HAGERSTOWN - The first time their mosque's sign was stolen, members of the Islamic Society of Western Maryland hoped and prayed it was only a prank.
Now, they know better.
The sign - set in concrete - has been cut down on three occasions, the final time at the end of January, apparently with a power saw. The society decided not to put it up anymore. And the group closed its 5-year-old day care center, which once tended to as many as 25 children, because of lingering concerns by parents and staff about a telephoned threat last year.
"They said, `Is this the Arab-run day care center? That's the one that is going down today,'" said Dr. Shahab Z. Siddiqui, a Hagerstown physician who is on the society's board.
The incidents, under FBI investigation, have occurred as other Muslim communities in the state have reported problems that they believe are connected to terrorism fears after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In Southern Maryland, Muslims have complained about rumors linking them to terrorist groups. "Somebody from al-Qaida gets arrested in Pakistan and his name is Mohammed, and everyone who has the last name Mohammed, which is a very common name, is asked, `Are you related to him?'" said Dr. Abdul Razaq, a Pakistani-born orthopedic surgeon in Waldorf.
The head of the Islamic Society of Frederick completed a recent Friday prayer session by urging about 100 attendees not to talk to the FBI without first consulting lawyers or the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"I received a call from the FBI today and they wanted to meet alone with me, which I would not do," President Khalil Elshazly, a Frederick mechanical engineer, told the group, which meets in a hotel conference room because it doesn't own space large enough to accommodate worshippers.
"If you're ever contacted by the FBI, you don't have to talk to them," Elshazly advised. "Don't be afraid. Don't yield to their pressure."
The FBI says it met with Frederick-area Muslims last month - and plans to meet today with Islamic representatives from across the state - to forge better communications.
Leaders of several local churches showed up at the Feb. 19 meeting to support the Muslims in attendance. Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty sent representatives of the city's police force, and said it was "troubling" if Muslims were being singled out because of their religion.
"We're not out there seeking a list of names, that's not our purpose," said FBI spokesman Barry Maddox. "The purpose is to establish a liaison."
Elshazly and Yahya Hendi, imam of the society of about 400, said they want to ensure their members' civil rights are protected in conversations with agents.
"We have nothing to hide," said Hendi, the Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University. "America is our country and we are not going `back home.' America is our `back home.'"
These days, the possible U.S. invasion of Iraq is often a hot topic when Muslims congregate. Hendi says that, while he disagrees with the policies of Saddam Hussein, a war would "fuel the fire" of animosity against the United States and could heighten threats to the nation's security. "Are you part of a plan that is trying to slow down any potential war on Iraq?" Hendi asked during the Friday prayer sermon.
The image of America's Muslim communities may be hurt by recent allegations by federal law enforcement agents that a Yemeni cleric used a Brooklyn mosque to help raise money for al-Qaida.
`Hijacked our religion'
After such reports, Maryland's Islamic communities say they consider it part of their mission to educate non-Muslim neighbors about who they are - and who they are not.
Dr. Mohammad Haq, a Waynesboro, Pa., physician who is active in the Hagerstown-area Islamic community, said that when he sees broadcasts of Osama bin Laden, "I say that this is a man who gave opportunity to the enemies of Islam to damage this faith. He is the man who hijacked our religion and gave a bad name to a peaceful religion."
Haq, originally from Pakistan, says terrorists are to Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christians. But the father of four says his children are sometimes asked in school: "Is your dad a terrorist?"
Haq prays at the Hagerstown Mosque, or masjid, which features a traditional tower called a minaret. It was completed in 1994 as an addition to a century-old stone home on the outskirts of town.
The imam lives in the home and conducts five prayer services a day. The Muslims touch their foreheads to the soft green carpet while sitting on their knees.
The masjid's sign has not been replaced "because it seems senseless to keep putting it up and then somebody keeps removing it," Siddiqui said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Siddiqui and other Muslims have attended a handful of community meetings in the Hagerstown area that include representatives from church groups and a Jewish congregation.
Siddiqui said Islam "is really the most misunderstood religion in the U.S. and that's really because we haven't done our job. "