Long Shadow of 9/11: Seeking Acceptance

September 7, 2006 by  


Courtesy Joan Whitely

A genuine minaret — attached to a real mosque, not to a casino with a Middle Eastern theme — is expected to rise in Las Vegas by the end of 2006. The 80-foot tower will fulfill a dream for local Muslims.

It will stand on East Desert Inn Road at Jamia Masjid, the largest mosque in Nevada. The minaret won’t be functional; no crier will climb to the top to announce daily prayer times. Its role will be to “signify the call to prayer, the oneness of God — oneness because it stands by itself,” explains Aslam Abdullah, 49, who is spiritual director of the masjid, the Arabic word for mosque.

Like a spire, the population of Muslims is soaring in the United States. The number of adults 18 or over who identified themselves as Muslim more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, the period covered in a landmark study of American religious identification done by City University of New York.

Muslims make up only about 2.3 percent of the nation’s population and less than 1 percent of Clark County’s. But estimates are slippery because the U.S. Census doesn’t count people by religion. About two-thirds of U.S. Muslims are immigrants, most sources indicate. The reverse is true in Clark County, where about two-thirds of Muslims are U.S.-born, Abdullah estimates.

Both in ways they intend and in ways they cannot control, Muslims today are imprinting American culture.

In Las Vegas they have expressed religious piety in recent years by founding an Islamic private school and holding annual Quran conferences that bring in distinguished outside speakers.

But most Muslims here feel tarnished by caricatures of Islam projected by terrorists, the media, politicians or the ignorant. After the terrorist hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, were identified as Muslims, they have worried about ethnic profiling by law enforcement and job discrimination by leery employers.

The new Las Vegas minaret literally will raise the public profile of Jamia Masjid, which began informally in the 1970s when a handful of Muslims began meeting for prayer on the swimming pool patio at Khalid Khan’s Las Vegas apartment complex.

Khan, born in India and raised in Pakistan, was then a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Today he’s a prosperous business owner and head of the Islamic Society of Nevada, which officially formed in 1984 to launch and govern the Jamia Masjid. It built the first phase of its present facility at 4730 E. Desert Inn Road in 1994 — a fairly rare achievement. Only 26 percent of U.S. mosques have erected their own buildings; most buy a resale property, according to a study of U.S. mosques released in April 2001 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Jamia Masjid now encompasses about 300 regular families, encompassing more than 1,000 people, who regularly participate in activities including prayers, classes, lectures and social outreach such as assisting the homeless. Mosque turnout on special occasions has exceeded 4,000, according to Abdullah. He’s thinking of the annual celebration to end the fasting month of Ramadan, when Muslims from mosques across the valley throng to Jamia.

Five mosques dot Southern Nevada, but that number includes any location where public prayers are held, so a private school and an Islamic information office are among the five. The oldest valley mosque is Masjid As-Sabur, 711 Morgan St., in an older neighborhood near downtown Las Vegas.

It was founded, technically, in 1986 by African Americans who had embraced orthodox Islam. But it incorporated most members from a pre-existing mosque of the Nation of Islam, a racially separatist offshoot of Islam. Today As-Sabur, which translates to patience, has about 200 members, said its imam, or leader, 37-year-old Fateen Seifullah. At the average prayer service, 30% to 40% of attendees are nonblack.

Muslims in Southern Nevada run the economic gamut. Lawyers, real estate agents, interior decorators, grocers, caterers and clothing retailers are all represented on a counter at Jamia Masjid, where people have dropped leaflets and business cards for networking.

Khan, president of the executive committee that runs the mosque, has done well in the 32 years he has been in Las Vegas. A graduate of the UNLV hotel administration program, he got into textile importing at the urging of a cousin who manufactured towels back in Pakistan. Today, Khan’s company, Hina’s Textiles, is a wholesaler of institutional linens and clothing. A naturalized citizen for many years, Khan is proud that he supplies many of the patriotic-themed T-shirts — think “USA Original” or “American and proud of it” — sold by gift shops on the Strip or at the airport.

