Muslims Deal with Grief - and Prejudice ; in Wake of Attacks, American Muslims Struggle to Defend Their Faith against Stereotypes

Article excerpt

As Reda Ragoui knelt to pray last Friday, his mind was swirling with a host of conflicting emotions - gratitude, sadness, and a sense of fear.

As he recited his prayers and pressed his forehead onto the soft carpet of an Upper East Side mosque in Manhattan, he felt fortunate to be alive. He had been only minutes from the World Trade Center Tuesday morning, heading to a 10 a.m. business meeting on the 45th floor of the north tower. Caught in the ensuing chaos, Mr. Ragoui was one of the thousands who fled as the towers came crashing to the streets.

Yet even as he's thankful, Ragoui, like many Muslims across the country, is gripped with an unsettling apprehension that he and other immigrants from Islamic countries will become pariahs in their own communities and the objects of mistrust and rage.

"It's so bad when people who live with you, who used to be your friends, don't trust you," he says. "I mean, there is no trust to us now, which affects us. It is not good for us."

Last week, sporadic acts of vandalism and anger directed at Islamic communities sprang up in a host of US cities. Shards of glass littered the ground in front of an Islamic center in Irving, Texas, after a gunman sprayed dozens of bullets into its front windows. Bricks, with scraps of anti-Muslim slurs, were heaved through the windows of an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, Va. Police in Bridgeview, a suburb north of Chicago, blocked 300 people marching toward a local mosque, waving US flags and chanting, "USA, USA!"

And several shooting deaths over the weekend - including one in Mesa, Ariz. - are being investigated as bias-related.

Last week's terrorist attack came at a time when Muslim groups were becoming a more visible and integrated part of American society. The number of mosques in the US has increased 25 percent in the past decade, and the average attendance at Jumah - the Arabic word for Friday, the holy day of Islam - has increased more than 300 percent, found the Mosque Study Project 2000. More and more, mosques across the country are becoming involved in their communities' social and political activities.

Indeed, today more than 6 million Muslims live in the US, and the State Department expects Islam to become the second-largest faith practiced in the country by 2010.

This visibility has been in New York for some time. The unease that Muslims and Arabs now feel is in stark contrast to the normal rhythms of the city, which has always pulsed with the sounds and sights of cultures from lands across the globe.

This past weekend, familiar mosques in Brooklyn and Queens were guarded by police, and extra officers were patrolling markets usually frequented by shoppers dressed in the hijab, the veil worn by some Muslim women. …