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Ft. Pierce Muslims Feeling Fear

Targeted by threats, Muslims feeling fear

By Nirvi Shah, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2001

Through the uncurtained window at the Masjid al-Rahman Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, men washing their feet before entering the temple see grass, a sidewalk and two St. Lucie County sheriff's deputies standing near their patrol cars, lights ablaze.

Bomb threats and ugly words -- "Get out. We are going to blow this place!" -- filled the temple's answering machine Tuesday. The day of the massacre. The day when, instantly, Americans everywhere associated the attacks with the Islamic faith and the Middle East.

So on Friday, the imam, or priest, Zaman Marwat, asked for sheriff's protection during the afternoon prayer.

"We have to."

It's not just a fear, he said. It's a real thing: From schools to hospitals to convenience stores, Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans and those who resemble them -- according to someone's stereotype -- have been the subject of verbal and physical abuse. Shots have been fired into mosques. Homes have been vandalized. Children have called their classmates names. A man reported to Fort Pierce police that his tires were slashed. Whoever did this, he said, was probably after his neighbor, a man from Pakistan.

A teacher easily recognized by her flowing saris wore Western-style clothing to work Wednesday.

What if, said one woman with skin the color of cinnamon, what if they make concentration camps in the U.S. as they did during World War II, and try to squirrel away all the Muslims, and someone mistook her for one?

"People see the color of your skin; they see you have certain features," she said. "Hawk-like features, a long, hook nose, smaller eyes, beady eyes, it's the way Middle Easterners are defined. A long forehead, a long face. And of course that's fiction. That's propaganda."

About 70 men arrived for prayer services at the local Islamic Center, a converted church, on Friday. Marwat told the women to stay away.

The scarves that cover the women's heads, the scarves that are a sign of humility, make them easy targets, he said.

Within a 35-mile radius of the mosque on Midway Road, 400 Muslim families live and work, Marwat estimates.

After services Friday, an ABC reporter thrust a list of names released by the FBI at Marwat: names of the men believed to be hijackers of the four planes that crashed into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, a rural Pennsylvania field.

Does he recognize any of them? They were living all around here, studying to fly here, the reporter says.

Marwat shakes his head. No. A single address looks familiar. That's all.

"Everybody looks at me as if I am the one who is doing it," Marwat said.

One of the messages left on the machine said: "You Muslims don't belong here."

"Many Muslims have become dust like everyone else," said Marwat, referring to the thousands killed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Inside the mosque, men trickle in. Each one, some dressed in T-shirts, others in tunics, presses his head to the thick blue-and-red checked carpet five times before joining what the rest are doing, no matter when they arrive.

Do what you can to help. Donate blood. Donate money. Many already have. And keep a low profile, he tells all of them.

"But I don't want you to walk around in fear. There are caring people in this town and the surrounding area that have shown their sympathy with us."

Those people called and left messages, too.

"If people turn against each other, American against American, then terrorism has won."

Rabbi Shlomo Uminer of the Chabad Jewish Center in Palm City said Jews aren't the focus of American's aggression now. But they can relate all too well to being such targets.

"All Jews are that or this," Uminer said he has heard people say. "We may not be the same in all ways. That's OK. We're all children, we're all creations of God.

"You can't look at a person on the street and say 'That's who we have to fight,' " he said. "Every person is an individual."

Copyright © 2001, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.

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