Los Angeles Independent, July 9, 2003
By ALISON SHACKELFORD, Special to the Independent
What is it like being a Muslim in America? Tajuddin Shuaib can tell you that it can be as sublime as life and death and as ridiculous as how he speaks on his cell phone.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Tajuddin Shuaib could answer his cell phone in Arabic in public places. Today he worries that being overheard speaking in his native tongue could lead to trouble.
“There’s a feeling that, ‘Oh, there’s a Muslim — the Muslim’s gonna do something to us,’” he says, acting out the cautious way he’s seen people edge away from him when they hear him speaking Arabic.
It is a concern and a worry that he carries not only for himself and his family but for an entire community. Shuaib is a community and spiritual leader for more than 500 Muslims who worship at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, where he is the director and Imam.
It is a community that has to worry about being accused of terrorism one day and being attacked by terrorists the next.
These are increasingly difficult times for the mosque, as Shuaib well knows.
Last December, the chairman of the Jewish Defense League and another JDL member were arrested and charged with conspiring to bomb the mosque and two other locations. Six months later a Saudi consular official, who also worked as the mosque’s previous Imam, was denied entry to the United States when he returned from a stay in Saudi Arabia.
The Los Angeles Times reports that he has been expelled for five years on suspicion of having terrorist links.
Shuaib and the assistant Imam, Amin Refaat, say everything that’s happened in the past two years hasn’t exactly made members afraid, though it has certainly made them more cautious. Many members were interrogated after Sept. 11 as part of routine checks, Shuaib says, and it left members nervous about authority and about their neighbors. To help ease the fear, Shuaib invited the FBI to speak at the mosque, but he also has advice for the members.
“What we tell the people,” Shuaib says, “is that this is the time for you to educate your boss, your subordinate, your neighbor and those around you. This is no time for you to be scared and go into hiding.”
Shuaib, who in 1977 emigrated from Ghana in West Africa, believes that educating people about the peaceful nature of Islam will help Americans understand and feel more comfortable about Muslims.
Such understanding will become increasingly important since the State Department has predicted that Islam will be the second-largest religion in America within the next 7 years, surpassing Judaism and second only to Christianity.
“The idea is people need to differentiate between a crime as a crime and a religion as a religion,” Shuaib says. “The idea that because one Muslim goes out and creates a havoc, that that is how all Muslims are or believe, is erroneous.”
The mosque has developed official positions on terrorism, suicide bombing, and the killing of innocent people. Although the ideas are already explained in the Koran, the Muslim holy book, Shuaib says the mosque has made an effort to make it crystal clear that such things are incompatible with being a good Muslim.
Shuaib hopes efforts like these will help non-Muslims feel more comfortable about Islam and prevent worry in cases like the recent expulsion of their prayer leader.
“The fear we have is that if one person who’s a leader is stigmatized then everybody who’s in this building has that stigma,” Shuaib says.
Refaat worries about being stereotyped because of the FBI’s expulsion of the mosque’s prayer leader, but nevertheless, he says, “We don’t feel branded whatsoever. And also, whatever they thought or said about him, I mean, they let him go. They actually said that if they had established a relation to terrorism they wouldn’t have let him go.”
Fortunately, he says, “We have been blessed by this neighborhood.” Muslims have lived in the area for more than a decade, he says, and people have grown accustomed to “ladies in scarves and men with beards.” In fact, both Refaat and Shuaib speak with glowing remembrance of the support that flowed into the mosque after Sept. 11.
“We received a lot of letters from the neighbors and one-on-one support from the neighbors who expressed that, ‘We know not all Muslims are bad. You guys are not bad,’” Shuaib recalls.
But even with the support, there was fear, Refaat remembers. With the outpouring of support, there was also a small package placed anonymously outside the mosque.
“We thought it was a bomb,” Refaat says. “It turned out to be a box of chocolate,” he says, laughing.
Of course, the more recent bomb scare was no laughing matter. Shuaib feels strongly that educating people about Islam is the best way to keep their fears about Muslims from becoming so dangerous.
To protect the mosque, they have installed more security, including cameras and controlled gates.
“The problem is, when people hear one thing on and on and on and on and on and on – sooner or later they start to say, oops, maybe this is true,” Shuaib says. “It’s unsettling really, because any time a Muslim does a crime anywhere on the face of the earth it becomes news.
“I feel trepidation. I feel sickened inside. Sickened for the crime and sickened for the backlash of what the individual has done on every Muslim in the world.”