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Mixing Islam & Medicine

May 2, 2013 by  


By Claire Bushey

alhambra

Dr. Naser Rustom opened the 24,000-square-foot Alhambra Palace on Randolph Street’s restaurant row in 2007.

Stephen J. Serio

A Chicago doctor who owns a lavish Middle Eastern eatery on West Randolph Street wants to open the first outpatient surgery center in Illinois that he says will follow Islamic law.

Dr. Naser Rustom, who opened Alhambra Palace in 2007, has in mind a venture with a much more religious flavor. He proposes to establish a $5.5 million medical facility in southwest suburban Orland Park that would cater to Muslims, including space for prayer and ritual washing and partitions for enhanced patient privacy.

The proposal reflects how more businesses are looking to tap into the growing population of Arab-Americans and Muslims, offering products ranging from home mortgages to meat that satisfy religious standards. This comes at a time of passionate national debate over the religious rights of business owners, sparked by scores of lawsuits filed against the Obama administration over a regulation that requires employer health care plans to cover contraceptives.

Some interpretations of Shariah, or Islamic law, require strict segregation of the sexes, a practice that Dr. Rustom doesn’t intend to follow because, in his view, it likely would violate federal and state laws.

While his plan is aimed at conservative Muslims, his pitch may be driven more by marketing than dogma.

“It’s not as if we can open up the books of Islamic law and find a chapter on what makes a Shariah-compliant health care facility,” says Kristen Stilt, a professor at Northwestern University Law School who has studied the development of Islamic law.

Some Muslims delay medical care because of perceived conflicts between their beliefs and the U.S. health care system.

An internist, Dr. Rustom is a 1984 graduate of the University of Damascus in Syria who completed his residency at Cook County Hospital eight years later.

His medical career has been low-key compared to Alhambra, a cavernous, 24,000-square-foot restaurant that looks like a Disney version of a Moorish castle. Located along Randolph Street’s restaurant row, the venture offers Middle Eastern cuisine and entertainment, including belly dancing and live music.

His plan for the Orland Park surgical center is a sign of how the Chicago area’s Muslim population is booming. Fueled in part by immigration from the Middle East and South Asia, the number of local adherents to Islam more than doubled, topping 300,000, between 2000 and 2010, and is expected to continue to climb.

The center would lease space in a vacant Plunkett Furniture Co. store near the Orland Square Shopping Center. More Arab-Americans live in the southwest suburbs than anywhere else in the Chicago area, according to Dr. Rustom’s application with the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, citing demographic data.
 
Services would include gastroenterology, general surgery and treatment for pain management, the application says. The facilities board must approve the project.

Patients of all religious and cultural backgrounds will be treated at the center, which will not be different from other surgery centers except “to the trained eye,” the application says.

INTERPRETATION

Shariah is based on the Quran and other Islamic texts, but some aspects are open to interpretation, experts say.

In the Middle East, many health care facilities segregate waiting rooms by sex, says Rina Spence, a health care management consultant in Boston who worked in the Middle East for more than a decade.
Dr. Rustom doesn’t plan to adhere to that practice, says Robyn Fina, an employee of Dr. Rustom’s who is managing the project.

“We recognize that a health care facility that is fully compliant with Shariah law would likely violate a number of state and federal laws,” Ms. Fina says in an email. Dr. Rustom declines to be interviewed. Interaction between the sexes will be kept “at a modest level,” she adds.

Some Muslims, particularly recent immigrants and women, delay seeking medical care because of perceived conflicts between their beliefs and the U.S. health care system, says Dr. Aasim Padela, an emergency medicine physician and director of the Initiative on Islam and Medicine at the University of Chicago.

For example, female Muslims in Chicago who say they had experienced discrimination at a health care facility are five times less likely to receive regular mammograms than Muslims who did not feel bias, according to a study by Dr. Padela.

See some basic stats on Chicago’s growing Muslim and Arab population

By focusing on Muslims, Dr. Rustom is following a path used by businesses in other industries.

Devon Bank started offering Shariah-compliant mortgages and commercial loans a decade ago, says David Loundy, CEO of the bank, which is located near Devon and Western avenues on the North Side, in an area bustling with Muslim businesses.

The deals use alternative structures, such as rent-to-own, because Islam forbids the payment of interest.

Best Chicago Meat Co., based on the Northwest Side, began selling halal meat, which is butchered in accordance with Islamic precepts, about five years ago, President David Van Kampen says. Halal meat accounts for 8 to 10 percent of annual revenue of more than $23 million.

At Indie Burger, a trendy eatery in Lakeview, customers can request sandwiches made with organic, grass-fed halal beef, says co-owner Cyrus Rab, who is Muslim. What they can’t get is alcohol, which is proscribed by Shariah.

A liquor license came with the location, but Mr. Rab opted to make the restaurant BYOB, even though he’s not exceptionally devout. “I still respect my faith,” he says.

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