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Islam in Arkansas

By David Koon
The Arkansas Times
December 19, 2003

Muslims talk about the ups and downs of life in our state since 9/11. Most say it's been a road paved with compassion and love.

It's a November morning, soon after a frosty Arkansas sunrise, and 10,000 miles from Mecca a long line of cars is snaking across the lot of the Arkansas State Fairgrounds. Every kind of automobile you can imagine is represented: big German luxo-barges, pickups, soccer-mom-worthy SUVs, 10-year-old Fords that look like they're held together with prayer and bailing wire. As the line thins, the stragglers hurry in, harried dads with their kids pointing out parking spaces near the horse barns, young men in low-slung rice-rockets, letting their big mufflers wind as they rush up the hill to the Farm Bureau Arts and Crafts building near Barton Coliseum.

For as many people who show, the gathering isn't drawing much attention from the world at large. There will be no mention of it in the next day's paper, or on the evening news. That's understood, given that it's taking place on a Tuesday, before most people have had their first cup of java. It's not until you round the corner of the building and see them emerging from their cars that it hits you just how rare a gathering like this is in Little Rock. About a thousand Muslims - black and brown, even a scruffy white kid or two; that guy you knew in college who had broadened his mind - are climbing out of their cars and headed for the building, men going in through the north doors, women and bundled-up children entering through doors on the west.

There is a festive air about them. A few of the men smile and joke outside in the chill air, shaking hands and slapping each others' backs, speaking in smooth, rolling Arabic. This, too, is understandable. Last night, when the crescent moon broke the horizon, they ended the fast of Ramadan, the 30 days in which Muslims fast during daylight hours and study the Qur'an in the evening. Today, the Eid Ul-Fitr, is one of the Muslim calendar's big holidays: the Festival of Fast Breaking. Think Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one.

Inside, the space that will display crafts come State Fair time has been converted into a mosque. The pulpit where Imam Islam Mossaad will deliver his message sits slightly askew, affording those gathered the straightest line to Mecca, half a world away from here. On bright prayer rugs, a thousand men kneel on the tile floor, a sea of faces, chanting while the imam, clothed in a white tunic and skullcap, ritualistically washes his hands and forearms, then scoops water into his mouth from a sink at the front of the room. A long, green curtain segregates the men from the women, though you can hear children chattering on the other side. Near the doorway, a thousand pairs of men's shoes wait for their owners to sort them out. The Imam steps to the podium and begins to speak. Later, he will lead them though the ritualistic bowing and prayer toward a desert kingdom most Arkansans have only seen on CNN, and one can't help but wonder what the quilters from Fort Smith and the doll makers from Smackover who will display their wares here in October would think if they could see this peaceful invasion.

Given that the Census doesn't include questions about religious affiliation, it's probably impossible to nail down the true number of Muslims living in Arkansas. According to estimates by the U.S. Department of State, there are between six million and eight million Muslims currently residing in the United States, a number which is constantly growing as more and more come to America seeking their fortunes. By 2010, government projections see the American Muslim population surpassing the Jewish population, making Islam the second largest religion in America after Christianity.

They're a prosperous lot. According to a 2002 survey by Cornell University, fully 20 percent of the Muslims currently residing in the United States are students. It's a commitment to education that has paid off both for the Islamic community and America at large. The same study found that 67 percent of Muslims have earned a bachelor's degree or higher and 66 percent of Muslim heads-of-household earn more than $50,000 a year. Twenty-six percent earn more than $100,000 a year. It's a work and study ethic that pushes Muslims into high-paying careers: 12.4 percent are engineers, with 10 percent in the medical or dental field. Since Sept. 11, 2001, an image of Islam as a religion of dangerous fanatics has skewed the truth: that Muslims in this country are the very crux of the American Dream, using education as the doorway to wealth, freedom and prosperity.

Imam Islam Mossaad is a young, genial man - though he won't say just how young - olive-skinned, prone to taking thoughtful pauses before answering, the mark of a man who has spent most of his adult life trying to educate about the most uneducable of things: the nature of God and what He expects of us. With his quick smile, he's the kind of man who puts you instantly at ease, an enviable quality in a preacher of any denomination. His congregation is the Islamic Center of Little Rock. Located near UALR, it's just far enough off the main drag that most people don't even know it's there.

He's been the imam at the center for a little over a month, coming there from a post in Austin, Tex. When I ask where he was born, he gives an answer which at first seems to not make much sense -"I'm from Egypt, but I was born here" - but which grows clearer the more Muslims I talk to; a fierce sense of place that lingers in their blood.

