Byline: Jeff Brumley
If there are any silver linings to the tragedy of 9/11, First Coast Muslims say one of them might be that Northeast Florida's Islamic community has grown in its outward focus and accessibility, area religious leaders say.
Ministers and lay people, both inside and outside the faith, describe a transformation of what was before the attacks a largely reclusive community into one that is better educated about its own beliefs and practices, more nimble and savvy in engaging the wider culture and more involved in civic and inter-faith issues. Thanks also in part to the coming of age of second- and third-generation children of immigrants, the region's Muslims have become more proactive and consistent in the past decade of projecting positive messages in response to, or ahead of, negative stereotypes of the faith.
"I think it's more positive than anything else," said Imam Lateef Majeed, an American-born Muslim who converted to Islam 35 years ago. He's now part of the Islamic Center of Orange Park, which meets Fridays in a Presbyterian church. "I saw more Muslims become interested in explaining what Islam was all about and that they were not part of any terrorist or subversive groups."
Non-Muslims actively involved in city's interfaith community also have seen the change, said the Rev. Fred Woolsey, a retired Disciples of Christ pastor and longtime participant in the Interfaith Council of Jacksonville.
Before 9/11, he said, it was usually just the imam and a handful of members from the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, the area's largest mosque, who were involved in the council's meetings and events. After the attacks, that involvement shot up and they've begun to forge working relationships with other faith groups in town, he said.
"The [Muslim] community is maturing and beginning to feel more comfortable in the [wider] community," Woolsey said.
BEFORE: INWARDLY FOCUSED
For the region's foreign-born - and particularly its Arab - Muslims, that was a difficult change to make, even with 9/11 as a motivator, said Mohammad Ilyas, a physician and Pakistani-born American living in Jacksonville.
As the Jacksonville congregation began to grow from the late 1970s onward, the primary focus of its membership was inward, as immigrants were largely concerned with maintaining the cultural aspects of their religion and trying to ensure their children grew up Muslim and with an appreciation of their or their parents' native countries, Ilyas said.
In that sense, it mirrored the experience of other immigrant groups in America. But the 2001 terrorist attacks threw Muslims here and across the nation into a crisis exacerbated by their historic seclusion.
Because of it, they were unprepared to respond with the proper messages of grief and condemnation of the attacks that many non-Muslims demanded - and used to condemn all Muslims.
"Many felt compelled to speak up, but they did not have the outlets to reach out," Ilyas said. "Their message was very weak and ... they were not prepared to do the job well."
SHIFTING IDENTITY, MESSAGE
And honestly, Ilyas added, many of those immigrants until 9/11 continued to self identify with their native countries instead of the United States.
That was partly a function of their original intention of getting an education or working a few years in America before returning home to work or retire.
In his own case, regular trips to Pakistan reinforced that notion until the attacks made it increasingly difficult to get home. Getting home less often has helped Ilyas adjust his mind to citizenship.
"I have taken my oath, my children have grown up here and they have attended schools here," he said. The shift in attitude "did not happen overnight."
The Islamic Center, whose members are largely made up of immigrants, also put an American face and voice into its pulpit last year by hiring a 34-year-old Jacksonville native as its imam. …