Muslim center here copes with increased Islam-bashing

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Last week, the voice mail at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Monroeville yielded an unwelcome surprise: a threatening message from an identified caller.

"It was mostly derogatory slurs about the Muslim religion," said Safdar Khwaja, 57, of Murrysville, who said the mosque notified the police and the FBI about the calls -- the first they'd received since the days after Sept. 11, 2001.

While distressing, the calls were minor, he added, compared to the furor stirred up this week by Florida pastor Terry Jones' plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, which prompted condemnation Wednesday from the Vatican and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and, earlier on Tuesday, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called the action "disrespectful and disgraceful."

As the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center approaches, anti-Muslim rhetoric has been escalating to unusually high levels. There's the ongoing controversy about a Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York, the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in Manhattan, the attempted arson at a Tennessee mosque and an aborted mosque bombing in Jacksonville.

Websites such as Stop Islamization of America and Creeping Sharia only fuel the flames, and a Gallup Poll conducted late last year found 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling some prejudice toward followers of Islam -- more than twice the number who feel that way about Christians, Jews or Buddhists.

While hate-filled phone calls are about the worst acts being reported by Pittsburgh Muslims, there is also a sense of unease here that hasn't been present since the difficult days after 9/11, "when people were calling and yelling and screaming, 'your places are going to burn,' that sort of thing," Mr. Khwaja said.

"I'm not angry, but I'm frustrated and sad. We are creating a nation of know-nothings, people are trying to create artificial points of hate by feeding us false information about Islam. It's just wrong."

A perfect storm of factors have made this 9/11 anniversary a particularly tense one, he believes. The last day in Islam's Holy Month of Ramadan -- the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar -- ends Thursday, two days before the 9/11 anniversary, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, to break the Ramadan fast, are to be held on Friday.

Plus, "It's an election year, with people whipping up hysteria to score political points, and we have an American president who is a Christian but whose middle name is Hussein, so people want to believe he's not American."

Raheel Haque, president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Pittsburgh, says he's been unsettled by reports of rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

"You don't get that so much on the Pitt campus because it's a diverse environment, but the stories I've been reading about the Quran burnings, and the Manhattan center -- it gets kind of overwhelming," said Mr. Haque, who said his organization is trying to get the word out to non-Muslims, to other student groups, the media and the community "to show them who we are in reality -- not the Fox News Muslims or the CNN Muslims, the ones who are terrorizing people. That's not who we are."

Muslims have had a Pittsburgh presence for a long time, noted Imam AbduSemih Tadese, of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which is sponsoring the Eid celebration at Schenley Park on Friday.

"We are not strangers here in Pittsburgh," he said, noting that he'd met a man, age 89, whose parents, African-American Muslims, emigrated to Pittsburgh early in the 20th century. And another Muslim from the Sudan, Sati Majit, came to the city in 1900 to teach Islam to indigenous Muslims, who were, he said, mostly the descendants of slaves.

Relations between religious leaders in the city "are very good. We're really fortunate to have leaders who tell us, we are with you, we know what you stand for and what your religion says."

The Council of American Islamic Relations' Pittsburgh branch (CAIR), along with the Muslim Community Center of Pittsburgh, is hosting an interfaith service Saturday, as a day of healing and solidarity.

CAIR's national office is also airing a series of public service announcements educating people about what it calls growing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.

For the most part, though, Muslims say they feel welcome here.

After 28-year-old Khalid El-Arini attends this year's Eid celebration at Schenley Park on Friday, he's going to do something he's wanted to do for a long time.

"All of my friends and I will go to Pamela's -- because we haven't been able to eat pancakes for a month. You could say that's a very Pittsburgh take on all this."

Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949.


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