed with the ashen smell of buildings still smouldering across the river.

Abdul Majid, wearing a Nike hat and sunglasses, stood Wednesday in front of the Masjid Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn and shared his informal prayer that the people responsible for Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center be brought to justice. And he hoped, too, the pervasive belief that Muslims were responsible would turn out to be an unfounded rumor.

"Right now it's just speculation," said Majid, a 42-year-old cab driver. "You saw what happened in Oklahoma City."

[Times Photo: Carrie Platt]
World War II veteran Charlie Farrel, who lives in Queens' Glendale neighborhood, talks outside the Franco Pharmacy on 37th Avenue.

Muslims in the Middle Eastern communities in Brooklyn, as well as the Pakistani and Bengali enclave of Jackson Heights in Queens, felt the glare of suspicion from their neighbors and the world. They knew that every news report that pointed to Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden as the most likely mastermind of the attacks only made it harder to escape the inference they were complicit in the crime.

No vandalism had been reported, though a Muslim community center in Queens found a flier tacked to the door, vowing: "We'll Get Even." Maybe it was the police stationed in front of mosques around the city that prevented threats such as those from being carried out.

But as Wednesday wore on, reports from law enforcement officials from Boston to South Florida drew increasingly sharper connections between the plane hijackers and Islamic terror groups. The chances that an antigovernment militant like Timothy McVeigh would be caught, and take the heat off Muslims, seemed increasingly remote.

Muslims throughout the New York metropolitan area, an estimated 800,000 of the 5-million to 7-million nationwide, harbored a quiet fear that their neighbors' wary silence could turn violent quickly. Perhaps to head off the steamrolling anger, they struggled to explain their sadness at the brutality of the attacks while reaffirming their loyalty to both their religion and their adopted country.

"This should never happen," said Mohammad Yusuf, a 62-year-old retired bartender. "Real Muslims wouldn't do a thing like that. We're American citizens. It could have been me in that building."

"We have a lot of friends who were there," said Ahmed Sadiq, a 58-year-old security guard at nearby Elmhurst Hospital, where many Muslims, including Yusuf, went to donate blood.

Yet even in a neighborhood where the produce markets stock Indian karela next to Chinese okra, where the City Council candidates (all Democrats) have last names such as Greco, Chan and Van Bramer, and where everyone -- whether they wear saris or hip-hugging jeans -- lives in six-story brick buildings with Waspish names such as The Surrey, getting the message out can be surprisingly hard to do.

As he stood in front of a sidewalk display of cheap silver pendants -- Arabic lettering of Allah, Jewish stars and New York Yankees logos -- Agha Zulfiqar gave a hint of what he would be addressing on his weekly television show on local and Pakistani politics.

"This is a tragedy. But why did it happen?" he asked. "What is the flaw of American foreign policy? The truth is the truth. Why isn't the Palestinian side ever shown?"

Tim Myers, wearing a White Sox hat to temper the Yankees sweatshirt ("I don't want to look like a complete fanatic,") was biking away from the strip of Pakistani shops, headed for the park in Flushing Meadow.

He had briefly thought about going out to an Afghani kebab restaurant nearby, but he couldn't bring himself to patronize an establishment that had even a remote connection to the country that provides a safe haven for bin Laden.

Since the attacks, he really hasn't known what to say to his Muslim neighbors. Even though they might be surprised to hear what he had to say.

"I think we've been unfair to the Muslim people," said Myers, 55, a retired civil servant. "We can't go on antagonizing a whole world of people."

The gulf was bridged in small ways, though.

Nancy Cogen, 62, runs a shop on Atlantic Avenue where she makes batik clothing, like the American flag design she was wearing Wednesday. Her shop, the Melting Pot, is flanked by Middle Eastern restaurants and retail shops that cater to the growing number of Egyptians, Lebanese and Yemeni who live in the south Brooklyn neighborhood.

After the attack, Cogen had closed her shop, as everyone along Atlantic Avenue, except the bars, did. She walked down to the promenade along the East River. On the way she met an Egyptian man.

"He looked like he had been crying," she said. "He showed me his paintings. He does New York scenes in spray paint."

"He gave me one of the skyline with the World Trade Center. He said it's the last one he would do."

But a guarded disinterest seemed to prevail most everywhere.

Down the street, someone taped a neatly typed sheet of white paper to the side of the door at the mosque.

"The Muslim community is outraged by these senseless acts of violence," it read. It included a quotation from the Koran: "And kill not life that Allah has made sacred . . . ."

Nobody stopped to read it.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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