Sitting on the heavily-padded floor at the Islamic Center (there are apparently no chairs anywhere there) before the feast that will break the Ramadan fast, Imam Mossaad laughs heartily when the reporter admits that, as someone raised Baptist, the thought of praying five times a day is daunting. He tells a story that turns out to be sort of a joke: That God originally told Mohammed that Muslims should pray 50 times a day. Mohammed went down the mountain to tell his followers. On the way down, he met Moses, who persuaded Mohammed to go back up the mountain and renegotiate with God. Finally, after several trips up and down the mountain, God was finally talked down to five prayers a day, at which point Mohammed told Moses he was simply too embarrassed to ask the Almighty for anything less. It's a strange and funny story, made all the more odd for the straight-man appearance of Moses, the chief prophet of a religion that is locked in mortal combat with Islam in Palestine as we speak. It's a little-known fact of the Muslim faith, one that's apt to make your average Bible-thumper do a bit of soul-searching when put into perspective of the "We're right, they're wrong" philosophy espoused by many hard-line Christians: One of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim must adhere to is the reveration of Jesus, Moses and Mohammed.

"As Muslims we believe there is one God who sent revelation to Moses, to Jesus, and to Mohammed peace be upon them all," Imam Mossaad said. "That's what's articulated in the Qur'an, that there's not a God of Moses and a God of Jesus and a God of Mohammed, but that Allah, or The God, was the one who created all things and the one who sends the guidance throughout time through different messengers."

Imam Mossaad comes to Little Rock at what many might assume was a dangerous time for Muslims, what with wholesale deportations by the Justice Department, Afghans held as "enemy combatants" in Cuba, the conflict in Iraq, and the lingering specter of terrorism on American soil. Just a few days ago, the Secret Service ordered a hotel where President Bush was speaking to send a waiter home for the day because his name was Mohammed.

Given the circumstances, the most surprising thing about talking to the imam and other members of the mosque is how peaceful their lives are here; devoid - to hear it from many - of racism, surveillance and suspicion.

"I think that as Muslims, if we just live our ordinary lives, there's no reason to pay attention to the labeling that goes on in the media by politicians who really don't know too much about Muslims in America," Imam Islam said. Still, he admits, there is the specter of feeling under suspicion. "In terms of does the community feel under suspicion, they do feel that," he said. "I think the way to overcome that is just in interaction with the larger community and just living a normal life as we've been doing."

Dr. Shagufta Siddiqui is a doctor at the VA hospital in Little Rock. She has a hearty chuckle over her sole experience with the FBI. Moving into a house in Little Rock just days before Sept. 11, 2001, she was surprised when agents paid her and her neighbors a visit a few days after she and her family got settled in. "9/11 happened and some people reported us, that some suspicious looking people moved into a house in the middle of the night," she laughed. "After that, I teased my husband, that it must be him."

Still, she sees the suspicion. She's been searched at the airport enough times since 9/11 that now, the moment she reaches the checkpoint to get on the airplane, she automatically takes off her shoes and coat and puts them on the scanner. Her reaction is only interesting in how calm it is. "If they are checking out people on the airplanes, well, somebody might get offended. But they have to follow the procedures that will protect people at large." Siddiqui called the Muslim community at large a "silent majority." It's a group whose voices - especially in the mainstream media - are often drowned out by radicals overseas. "Ninety-seven percent of (Muslims) are everyday people," she said. "They just think that the fanatics represent us, and that the fanatics are everywhere." Since Sept. 11, Siddiqui said that she has felt "blessed" by the outpouring of love and support from her Christian friends and patients. She laughs again about a patient of hers at the VA, who took standing up for her to extremes. "He said, 'Doc, because of you, I almost got arrested.'" The patient had been involved in an argument with a man who said that all Muslims were killers and needed to be gotten rid of. "He stood up and said, 'I think you're wrong. My doctor is Muslim and she's the best doctor in the world.'" The exchange led to blows. Though Siddiqui said she discouraged the patient from any more physical altercations on her behalf, the story still made her understand that she had changed things. "It touched me that there were some people who would feel so strongly about it because of their interaction with me," she said. "That I'm not a monster. That I'm a normal person with regular dreams and aspirations."

It's a sentiment repeated by Rasha Al Badry, a homemaker who moved to Little Rock from Egypt a little less than two years ago. Though no one has quite come to blows in her defense so far, she said that people in Arkansas have been very friendly to her. "I tell people that Islam is a peaceful religion, and is the religion of mercy, and I don't find people arguing over that," Al Badry said. "My parents were worried. They were very worried. The first few months that I came here, they were always asking do I find a hard time as a Muslim, and I kept telling them no, people are so peaceful here."

Kaleem Sayyed is the president of the Islamic Center of Little Rock, the bill-paying yin to Imam Islam's spiritual yang. Unlike many Muslims since 9/11, Sayyed said he has never been taken out of line for a search at the airport. "I see folks being pulled out, the white and the African-American, and I think, OK, my turn is probably going to be next." Though Sayyed admits he has heard of a few cases in the state that he would call racial profiling or out-and-out racism, he added that around 95 percent have not been harassed in any way. He said that the people of Arkansas have "shown their Southern hospitality." Still, Sayyed sounds troubled when he talks about an anti-Muslim letter which appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in early December. In it, a letter-writer called Muslims godless, and questioned whether they had made any contribution to mankind. Almost in automatic defense, Sayyed reels off a long list of things invented by Muslims: the computer, algebra, geography, topography. "I had hoped such a thing was finished," Sayyed said. "The newspaper should be responsible enough not to publish such letters." Still, Sayyed thinks back to the tense days following 9/11 as proof that the majority of Arkansans understand that it was a tragedy caused by fanaticism, not Islam. It's an experience reported by many Muslims: Arkansans going out of their way to show their Muslim neighbors and co-workers love in a time that seemed shockingly devoid of it. "People who I did not know were hugging me and saying, 'It's not about religion,'" Sayyed said. "All I got from people in my workplace was hugs and messages of love."

While most of the Muslims we talked to expressed commitment to and love for America, there is an understandable undercurrent of disappointment at U.S. foreign policy. "As Muslims in America," said Imam Islam, "we feel we are part of American society. But at the same time as Americans there are things which we disagree upon, whether it's foreign policy or domestic policy, economic things, or political affairs abroad. We feel as Americans it is our obligation to speak what we feel and explain why a certain policy is against the interests of the United States, or against the principles of the United States, justice, and freedom and equal opportunity."

Samiyah Razzaq is a pediatrician at Arkansas Children's Hospital. A mother, she puts the conflict into a more human perspective than abstract questions of foreign policy. "Civilians are getting hurt, then troops are getting killed," she said. "A son is a son for anyone. As a mother, it hurts just the same. This is anger over the helplessness that we cannot do, that the decisions are not made as we are wanting or hoping."

"We don't like killing," said Rasha Al Badry, on the subject of the Iraqi conflict. "We know that they were living under unhappy times with their previous president. We know that America really wanted to help. Still, this number of innocents being killed. We are brothers and sisters in Islam. We don't like to hear that there's so many people being killed I have many American Christian friends, and they say 'What did we get from this war, as far as American benefit?'"

It's a concern repeated more forcefully by Muhammed Ali Butte. "I just heard 50-odd soldiers died the other day. I don't understand what Bush is doing, but I pray for all those troops' parents, man. I know every time they go down to sleep, they pray to God that He'll bring their child home."

Butte is 20, a website designer. Born in Arkansas to a successful Pakistani father and Afghan mother, educated in Catholic schools and raised a Christian, he was fast disappearing in the Great American melting pot when a crisis of faith in his late teens led him back to his parents' religion of Islam. "I read the Qur'an," he said. "I wasn't really trying to hear it at first, because it had this stigma attached to it. But I read it and I was really blown away how calm it was." Now a devout Muslim, he calls himself a "red-blooded American," a former Boy Scout who once had dreams of becoming a pilot in the Air Force. He's a good-looking guy who used to live an all-American life: full of girls, parties, and fast cars. He struggles often with his faith. "It was tough praying five times a day, converting," he said. "But it's like medicine to my soul. With these girls, you know how they dress; you know how beautiful they are. They wear them short-shorts! Lord! But the prayers, they ground me. They're like, 'Just be good.'"

Talking about the United States, Butte often uses words like "phenomenal" and "just," and the way he says it, it's easy to believe that he means every word of it. Still, he can't help but admit "disbelief" at American foreign policy in the Middle East. "It's like your mother. If she does something to embarrass you, it's like 'God, mom, don't do that!' But you still love her and respect her no matter what. I'm like, why are we conducting ourselves like that? We're the best." It's a thread of pride tinged with sadness that ran through many conversations. Still, for any disappointment the Muslims we talked to felt about American foreign policy, it was always counterbalanced by a deep and heartfelt sense of pride at living here; of having used the system to find happiness, prosperity and peace in a predominantly Christian nation.

"Whoever is living in America is grateful that they have a place here," said Samiyah Razzaq. "It's not anything we are ashamed of, or we feel like this is a crutch that we're standing on to go back to our country. I think we're proud to be here."

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