By Daniel Massey
As a police car sat outside the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica last week, Imam Kadhel Al-Sahlani told the 30 men who gathered to pray for those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Muslim Americans were victims of the atrocities in two ways.
“We have the same feeling as every citizen in the United States,” said the leader of Queens’ largest Muslim center. “When we saw the collapse, we cried. We felt that part of us has gone because we live in the city as any other citizens.”
But while Al-Sahlani said Muslims are suffering like Americans around the country, he noted with sadness last Thursday that they have also been faced with a second burden during this trying period.
“It is a tragedy for us as people living in this city, but also a tragedy for us as Muslims because people are accusing us and acting out against us,” he said.
Since last Tuesday’s attacks, the center has received threatening phone calls and some of its members have been victims of verbal taunting on the streets of Queens. Attacks and threats against people who appear to be Middle Eastern have occurred nationwide.
Members of Queens’ Sikh community have had their windshields broken and been the subject of verbal abuse even though they are not Muslims. “The Sikhs look like the Taliban, but we are from India, not Afghanistan,” said Surinder Singh Johal, president of the Sikh Center of Flushing. The Taliban, which has sheltered the man suspected of ordering the terrorist attacks last week, governs most of Afghanistan.
“So with all this sadness, then we are blamed,” Al-Sahlani said. “That hurts more.”
The imam shared with the Timesledger recordings of two phone calls he had received in the aftermath of last week’s terrorism.
One woman said, “I hope they send all of you back. I hope they kill all of you, innocent people also. Go back to your country. We don’t want you here.” An expletive-laced tirade from a man suggested all Muslims would be removed by force and sent to Afghanistan. “You woke up a sleeping giant,” he said.
While Al-Sahlani said the police have been “very cooperative,” the aftermath of the attacks have left Queens’ Muslim community feeling vulnerable. The center’s Imam School was closed last week due in part to officials’ fears that its 270 students would be targeted on their way to school.
Many Muslims are afraid to be alone in public places and Al-Sahlani urged female members of his congregation to avoid leaving home alone because their head coverings, known as hijabs, make them easy targets for troublemakers.
“I’ve received many calls from families who asked whether we are allowed to take off our scarf and covering in public,” the imam said. “Our response is no, that we haven’t reached a level where we have to sacrifice our teachings because of theses insults. Rather stay home than leave your traditions.”
The imam urged his congregation to be patient during the next few weeks and months and to remain calm in the face of discrimination. “The best reply is to ignore, not argue because argument will lead to more problems” he said. “You have to say ‘asalaam, peace be with you, and smile.”
Al-Sahlani had followed his own advice earlier in the day when a man on Queens Boulevard shouted at his wife and daughter, ‘shoot the Arab, shoot the Arab.’ The imam’s reply: “I said ‘thank you’ and moved on.”
President George Bush and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have said no religious or ethnic group should be singled out in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Muhsin Aladina, the eductional assistant to the imam, said some were “branding every Muslim as believing in terror.” The imam said such stereotyping was “not fair” and was equivalent to Muslims saying “since you are American and Christian, you are Timothy McVeigh.”
Ali Mazer, president of Americans of Pakistani Heritage Inc., who had come to join the prayer service, said the lumping together of all Muslims was wrong. He noted that the Imam Al-Khoei center is home to the Sh’ia Muslims, who are one of the victims of the Taliban. “The Taliban killed and tortured them like animals,” he said.
Al Sahlani’s center officially condemned Tuesday’s attacks on the United States, held special prayer services and organized a blood drive Friday to help with the treatment of the injured.
“In Islam we teach we have no right to injure an innocent person,” said Al-Sahlani. “This was an act against humanity and against all religions, including Islam.”
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.