Muslim ritual pilgrimages end with nervous returns to U.S.

Anti-terror measures unnerve travelers from Saudi Arabia

February 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - On the way home from the hajj, his emotion-laden pilgrimage to Islam's holy shrines in Saudi Arabia, Shamsul Quadir began to worry that he might get in trouble for coming back a changed man.

"I left clean-shaven and with a full head of hair, and now look at me," Quadir said Friday after clearing the immigration and customs booths at Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Quadir, a Pakistani-born shopkeeper from Louisiana, wore a five-day growth of dark beard, and when he shyly lifted his baseball cap he revealed a bare, shiny scalp. In the Muslim tradition, he had shaved his head as a sign of piety, and his appearance did not match his passport photo.

"I was a little scared," he said, "with all the security issues."

So it was for many American Muslims on their homecoming from this year's annual pilgrimage to the birthplace of Islam, an event that would normally stand as an unalloyed religious high point.

They came back transformed, often physically and certainly spiritually. They also arrived, with a jolt, back in a country on heightened alert for terrorists.

Many of the returning pilgrims, disconnected from daily news while living in vast tent cities in Mecca, learned only on their way home that the national threat level had been raised because of fears that terror attacks would be timed to coincide with the end of the hajj.

Their journey brought more than a mood shift. Here, many Muslims have felt on edge since Sept. 11, 2001, and defensive about Islam's image. There, they said, even in a throng of Muslims during a solemn ceremony meant to erase such differences, they felt the distinction of being American.

This year's hajj drew more than 1.9 million to Mecca, according to Saudi authorities. All but about 500,000 of the pilgrims came from outside of Saudi Arabia, including at least 10,000 from the United States.

Again and again in interviews, the first wave of returning pilgrims spoke of how Muslims from other countries made a point of probing whether they were comfortable living in the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"When they'd see me and realize I was American, they acted as though I must have an FBI agent following me everywhere and that I was fingerprinted at every grocery store," said Irfan Malik, a Baltimore engineer of Pakistani descent, who was returning from his first hajj.

"They had all these misconceptions," Malik said. "They'd heard that some Muslims were getting arrested and then assumed that everyone was getting arrested."

Malik, 49, said he tried hard to reassure the people he met in Saudi Arabia that his family's life was normal, that government agents were indeed arresting and investigating some Muslims, but that overall Muslim Americans had a voice in their country's affairs.

When he felt hints of hostility, it was directed toward U.S. policy in the Middle East and the prospect of war in Iraq, he said.

"We didn't hear anyone saying [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] is a good guy, yet also they didn't want thousands and thousands of orphans and people being killed," Malik said.

Customs and immigration officials said they were not singling out the hajj flights from the Middle East for extra attention. All border entry points to the United States, they said, have been on high alert.

A spokesman for the FBI in New York also said strict security precautions were being applied to all passengers and flights.

Immigration officials said Saudi Arabian Airlines and Egypt Air, the airlines that most American hajj travel agencies used, were among airlines that provided passenger manifests to U.S. authorities while their flights were en route to the United States. The names are to be compared against those on databases of suspected terrorists before the flights arrive.

Those pilgrims who returned over the past two days said they had been told to expect long waits at the airports, going out and coming back, for extra security checks. Some were taken to the airport in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, six hours or more before their return flights and said their bags were opened and searched when leaving Saudi Arabia and searched again as they transferred to connecting flights in the United States.

Aziz Ahmad, a lean man in a white skullcap, said he learned about the alarm in the United States while on the plane coming home to New York City.

That is when he heard, as well, that the Bush administration had advised Americans to stock up on things like duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal their homes in case of a biological or chemical attack.

Ahmad, 31, was not at all sure whether airport officials would consider him prescient or suspect when they saw his luggage, which he had wrapped in duct tape before leaving Saudi Arabia to keep it closed.

"Anyway, I've still got some left," he said after greeting his father at the airport.

"It's a very humbling experience," said Mona Negm, a retiree who left her home in Baltimore to perform the hajj in honor of her mother, who at 80 was too infirm to go. "There are people who can't walk, who don't have the means to be living in luxury, and we all gather in one place and we all worship one god."

Negm, too, was struck by how often she was asked about discrimination in the United States.

"They're fascinated to know how we're being treated," she said. "I just say it's a wonderful country, and we're lucky to be part of it."

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