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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The America I do not understand

By M Yusuf Khan

This was my second visit to the United States about a month ago, after the horrible terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York. The immigration and other airport functionaries appeared relaxed and less jumpy compared to my last visit. Also gone were the national guards armed to teeth and looking rather intimidating at all airports big and small. The chatty and friendly immigration official made the experience of finger printing and photo session least offending as he went through the routine questions. All this barely took five minutes. Americans have a fetish for perfection. They leave nothing to imagination or chance. I was quite amused to notice that there were footprints painted on the mat where the passengers were being frisked to ensure sufficient parting of the legs for easy search. But then let us not forget that this a nation where there is an elaborate rehearsal even for a wedding to see that everyone knows where to stand and what to do on the eventful day.

My host at Atlanta, the first port of call was a school teacher, a widow staying with her son who has recently graduated in computer science from a college in Pittsburgh, USA. Three years ago she had come from Canada to Charlotte in South Carolina in search of greener pastures. A complete stranger in the new place and all alone, she did not know what to do in her spare time. Her son was still at college. She tried to contact the local Masjid to explore the possibility of any community work. She left her name and telephone number with a brief message about her purpose on the answering machine. Even after repeated messages no one bothered to return the call. Frustrated, she contacted the local YMCA. They were attentive, polite and warm, did not ask any question about who she was etc. They listed a number of things she could take up as community work. On her arrival at the school the principal asked her if she had a place to stay and if she had brought bits and pieces to set up her house. Her answer was in negative. She had driven down all the way from Canada, more than a thousand miles in her car. All she could bring were her clothes. Hurriedly the principal called a meeting of the teachers where this lady and another teacher were officially welcomed. It was also mentioned in the passing that they were new in the town and needed things to set up their homes.

The next day the assigned room was filled with gifts and household items some of them brand new and more than sufficient for the two teachers to start a comfortable living. Not a single donor wanted to be identified or acknowledged for their act of kindness. This happened around the time of the tragic event that had left the Americans shell-shocked. It was no secret that the teacher who was being welcomed and helped was a Muslim. The state and not a missionary organization were running the school. After a year she relocated to Atlanta where she fills her extra time with community work when the school gets over. She did not try to contact the local Masjid, as she was not sure of the response she would get. The school principal is very impressed by her work and is trying hard to get her an H1 Visa by listing the support of the county, as the school cannot sponsor a candidate. 

In contrast to her experience what I witnessed at Masjidul Ahsan at Fulton Avenue Brooklyn, New York was very different. Managed by immigrant Arabs and African American Muslims, this Masjid is very active in community work. Awwad Alsayyed, originally from Sudan has been keenly involved in social and rehabilitation work for the drug addicts. He enjoys a good relation with the police department and county officials and is widely respected. He was able to get a liquor store closed that had opened close to the Masjid a few years ago. The Imam at Salat – e - Juma was an Afro American. His near perfect diction of Arabic was impressive and more importantly his address was totally devoid of politics and current news of Muslims ‘persecution’ in some corner or the other of the world, a common theme of some Imams I had heard in Texas and New Jersey way back in 1989 when I happened to visit these places. The Fulton Imam remained confined to religious matters and self improvement as required of the faithful. Barring few faces from the subcontinent most people appeared African in appearance and it was not easy to guess their nationality. There was great deal of bonhomie and peace seemed to pervade the place.

The shortage of qualified teachers has encouraged people from different countries to seek employment in the US. There are some Muslim teachers as well from South Africa of Indian origin in the same school. At least one of them has turned atheist while his wife continues to practice Islam. They continue living under the same roof as husband and wife, apparently without any strain in their relationship. The atheist husband has been sending emails mostly to a known circle of the Muslims raising doubts about their religious belief and questioning their faith and the holy Quran. He appears to concentrate on ‘weak’ Hadiths to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of Muslims less familiar with their religion. He does not shy away from ridiculing Islam under the garb of intellectual pondering. It appears he is not content being just an atheist and perhaps, he would like to see his tribe grow. Any Muslim who does not have a good grounding in his own religion may fall victim. Verses of Quran torn out of context and passages from ‘weak’ Hadith are copiously quoted in the emails to create confusion. Internet can be a boon and bane at the same time. In the absence of any hard evidence it will not be proper to speculate whether it is the handiwork of some individuals or there is some organization behind them. 

Most Muslims who have gone to the US have remained true to their faith. In fact they are more zealous here than they would have been in their own countries. Jamil Noman is one of them. He lives in Queens, New York with his wife and two daughters. The girls have been brought up as they would be in India and they do not grudge it. In fact they appreciate the firmness of their parents that helped them grow with eastern values. Jamil’s brother got his Green Card a little after 9/11. He got a job in Pittsburgh, which is seven hours journey by road from New York. One of his co-worker a white American took to taunting him and said nasty things like Muslims are terrorists and they are hands in glove with Osama. He felt bold enough to tell him that he too was a terrorist and an Osama sympathizer. On Jamil’s advice he reported the matter to his supervisor, who said he would look into the matter. The very next day the taunting worker was fired from his job. There are many instances where the Native Americans came out to reassure the Muslims in their area as insecurity gripped them following stray incidents of Muslims harassment soon after 9/11. Overall one gets the impression that one is free to practice any religion without any let and hinder including Islam, which is often reported as the fastest growing religion in America. Unfortunately most people understand Islam from what they see or observe Muslims doing and not what is written in the holy book. There appears to be a good scope for presenting Islam to the world in its true spirit but it needs serious thinking and committed effort. An approach that will take into account the prevailing mood of the people and present world situation may yield positive result.

If my entry into the US was easy and smooth the exit was threatening to be a little dramatic. At the JFK international airport as the check in clerk of Air France fed my name to the computer four similar names cropped up on the screen, all on the FBI list. The saving grace being that my passport number did not match even if the name did. The thin line was the passport number that did not let me down. Amid profuse apology I entered the security hold to catch the plane and return home to tell the story.

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