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Published September 15, 2001
Hasann Shareef doesn't fit the stereotype.
He's a Muslim, but he's no terrorist. In fact, just one day after Tuesday's "Attack on America," Shareef was holed up in his office, working the phones in an attempt to organize a blood drive at his mosque.
Tuesday's tragedy has put an unwelcome spotlight on those American citizens who happen to be Muslims or of Arab heritage. Shareef has been through this before. Similar threats occurred during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
It's Wednesday. Shareef is busy working as the spokesman for the Islamic Center of South Florida. So far, he has had a pretty good day. There have been no major incidents of physical or verbal retribution against Arab-Americans and Muslims living in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Still, he has reason to worry. Many Arab-Americans and Muslims are keeping a low profile. Now that federal investigators have traced two of the hijackers to Broward County, what had been an out-of-town tragedy has moved much closer to home.
Fortunately, that hasn't stopped him and other representatives of South Florida's Arab and Muslim communities at a Wednesday news conference from making their point that they're Americans first, as well as good neighbors.
They spoke out against the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They offered condolences to the families of the victims and spoke proudly of the Muslim doctors and engineers from the area who had volunteered their services for the rescue efforts in New York and Washington, D.C.
They also spent the past three days distancing themselves from those disturbing images overseas of Palestinians who celebrated Tuesday's attacks as a blow against an imperialist America.
"What else do we have to do to show this nation at large that we are part of this nation," asked Mohammad Javed, a member of the School of Islamic Studies in Sunrise. "Islam condemns these acts of terrorism, whether perpetrated by governments, groups or individuals -- absolutely and unconditionally."
Christianity doesn't support acts of terrorism either, but you have to wonder how many people really believe in the religion that commands its followers to "love thy neighbor as thyself" after reading tales of harassment in this week's Associated Press stories.
On Wednesday, police in a Chicago suburb had to turn back 300 marchers -- some waving American flags and shouting "USA! USA!" -- as they tried to march on a mosque. On Thursday, the Islamic Society of Denton, Texas, was the target of a Molotov cocktail. The building was damaged, but the mosque was empty and there were no injuries.
Abu Nahidian, director of the Manassas Mosque in Virginia, said his congregation has been the target of insults and hate messages left on the office answering machine. In nearby Alexandria, Hazim Barakat, a U.S. citizen who was born in Jerusalem, opened his Islamic bookstore the day after the attack only to find windows shattered with brick-bound notes. Some of the more pointed messages included, "You come to this country to kill our people. We want to kill you" and "Death to the Arab murderers."
Then there's the 75-year-old man in Huntington, N.Y., who tried to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The man, according to police, then followed the woman into a store and threatened to kill her for "destroying my country." He was drunk, police say -- like that's an excuse.
Shareef believes most Arab-Americans and Muslims empathize with their fellow countrymen. Muslims worked in the World Trade Center and had established a mosque in one of the towers. That facility and the believers who were there in prayer Tuesday morning are now among the missing, he said.
Then there's that annoying and ignorant tendency of lumping Arabs and Muslims into one group.
"With the Arabs, you have Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians," he began. "The Iraqis might support terrorism against the U.S., but do the Egyptians? And if you include the Muslims in that group, do you go after Hakeem Olajuawon, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar?"
As time goes on, many Americans will have to work harder to become more aware and, one hopes, more engaged with our diverse American citizenry and their respective cultures. Relying on a stereotype won't help us understand our friends or enemies.
Until then, Shareef is left to wonder. Friday is the day of Muslim worship. He hopes every Friday will pass without any incidents South Florida might regret on Sunday.
Doug Lyons can be e-mailed at email@example.com or phoned at 954-356-4638.
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel