For Muslims in Atlanta, caution in the wake of deadly attacks

In Gwinnett County, a teacher quizzes a 13-year-old girl wearing a Muslim headscarf about whether she’s harboring a bomb in her backpack. A phallic symbol and the word “terrorist” are scrawled on a mosque in Macon.

One woman considers covering her hijab with a hat. A man with the last name “Hussain” detects a new coolness from some co-workers in Buckhead. Still, others say they have received texts of support and fielded questions from those seeking a better understanding of Islam.

This is what it is like to be Muslim in Georgia today.

Amid a rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment fueled by recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., some Muslims in metro Atlanta said that in recent weeks they have become more cautious — and sometimes anxious — but not fearful. They told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, like most Americans, they feel a heightened sense of tension since the lethal attacks and the political fallout that has followed.

They also feel a fresh urgency to defend and explain their religion in the hope that doing so will lead to greater understanding of their faith, its teachings, and the role it plays in their lives.

That’s critical, they say, in a region — not to mention a nation — where their numbers remain small relative to other religions and even nonbelievers.

“People say Islam is a religion of violence,” said Umarah Ali, a 24-year-old law student at Georgia State University. “It’s not. That comes to there being a lot of ignorance. But that’s where the education comes in. There are a lot of people who’ve never met a Muslim.”

Growing, But Still Small

In Georgia, Muslims are believed to account for roughly 1 percent of the total religious population, with the largest numbers found in DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Figures compiled by the Association of Religion Data Archives estimate there are roughly 53,000 Muslims worshipping in the state, but that data — the most recent available — was from 2010. Academic experts believe there may be as many as 150,000 Muslims in the state today.

Still, that’s dwarfed by Christians. In a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 79 percent of Georgia’s 10 million residents identified as Christian.

With Islamic numbers so small, it’s hardly surprising that many Georgians have had little interaction with Muslims.

Leaders in the faith are trying to change that. They recently took out a full-page advertisement in the AJC welcoming Georgians to visit mosques and Islamic centers in an attempt to demystify a religion that they say some have wrongly conflated with terrorism.

They are also trying to combat a rising backlash that they worry threatens their safety.

Nationally in 2015, there have been 71 incidents — including vandalism, damage and intimidation — at mosques, according to data from the Council on American Islamic Relations. That’s the most in a single year since CAIR started tracking mosque incidents in 2009. And 29 occurred since the attacks in Paris and California.

One took place just last week in Georgia, where the Islamic Center of Macon was defaced. Vandals scrawled the word “terrorist,” as well as a phallic symbol and expletives, on the windows, walls and doors of the center. So far, there have been no arrests.

Moderate Isn’t ‘Newsworthy’

It isn’t the first time Muslim-related tensions have flared in the state. In 2011, a firestorm ignited in Cobb County over a middle school’s use of Islamic curriculum materials. Fights have erupted over opening new mosques in places such as Kennesaw. Gwinnett officials rejected a bid by Bosnians to build a cemetery near Snellville that would cater largely to Muslims.

Plemon El-Amin, imam emeritus at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, grew up among Baptists in an Atlanta rocked by the civil rights era. He converted to Islam in his 20s and has watched the Muslim population in the Bible Belt grow and become more diverse with an influx of new immigrants. Middle Easterners, South Asians and Bosnians are among those who have joined a Muslim community that was once predominantly African-American.

On Friday, that was on display as about 300 people entered the East Atlanta mosque for afternoon prayers. Men and women entered the large prayer room through separate doors. They chatted as they casually removed their shoes before stepping onto a large prayer rug.

“We are the moderate Muslim voice,” El-Amin told the gathering. “We are always responding on the side of those who have been afflicted with terrorist assaults. But that is not newsworthy. We know this is not Islam and we know those people (who have committed terrorist acts) have left the religion. There is no support for any of it in Islam.”

After the message, some worshippers told the AJC they hadn’t noticed a change in how they’ve been received since the attacks.

“This ain’t nothing new to me,” said 75-year-old Mahmoud Theophius Baptiste. “For every nasty thing that (Donald) Trump says about Muslims, someone has to come back later and clarify it. So I am not worried or afraid. I refuse to change who I am.”

The Shadow of 9/11

A group of Muslim millennials sat down with the AJC last week for a wide-ranging discussion of what their lives have been like over the past month. As young, American Muslims who grew up under the shadow of 9/11, their unease is layered.

Like the majority of Americans, the rhythms of their daily lives have gone largely unaltered since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. Two of them have been busily preparing for their wedding on New Year’s Day. One has been pulling 30-hour shifts as a resident at a local hospital. Another, who is a CPA, is excited about starting a new job at a startup next month. One just finished law school finals at Georgia State.

But then there are the moments that jolt them out of the routine.

Maheen Adnan started wearing the hijab as an adolescent. Now 23 and a scribe at a local hospital, she considers the head scarf as much a part of her identity as her name. So, she has been surprised when strangers approach her in the workplace and tell her that the scarf is troublesome.

“This guy I work with came up to me last week and was like, ‘You are in the 21st century now. You don’t have to wear that. Nobody is forcing you to do that now. You don’t have to be oppressed.’ And I’m like, ‘No. I don’t need your approval to do this. I’m fine,’” Adnan said.

There was also the optometrist.

“When I was an intern, I thought I might be interested in optometry and so I went to talk with him. He starts telling me that if I want to be successful, I need to learn to fit in and that my scarf might hurt me professionally,” Adnan said.

‘This is Eye-Opening’

Again and again, the friends said the problem boiled down to a lack of familiarity with Islam.

Madiha Memon, 28, knows this well. Originally from Pakistan, she came to the U.S. when she was 13. She was president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Georgia and spent a lot of time working with other student groups, both secular and religious. As she has grown older she has sometimes been startled by the reaction she and fellow Muslims get from other educated, non-Muslim professionals.

“In the workplace, it’s like everyone wants to know but they don’t ask questions,” Memon said. “I don’t mind answering questions. Not at all. It’s just up to them to ask the questions.”

She said a fellow Muslim friend of hers held an open Q&A on Facebook recently for non-Muslims in her social circle who wanted to know more about Islam and Muslims. Her friend got close to 100 questions, from ‘Why do women wear a hijab,’ to ‘Why do you guys pray to Mohammed,’” Memon said.

These are stories that even these friends haven’t discussed together before. Twenty-nine-year-old Abeer Memon was taken aback, especially by the examples given by the women in the group.

“This is eye-opening,” he said. “(T)here are a lot of people having these thoughts, but you don’t really know who if they don’t say anything.”

“I’m Worried”

Donald Trump, the leading contender for the GOP nomination for president, has proposed a temporary ban on Muslims who are non-U.S. citizens. The idea has clearly struck a chord. Thirty-six percent of Americans agree with him, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Dec. 10-15. And Trump’s standing as the Republican front-runner has not dimmed because of the bold stance. Some argue it has enhanced his stature in the primary.

Even before the San Bernardino attack, a Gallup survey showed one in four Americans said they harbored some degree of prejudice toward Muslims.

Others have struggled with their views, trying to draw a distinction between the religion and its adherents.

Ernest Wade of Loganville feels the tug between a fear of Islam, a desire to embrace others and his own views of what it means to be an American. He is retired after 26 years in the U.S. Army working in anti-terrorism. And he spent five years as an immigration inspector.

Over time, he has interacted with many Muslims. Long before the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, a local mosque invited members of his former church group to visit and socialize. Wade said he regrets that he missed it. “I would have liked to have seen how they worship and to get to know them better.”

He has met Muslims of all races — black, white, South Asian and others. He has been to convenience stores in Gwinnett County run by some members of the county’s Bosnian Muslim community. He has read parts of the Quran to get a sense of the faith.

All of which makes him feel somewhat awkward about his views toward Islam and Muslim immigration.

“I don’t want to seem like an extremist or anything. I don’t see a terrorist behind every veil, but I’m worried,” Wade said. “I embrace the people but fear their religion.”

‘Can’t Change What is Written for You’

A co-worker recently asked Khadijah Diggs if she was offended by Christmas trees in the office.

“I know she was trying to be nice, but that was really an HR education moment,” said Diggs, a project manager and avid triathlete.

It can be more complicated when Diggs tries to catch a flight.

“I always get the full body search when I check in at the airport,” said Diggs, who wears the hijab. “I know it’s coming.”

So, the New York native, who converted to Islam at 19 while in college, always wears a hijab that is easily opened from the front, a zippered jacket and flip-flops. She expects to get searched and swabbed for the presence of bomb-making material.

“I used to work for the airlines in the past, so I know it’s not random,” she said. “However, it’s not something I’m going to fight over. I think the bigger battle is in educating people about our faith so the racial and religious profiling becomes a thing of the past.”

Diggs, for example, tells her children not to confront anyone if they say something inappropriate.

“Unless you’re in immediate danger, just walk away. Nine times out of 10 it’s because of lack of knowledge,” she said. “You can’t change what is written for you.”

‘How We Win Together’

Not long ago, Alan Howard dropped his 16-year-old son off at school, and was talking with other parents when one started commenting on the attacks in California.

Howard was shocked as the man ranted about radicalized Muslims and how America needed to “deal with all of them.”

Howard, who is white, Muslim and from South Carolina, spoke up, arguing that all Muslims shouldn’t be lumped together as criminals and terrorists.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about it, you’re not Muslim,” he recalls the man saying.

After an awkward silence, Howard said he watched the realization about his faith slowly cross the parent’s face.

The legacy of Sept. 11 still lingers. After those terror attacks, the mosque of Zaheera Lukman and Ali — the 24-year-old law student — was vandalized in their hometown of Augusta. Now, the throwing of a pig’s head at a mosque in Philadelphia and the defacing of mosques around the country has them worried.

“To throw a pig’s head, it’s disrespectful and it hurts, but it doesn’t make me doubt my faith,” said Ali.

Even so, they said, they are unwavering in their faith, praying five times a day. They feel they have a role in helping to bring down the tension. They’ll do it by simply living their lives and educating the public about what it means to be Muslim.

“If I live my life in fear, that’s letting them win,” said Lukman. “If you talk and share, that’s how we win together.”

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