For better and worse, attacks breach divide between U.S. Muslims, neighbors

Adherents re-examine customs as others gain closer look at faith

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 18, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A Howard County police officer in uniform and stocking feet was fielding questions from a large audience last week when, like all good public speakers, he asked the folks in back whether they could hear.

Then Sgt. Paul Steppe stopped himself short and turned in mild panic to the imam on his right. Was he allowed to do that, to speak directly to the people in that part of the room, all of them Muslim women with scarves over their heads?

Hours later, some of those same women gathered at a Laurel mosque to ponder another awkward question, one that until the past few days, they'd thought the Quran had settled more than 1,000 years ago: How should a good Muslim woman dress?

The terrorism that shattered lives and landscapes in this country is also breaching the cultural divide between American Muslims and their Christian and Jewish neighbors - for better and worse.

With Muslims fearing violence and harassment, police find themselves trying to protect a population they don't know very well. Officers are getting crash courses in Islam, boning up on the most basic religious and cultural traditions.

At the same time, the threat of violence has convinced some Muslims that it's safer to look more like the rest of America. Some Muslim women have thought about going out in public without wearing the khimar, a head scarf that is tied inextricably to many Muslim women's identity, chastity and faith in Allah.

In Columbia, Zehra Qureshi, a Wilde Lake High School senior, has refused to yield to her parents' pleas to quit covering her hair, though she did agreed to trade her long abaya robe for pants - so it's easier to run if she has to. "They feel it's for my safety," said Qureshi, 17, who received an anti-Muslim e-mail after the terrorist attacks. "All of a sudden somebody did something stupid and now we can't practice our religion."

So it is that some Muslims find themselves swept into a mainstream they want desperately to avoid while at the same time some Americans who were unfamiliar with Islam are getting a closer look at the faith.

Muslims may be thinking twice about displaying signs outside their mosques or even leaving the house. Yet the tragedy has also led to open discussions of religion at work and in social situations where the topic is usually taboo.

From police officers having to get to know a group that overnight became one of America's most vulnerable populations to the millions who watched an imam participate in Friday's televised prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, Muslims are looking a little more familiar.

And they should. Five million to 8 million Muslims live in the United States, 70,000 of them in Maryland, which has the 10th highest Muslim population in the nation, according to the Web site www.islam101. com. Islam is the nation's fastest-growing religion, according to Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, a magazine published by the American Educational Trust, a nonprofit foundation created by retired foreign service officers. Yet Muslims remain a mystery to many Americans, largely because their numbers were small until U.S. immigration laws were relaxed in 1965, Washington Report said.

"The kind of confusion that exists out there, the lack of understanding, is only because Islam is so new to this land," said Rehan A. Dawer of Columbia, a member of Dar Al-Taqwa, a Muslim congregation that meets in Columbia. "It has been an obvious presence for only 50 years."

The most visible sign of that presence is the khimar, the scarf that's meant to protect women but also makes them targets.

The khimar is no simple fashion accessory, no optional symbol like the cross a Christian might wear one day and leave in her jewelry box the next. The Quran requires women to wear it. By covering a woman's hair and chest, the scarf is meant to veil her beauty and thereby protect her chastity.

Starting at puberty, Muslim women are supposed to wear it in public and in their homes if they are in the presence of a man who is not a close relative. They consider wearing the scarf an honor, a symbol of their modesty and devotion. But it is not an easy thing to do in America, even in the best of times.

And the past week has certainly been bleak for American Muslims, whose leaders have condemned the terrorist attacks as contrary to their religious beliefs.

Muslims, Arab-Americans and people confused with them because of their style of dress have faced harassment and violence since the attacks, in which Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire and radical Muslim, is a prime suspect.

About 300 people marched on a suburban Chicago mosque last week, waving flags and chanting "USA! USA!" In Palos Heights, Ill., the Associated Press reported, a man was accused of using the blunt end of a machete to attack a Moroccan gas station attendant, and in Huntington, N.Y., police said, a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in a shopping mall parking lot.

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