Dr. Osama Omar Haikal has prospered, too, with a Las Vegas gastroenterology practice. He founded the Omar Haikal Islamic Academy, which opened in 2001. “We opened the day before September 11. We closed that one day and have been open ever since,” principal Nancy Gasho said. A career educator, Gasho is a non-Muslim who was drawn by the school’s high academic goals. Now with classes running from kindergarten through eighth grade, the school requires an hour of daily instruction in Arabic and the Quran, the Muslim holy book. It expects to have 90 to 95 students this year.

The school suits Husna Alikhan, an immigration attorney, and her husband, Dr. Farrukh Imtiaz, both of Indian descent. Alikhan grew up in Canada; her husband came from India to the United States to advance his medical education. Both are now U.S. citizens. They have two children.

“We’d like to maintain, or preserve, our way of life, our culture,” is how she explains their school choice. “I think one of the best ways of doing that is having them in a private (school) setting. When they’re with their peers of similar background, it makes my life easier. It makes my husband’s life easier.”

She’s referring to Muslim values and lifestyle practices that cover diet, fasting, modest dress for girls and prayers at set times during the day.

Career progress has been hard for some Las Vegas Muslims. One is Mirza N. Baig, 34, who arrived in Las Vegas in October 2001. He and his father migrated just days after his mother’s death to join Mirza’s four brothers, who already lived in Southern Nevada.

Baig holds a master’s degree in geography, an MBA from the Pakistan campus of an American university and a law degree from the University of Karachi. In Pakistan, he made a good living as a district sales manager for a U.S. pharmaceutical maker.

After two years of trying to land a job in corporate sales, he runs what amounts to a convenience store.

With his brother as business owner, he launched and manages a small specialty store that sells halal meat (hand-butchered, according to Muslim protocol), hard-to-find Indian and Pakistani foods and typical convenience store goods. That’s minus the beer, because Muslim religious law proscribes alcohol. To surprised non-Muslim beer shoppers, he says, “I don’t say ‘I don’t want to sell it,’ just ‘I don’t have the license’” to sell it.

On the side, Baig does real estate. He’s underemployed and can’t figure out why U.S. companies won’t hire him. But he suspects his foreign origin and arrival after Sept. 11, 2001, have a lot to do with it. Patience is his best strategy. “The way I was thinking it would be (in America), it is not. … I don’t feel bad. I know I have to start my life over.”

A 30-year-old woman who attends Jamia Masjid works as a nursing assistant as she attends nursing school. Bilingual because she grew up in the Middle East, she speaks flawless English thanks to her English-speaking Christian mother. But the young woman, who declined to provide her name for inclusion in this story, reports that she couldn’t find a job whenever she interviewed wearing the head scarf of hijab, an Arabic term for modest female dress. Once she started interviewing minus the scarf, she easily got a job. Now working as a temp at a health care agency, she complains, “The people who hire, they basically don’t like us because of our beliefs.”

A national survey of U.S. Muslims in October 2004 found that a majority (57 percent) said they, their friends or members of their family had experienced anti-Muslim discrimination since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Metropolitan Police Department and the Las Vegas field office of the FBI claim a good relationship with the Muslim community, but many Muslims say their treatment by law enforcement and security agencies has been mixed.

Airport snags for Muslim passengers are common, beyond what the typical traveler faces, they claim. Flying while brown — akin to driving while black — is a pejorative term that has emerged in some quarters to describe ethnic profiling of Muslims at airports.

Businessman Khan has been extensively vetted by law enforcement to obtain an access pass that he uses to visit retail clients located in secure portions of McCarran airport. But when he flies, which is frequently, he always has problems, noting, “I can never get the boarding pass on the (self check-in) machine.”

Snags go beyond the realm of air travel. Khan remembers a 2003 case in which a young Pakistani graduate of Arizona State University had found work in Las Vegas as a legal nonresident. Local newspapers reported how the young man had stopped at a Strip hotel several times to find a friend who was supposed to be checking in. Garage guards thought his repeated visits suspicious and detained him. Las Vegas police officers showed up at the hotel to question him because he had been stopped recently at Hoover Dam for a minor traffic violation with a copy of the Quran on his car seat.

What the newspaper didn’t report was the aftermath of the incident, Khan says. From that point, the young man went under immigration surveillance. Shortly after, immigration arrested him at his workplace parking lot late on a Friday. They claimed that his work visa had expired that day, even though it had been renewed in California that same day and put him in the county jail over the weekend. Las Vegas police later said the man was on a watch list.

