Lexington's Muslim community works to dispel stigmas about faith

Nadia Rasheed read the Quran at her home. She volunteers with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, often driving people to appointments or translating.
Nadia Rasheed read the Quran at her home. She volunteers with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, often driving people to appointments or translating. Herald-Leader

About 100 students, ages preschool to eighth grade, were gathered outside for a fire drill on Nicholasville Road when the driver of an 18-wheel truck blew the horn. He yelled curses out the window and made obscene gestures as he drove by.

The principal of Lexington Universal Academy, a full-time Islamic school, thinks the man's behavior was triggered by the children's traditional Islamic clothing.

"I blame myself," Principal Abdul-Munim Jitmoud said. "We do not share our faith enough with our neighbors."

Jitmoud thinks the incident, which happened a few years ago but has stayed on his mind, was caused by misunderstandings about the religion.

Stories like Jitmoud's are rare in Lexington, but leaders of the religious community say prejudice toward Muslims still exists here. A lack of education and ignorance about the faith continue to fuel subtle hostilities.

"There's an invisibility in the minds of people about Islam and the presence of Muslims," said Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. "They still are not perceived as a part of the American fabric."

Islam, the second largest religion in the world, has an estimated 1.6 billion members worldwide, according to Pew Research. In 2010, there were about 2.6 million Muslims in the United States, and Pew estimates that number will more than double in the next two decades.

Though Kentucky numbers are much smaller and harder to count, 2,500 to 3,000 Muslims live in Lexington and the surrounding area, said Jamil Farooqui, the president of the Masjid Bilal Ibin Rabah executive committee, a mosque on Russell Cave Road.

Kentucky is home to about 27 mosques, and Bagby estimated there could be 25,000 Muslims living in the state.

Much like the country's trends in immigration, Muslims have steadily come to the United States since the 1970s, Bagby said. Immigration dropped after 9/11, but picked up again in 2005. When Bagby first came to Lexington in 2002 from North Carolina, he counted 800 people at Eid, a festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. This year in August, there were about 1,500.

The Lexington Universal Academy has also seen a boost in enrollment, growing from 92 students in 2007 to about 150 in 2013.

Lexington's diverse Muslim population is typical of the overall Ameri can Muslim community, Bagby said. Although, he said, Masjid Bilal has a unique balance of Arabs, South Asians, blacks and converts. In larger cities such as Chicago or Cleveland, this is unusual — certain groups of Muslims usually form their own mosques. Lexington does have a large group of Palestinians who tend to gather at the Islamic Center of Lexington, he said, but no mosque in Lexington is specifically designated for one group.

Local groups, such as UK's Muslim Student Association, work to bring awareness to the community about the religion. The association has about 100 members and often hosts campus events, said Humza Qureshi, the association's president.

Qureshi, who was born and raised in Lexington, said there are still challenges with people understanding the religion.

He recalls when he was in fourth grade, kids would ask him what Muslims would blow up next.

Now, he notices that if people don't understand the faith, they make an effort to.

Both Bagby and Nadia Rasheed, an executive committee member at Masjid Bilal, reflected the same sentiment that although nonMuslims aren't familiar with Islam, they are willing to learn.

Rasheed, who was born in New York, is a Lexington anesthesiologist who stopped working full time in 2012 to help refugees acclimate to Lexington. She volunteers with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, often driving people to appointments or translating.

Generally, Lexington is welcoming toward the religion, she said. But people often forget al-Qaida attacked the United States on September 11, not Muslims.

In public, Muslim women are required to dress modestly. Rasheed said when Muslim women wear traditional dress or a hijab, which is a scarf that covers their hair and neck, it might evoke memories of terrorism in some people.

Dressed in a black abaya, a traditional loose black robe, she chooses not to wear her hijab, but lets her short brown hair bob above her shoulders.

"In this country (a hijab) has become viewed more as a negative political statement than a statement of religious modesty," she said.

Though the image of a woman in traditional dress resonates with some as female oppression, Rasheed said the Quran states men and women are equal. Female oppression is not a part of the Islamic tradition, she said, but rather the culture of some Islamic countries.

"The greatest concern amongst men and women outside of the Muslim faith is that women are treated like second-rate citizens," Farooqui said.

The separation of the genders is not as extreme as many think, he said.

In places of worship, men pray at the front of the mosque while women worship at the back. While praying, Muslims bow and lay prostrate with their foreheads to the ground in respect to Allah. They are separated for the sake of "keeping temptation away," Rasheed said.

Bagby said Muslim women tend to take the brunt of the negativity that is directed toward the religion, such as an ugly stare for wearing a hijab. Although there is little overt prejudice in Lexington, there is still subtle hostility, he said.

"How far below the surface is it? I don't know. I'm almost afraid to find out," Bagby said.

Jitmoud, the principal of Lexington Universal Academy, said he hopes that he and the school will help dispel any stigmas that have stemmed from Islamic radicals in the news.

The students are taught to live as closely to Islamic teachings as possible, but also to be accepting and understanding of other lifestyles.

"We teach our children that we are Muslims," Jitmoud said, "and that we are proud to be Muslim."

Editor's note: The Herald-Leader's summer class of interns tackled this story in an effort to provide more insight into one of Lexington's under-covered communities.