Muslims' fears eased by support
Many concerns following Sept. 11 put to rest by reaction of local community
By Dann Denny,
Herald-Times Staff Writer
Adel Mekraz came to the United States from Libya in 1985 because he viewed America as a citadel of freedom. He quickly fell in love with the country, so much so that in 1996 he became a U.S. citizen.
"This is my home now," he said. "This is where I want to live and work and raise my family."
But in the weeks following last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mekraz became unsettled as he watched televised accounts of violence perpetrated against fellow Muslims by some outraged Americans.
National news reports detailed the destruction of Arab-owned stores — and the verbal harassment and violent attacks on Arab-Americans — in various U.S. cities.
"Some Muslim students at IU felt so threatened they left Bloomington and returned home," said Mekraz, a clinical assistant professor in retail merchandising at Indiana University. "They weren't sure where all this was heading, and they were afraid."
And though he had done nothing personally to court disfavor with his Bloomington neighbors, Mekraz also felt fear.
"I was concerned for the safety of my wife and four children," he said. "We would not leave our house at night, and I asked my wife to place an American flag on our van so people would know we love this country, and that we're peaceful people and want to be good neighbors."
Though Mekraz did not encounter any overt oppression in Bloomington, he sensed a reservoir of bitterness toward people perceived as Muslims or of Arabic descent.
"When I went to the grocery store I could feel the stares," he said. "Several of my friends were given the finger."
For others, however, there were more than stares and obscene gestures.
In Bloomington, a Pakistani man was assaulted after leaving a bar; and a man slapped a Muslim woman on the back, then called her "Muslim trash" and told her to go home.
"For the most part, IU students were very kind," said Kashif Siddiq, a senior at the university. "But I was still concerned. A Muslim friend of mine was beaten up by three men outside the College Mall."
For Mekraz, such incidents shook the very foundation of his world.
"I was beginning to wonder if all the principles of freedom and acceptance that this country stands for were real," Mekraz admitted. "In my mind, this was a test for the American people. Would they live by the principles upon which this country was founded, or would they not?"
America, Bloomington shine
Fortunately, say Mekraz and several of his Muslim friends, America's true character came to the fore.
"Once America had time to adjust to the initial shock of this terrible act and reflect on the fact that most Muslims are peaceful, loving people, its real identity surfaced," Mekraz said. "The vast majority of Americans showed love, not hate."
Nowhere was that more evident than in Bloomington, Mekraz said.
A few days after the attack, non-Muslim residents brought flowers to Bloomington's mosque.
"Attached to the flowers were cards saying, 'We sympathize with you,' 'You are part of our community,' and 'We want you to know Bloomington is a safe place for you,'" Mekraz said. "These words were extremely comforting to the Muslim community."
Eleven days after the attacks, nearly 200 Bloomington citizens gathered at the mosque for a special service designed to foster healing in the community.
"It was very moving and the show of support was amazing," Mekraz said. "Local priests and rabbis spoke, as did Mayor (John) Fernandez and (IU Dean Of Students) Dick McKaig."
For several days following the attacks, a group of Christian women wrapped scarves around their heads to show support for Muslim women in the community — many of whom wear a similar head covering called a hijab.
For four consecutive Friday afternoons, when about 100 Muslims gather at the mosque for their main congregational prayers, a squadron of Bloomington Police Department vehicles stood guard outside.
"That made us feel very safe, and I thanked the police officers personally," Mekraz said. "We'd read about someone in Ohio driving his car into a mosque. Thank God nothing happened here."
On the IU campus, McKaig established a volunteer escort service for Muslim women fearful of traveling alone.
"Five Muslim women said they wanted to use the service," Mekraz said. "But more than 200 IU students volunteered to work as drivers. It was unbelievable."
Ahmed Abdeen, a senior systems analyst at IU, says no one has modeled religious tolerance better than his American in-laws to be.
"My fiancee is a Muslim convert and her parents are devout Christians," he said. "
But they have treated me like their own son. I've been invited to all the family functions, and after I had surgery they took me into their home."
Disputing media reports
Though most area Muslims are grateful for the way American citizens have treated them in the aftermath of Sept. 11, they lament the manner in which Islam has been portrayed by the American media.
"The Sept. 11th tragedy opened the door for a lot of members of the media to attack Muslims without any fear of being perceived as prejudiced," Mekraz said. "It was open season on the Islam religion."
Mekraz said he's not sure whether the television media presented slanted reports out of bias or a lust for high ratings.
"Fear and sensationalism gets people's attention and sells more news," he said. "But what bothered me was the so-called experts who would appear on CNN, Fox and 'Larry King Live' and tell outright lies about Islam."
Abdeen said one of the most widely promulgated pieces of misinformation was the notion that "jihad" meant a military "holy war."
"Jihad is the struggle with oneself against temptation and the evil within ourselves," he said. "It has nothing to do with attacking other people."
Mekraz said he was angered by the number of American news shows that allowed underqualified guests to pontificate about a religion they knew little about.
"There's no shortage of intelligent, well-spoken Muslims who could have done a great job explaining our religion to the average Joe," he said. "Unfortunately, few of them got that chance."
Echoing that sentiment is Kashif Siddiq, an IU senior, who said CNN and Fox News rarely gave exposure to genuine experts who could have explained that Islam is a religion of peace and self-discipline, not repression and war.
Abdeen said it almost seemed as if the media delighted in "making it seem as if all Muslims were not only terrorists, but ignorant and uncivilized."
Abdeen said the media frequently showed footage of Afghan women wearing a hijab, the scarf-like head covering, and then saying they were being forced to do so by their husbands.
"In truth, many of those women had their Ph.Ds," Abdeen said. "And they were wearing the hijab of their own free will."
Amr Sabry, associate professor of computer science at IU, said the vast majority of Muslims are repulsed by the terror tactics of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.
"He represents Islam like Hitler represents Christianity," said Sabry, a practicing Muslim. "There are 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide and about 10,000 of them are involved in the al-Qaida. You'll find a small percentage of extremists in any large group of people."
But Sabry said there is a global problem that should be addressed by the leaders of every country: namely, the arrogant exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful.
"The exploiters can be found all over the world — in countries like America, Egypt, China and many more," he said. "And the people being exploited are angry and desperate, because their country's resources are being stolen by corporations."
Unfortunately, Sabry said, bin Laden chose the wrong way to address these global concerns. But Sabry thinks the international community should do something about these inequities.
"It used to be that such a small percentage of violent people was insignificant, but with today's technology a small group of people can do a lot of damage," he said. "
The world is one village now. We're all connected. If there are problems in the world, we should all be concerned about solving them. We can't isolate ourselves and ignore these problems anymore."
Reporter Dann Denny can be reached by phone at 331-4350,
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.