After he was released, an FBI agent paid a personal visit to the man’s now-wary employer to assure them that he was not under investigation, but his family asked him to return home to Pakistan for safety.

“That case bothered me,” Khan admits. “This does not leave a good impression on the Muslim community. It’s really awkward when I tell them I have worked closely with authorities, they will protect your rights.”

Anti-Muslim backlash also occurs in everyday life apart from government settings, some Las Vegans say. It can take the form of casual comments or jokes that cut nonetheless to the quick.

“It’s not Halloween, why are you wearing that?” is how some neighbors react when they see Las Vegan Valentina Tawalbeh in the traditional long robe and veil. Tawalbeh is a 28-year-old housewife from Jordan. Her husband, Walid, an electrical engineer, has his own least favorite remark, she adds. Co-workers sometimes joke that his last name sounds like “Taliban,” the fundamentalist Muslim militia in Afghanistan.

“Ninja” is what some strangers have said to Abdullah’s daughter, Khadeeja, 21, when they see her wearing a black head scarf. Khadeeja chose to start wearing her veil after the attacks of Sept. 11. “In terms of defining identity, it definitely was a turning point,” she says. “It had an effect on me … an awareness there’s going to be a more watchful eye on everything you do.”

A recent graduate of UCLA, Khadeeja recalls strangers confronting her on campus to say she should fight oppression of Muslim women by shedding her veil. She answered, “I feel more liberated (wearing a veil.) If they cannot see this body or this hair, they’ll have to actually listen to what I say.”

Naseema Ansari, who gives her age as “over 40,” was born in the Middle East but raised in California, where she met her husband, who grew up in Afghanistan of Saudi Arabian ancestry. Sept. 11 was a turning point for American Muslims, she claims. Before, she encountered little ethnic unpleasantness. Since, she has regretted giving her children Muslim first names because it causes them to stand out at school or in the Navy, in which one son now is serving.

She also has stopped using a vanity license plate that read “Al Ansar,” an allusion to her husband’s Arab heritage. It did spark friendly banter when people would ask whether it referred to Al Unser, the race car driver. On the other hand, she wonders whether it led to her husband’s death.

Abdul Ansari died in the summer of 2005 in a nighttime hit-and-run car accident on a remote Nebraska highway as the family returned from a trip to Chicago. Naseema was critically injured in the accident but slowly worked free of her wheelchair and walker.

“Littlefoot here,” she says, pointing to Kareema, her 11-year-old, their youngest child, “he died saving her.”

Abdul Ansari was in the front passenger seat when the couple suddenly saw the lights of a vehicle behind them, advancing rapidly. He was reaching around to protect Kareema in the back seat when the vehicle rammed them. Their van left the road and rolled; the other vehicle kept going.

The Nebraska Highway Patrol has not solved the case. To this day, Naseema Ansari does not know what to believe. “I just wish they would catch the person. If it was a DUI, they’re going to drive and drink, or drive and use drugs, and do it again. If it’s a hate crime, that’s even worse.”

“I’ve been living in this country for the last 35 years. This is my country. All my children are born here. All my family’s future is here,” says Khan, who received U.S. citizenship decades ago.

Now he feels a divide in his life caused by Sept. 11.

“Before that, when I was socializing or having a business deal, they took me as Khalid Khan. … Now I have to do more to make sure they have no misconceptions about me.” So he tells them about his faith, about his ideals.

Islamic organizations in Southern Nevada try to build bridges of understanding. Two mosques, As-Sabur and Jamia, reach out by feeding or housing the homeless. Last year Jamia Masjid joined Family Promise, an interfaith program in which local houses of worship take turns opening their buildings as a weeklong overnight shelter for homeless families.

As-Sabur and Jamia also are studying how to start a health clinic for low-income people, regardless of religious affiliation. Five Muslim doctors have volunteered their services. “We already have the commitment of medicine and equipment. What basically we are looking at is the legal aspects,” Abdullah says.

Muslims here discount the concept that Las Vegas is too sinful for devout people to raise solid families and show compassion to neighbors. “From a Muslim perspective,” Abdullah concludes, “the entire universe belongs to God. He didn’t say, ‘except Las Vegas.’”

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