CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Tala Ali, 25, has seen the good and the bad of being a Muslim in heartland America. People have leaned out car windows to scream at her: “Terrorist go home.” But strangers curious about her headscarf have also approached her apologetically to ask about Islam.
“I love it, actually, when people ask me questions,” said the pink-scarved Ali, who came to the United States with her Jordanian father and Palestinian mother when she was five.
“Out here, I’m the only Muslim some people may meet,” said Ali, waiting for friends after Friday prayers at a Cincinnati mosque. “I always keep in mind that I’m an ambassador of Islam.”
For Ali and other Muslims who live far from America’s immigrant-rich big cities, everyday life is a test of tolerance and outreach to fellow Americans who view Islam with suspicion five years after the September 11 attacks and amid bleak and bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The negative perception gets bigger by the day, despite all we do,” said Inayat Malik, a doctor and board member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.
The center hosts 5,000 visitors a year — from churches, schools and the simply curious. Tour coordinator Shakila Ahmad is too embarrassed to share the worst things said to her as a tour guide, but insists there are no “bad” questions.
“It’s important for people to be able to ask,” she said, sitting quietly in the center’s empty gymnasium after a tour. Flags of dozens of nations decorate the walls. “We’d rather you ask than have a misconception.”
Ahmad, Malik and others sit on inter-faith councils and speak at community forums and strive, year after year, to build bridges within predominately white Christian middle America.
But while they are dedicated to outreach, the uphill battle of educating Americans takes its toll on optimism.
“The deluge of the media coverage with its negative portrayal is overwhelming,” said Malik. “I see very little light at the end of the tunnel.”
Karen Dabdoub fights constant brushfires in her work for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Ohio.
In 2005, a Cincinnati mosque was bombed. Fasting Muslim students were criticized in 2006 when they were allowed to avoid the cafeteria during Ramadan. Bomb threats and hate mail trickle in.
“We’ll get there. It’s not an easy road, but we’ll get there,” said Dabdoub, a native Cincinnatian who converted to Islam 16 years ago. But she admits things have gotten worse instead of better in recent years.
A 2006 Gallup poll of more than 1,000 Americans showed that 39 percent were in favor of requiring Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to carry special identification. Roughly a quarter said they would not want Muslims as neighbors.
Dabdoub said her blue eyes and white skin have not spared her the unfriendly stares often aimed at headscarved women in America.
“Once in a while somebody will smile at me, but not as much as they used to,” she said.
Cincinnati’s 25,000-strong Muslim community is a microcosm of American Islam. According to CAIR, about a third of America’s six to seven million Muslims are South Asian, a third African American and a quarter Arab. Still others are European immigrants or Caucasian converts.
Almost everywhere, the community is dedicated to outreach.
In Missouri, Muslim children at the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City are sent out to do community service.
Principal Saba Hamouda said the school’s mosque was once vandalized and a Koran smeared with feces, but she believes the more Americans understand Islam, the more they will accept their Muslim neighbors.
Still, students sometimes feel stereotyped and misunderstood outside the comfort of their small school.
“Just because of 9/11 people think we are terrorists,” said 15-year-old Sabrim Qadi, taking a break from a morning Islamic studies class.
In the U.S. Southwest, known more for its influx of Hispanic immigrants than its Islamic community, Muslims repeat the outreach approach despite sectarian slights.
Jordanian born Ahmad Al-Shqeirat, imam of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, a city in the sprawling Phoenix valley where there are some 40,000 to 50,000 Muslims, has felt both welcome and intolerance.
The Islamic Center, with its minaret, sits alongside the First Congregational Church on a quiet Tempe backstreet. Five years ago the two were jointly awarded the Tempe city diversity award for their good neighborliness.
“We exchange visits and talk all the time,” Al-Shqeirat said of his neighbors.
But despite his proudly ecumenical outlook, Al-Shqeirat hit the headlines late last year as one of the so-called “Flying Imams,” a group of six Muslim clerics who were turfed off a U.S. Airways flight after some passengers and crew became alarmed at their prayers.
Looking back on the incident, Al-Shqeirat says it showed
“overreaction and discrimination” by the airline. But he says it has only redoubled his commitment to outreach.
“If those people had ever been in a mosque and seen Muslims praying, they would have understood,” he told Reuters, sitting in the office at his street corner mosque after evening prayers. “Anger will not take us anywhere, what we need is more education.”
additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Tim Gaynor in Tempe