Keeping the Faith

Since the attacks, local Muslim-Americans have seen the best _ and the worset _ of their countrymen

September 06, 2006|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,sun reporter

They begin arriving early - the slightly rusted Toyotas, the spiffy VWs, the purring BMWs - filling the hillside parking lot under a gleaming afternoon sun. An old man in billowing white robes and silver beard looks more Bedouin chief than parking attendant, but with elegant sweeps of his arm guides his brothers and sisters into their spaces. By a quarter to 1, the lot is jammed.

It's Friday, the afternoon for congregational worship in Islam, and a community is coming together. Women in headscarves tow grade-schoolers, boys in thobes (Saudi-style robes) greet each other with whacks on the arm, and men in taqiyah (flat-topped skullcaps) trade smiles and firm handshakes. They move in a merging stream toward the Al Rahmah masjid (mosque) in Windsor Mill, to an otherwise ordinary gymnasium that serves as worship and community center for the Islamic Society of Baltimore, the largest association of its kind in Maryland.

More than 1,600 will show up for this day's Jumu'ah, the weekly gathering at which Muslims hear a brief sermon, pray aloud and affirm, in Arabic call-and-response, their devotion to Allah, to one another and to a humble way of life.

That's barely a sliver of the 7 million Muslims said to be living in North America, let alone the 1.4 billion who practice Islam worldwide. But it's more than enough to cram the gym shoulder-to-shoulder, men of all ages standing in orderly rows, establishing the physical configuration Muslims believe will crowd out the devil if only they are devout enough.

Long before that terrible, smoke-filled morning five years ago, before the skyscrapers burned and the Pentagon smoldered and all Muslims came under a cloud of suspicion in the West, those who practiced Islam in America found the United States an ambivalent host - a place where they could pursue their dreams and worship, however they pleased, yet whose natives sometimes saw Islamic practices as alien, impenetrable, even vaguely threatening.

Take Muhammad Jameel, 61. At Jumu'ah, amid the hundreds gathering in their Punjab-, Arabian- or African-inspired garments, not to mention many in jeans and T-shirts, he's the guy in the gray business suit, his tie loosened a few notches, with wire glasses on his nose. He flits from one person to another, touching shoulders, shaking hands, making eye contact, speaking encouragement.

He learned the need for such exhortation 36 years ago, shortly after moving to the United States from his native Pakistan. A midlevel executive for a U.S. shipping company, he settled into his new job in Baltimore, only to be asked by his superiors to change his "foreign-sounding" name.

"I guess they knew better," he says evenly.

Jameel quit the job. He started his own consulting company, a move that led to busy careers in teaching and business. (Today, he owns a photo-finishing company in Baltimore County.) Yet he'd learned, as many Muslim immigrants do, that if he wasn't careful, he could embrace his new freedoms and opportunities at the cost of his identity.

A similar story

His story is like that of many at salat (prayer) today, the immigrants from Africa, the Asian subcontinent or Indonesia who came to the U.S. to learn a trade, go to school or flee societies that felt uncomfortable, oppressive or backward. He married an American, raised three kids (a son-in-law is a Marine), became a citizen. Yet he retained a well-tuned ear for notes of Muslim-Western discord and cultivated a taste for quiet conflict resolution. At the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he's on everyone's speed dial.

It's a good thing, too. Muslim-American crises, some comical, some not, can develop quickly. Take the call Jameel got in the middle of the night not long ago. The husband of an elderly female member had just died, and she reacted the way Muslimah have for centuries: by wailing at the top of her voice.

Neighbors called the police. "They thought it was spousal abuse," he says, both wincing and smiling. "Muslim women are taught not to withhold emotion when grieving. Isn't it healthier that way? This sister didn't speak English well, so I drove over and explained what had happened."

Such incidents are not unusual for members of ISB, which started as a tiny group at the Johns Hopkins University in 1969 and, since moving to its 8-acre site on Johnnycake Road in 1982, has expanded to include more than 3,000 families from around the area. Members live in East Baltimore, Reisterstown, Timonium, but they hail from a mind-boggling 86 countries.

Nor are the incidents surprising. Muslim immigrants from volatile or repressive nations - Ethiopia, Bosnia, Bangladesh - revere America's liberties and opportunities for advancement. As Jameel points out, they are prosperous: 60 percent of Baltimore County Muslims are employers and almost none is on the public dole, and ISB boasts dozens of doctors, engineers and educators.

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