Tom Eblen: In Lexington, most Muslims feel welcome

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 11, 2011 

Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Nadia Rasheed met a co-worker at the Veterans Administration hospital in Lexington for the first time. The woman asked the anesthesiologist whether she was Muslim.

"I said yes, and then she said, 'Are you going to kill me?'" Rasheed recalled, still shocked by the question. "I said, 'No, why would you say that?' And she said, 'That's all I see on television.'"

Mohammed Nasser has a different memory of that terrible day a decade ago. The retired IBM engineer, a Muslim from East Africa, was so upset that he went for a walk in his Jessamine County subdivision.

"People kept coming up and asking if there was anything they could do for us," he said. A few days later, Christ Church Cathedral contacted him. "They were so nice," he said. "They said you can even come and stay in the church if you have any problems."

I talked last week with several Lexington Muslims, immigrants as well as native-born Americans, about what their lives have been like since the 9/11 attacks by terrorists claiming to act on behalf of Islam.

Non-Muslims are generally friendly toward them, they said, but they get more questions — and stares — and they wonder about subtle discrimination. More than anything, though, they worry about misinformation and hatred being promoted by right-wing extremists and the media outlets that give them a voice.

"For everybody, the world has gotten a lot smaller," said Shahied Rashid, an Ohio native and a religious leader, or imam, at Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah, a Muslim congregation on Russell Cave Road.

Generally, Rashid said, Lexington has been "very welcoming" to Muslims. "Not only as an American, but that's the only thing I have heard from the immigrant community who have relocated to Lexington," he said.

Mehmet Saracoglu, a Muslim from Turkey and a graduate student in mining engineering at the University of Kentucky, agreed. He came to Lexington in 2004, and two years later helped start UK's Interfaith Dialogue Organization, which recently has broadened its mission and changed its name to the Intercultural Dialogue Organization. The organization's work has been embraced throughout the community, he said.

"I honestly feel pretty comfortable here," said Fatimah Shalash, 25, who was born and raised in Lexington and wears hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf. "You'll get the curious looks and sometimes the not-so-kind looks. But, overall, I've felt pretty safe and treated well."

Shalash, who recently finished a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, said many non-Muslims are curious about her faith and why she wears hijab.

"It has bridged a lot of conversations, and that has been a positive experience," she said. "The way I act in general is hopefully going to show another side of Islam; someone who's educated and friendly. It's not what you see in the media."

Rasheed, the anesthesiologist, was born and raised in New York, went to medical school in Iraq and has lived in Lexington for 20 years. She does not wear hijab, but she has noticed more stares in restaurants when she dines with friends who do.

Many Muslim friends have told her stories of rude comments made to them and perceived, if not overt, discrimination.

"Nine-eleven was not caused by Islam, but people want to say it was," Rasheed said. "There are some bad Muslims, yes. But there are some bad Christians and Jews, too. None of the religions say you can kill and attack."

Rasheed said she speaks to many community groups about Islam. "I have noticed that there is a lot of misinformation, misconception, mistrust," she said. "But when I am one-on-one, I am able to answer them and it clears things up."

Many Americans blame Islam for the terrorist attacks, and many Muslims blame Islamophobia for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Muslim-Americans and Arab-Americans are patriotic, we love this country, but we have freedom of speech like everyone else," she said. "We might see things differently because we know how people in other countries are suffering."

Jenny Sutton-Amr, who also speaks about Islam to community groups, said she hasn't experienced any bad treatment or discrimination, but she is alarmed by increasing misinformation and organized anti-Muslim activities.

"People for the most part are respectful, but they come with a lot of loaded questions," she said. "I can usually presume where they get their information."

A recent public opinion poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about Islam and expressed more anti-Muslim sentiment than those who got their news elsewhere.

And a report issued last month by the Center for American Progress identified seven right-wing foundations that are spending millions of dollars fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment across the country. Some of them are behind legislation introduced in 29 states that would ban Muslim sharia law — even though nobody has ever tried to impose it.

"We have a slander campaign that's being spoon-fed to a large population of this country, and they are lapping it up," Sutton-Amr said. "I'm hoping that reason will prevail and the vast majority of Americans will see through this."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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