Muslims in our midst: Georgia, the nation, worry

When she surveys her classroom, a onetime Southern Baptist who converted to Islam sees hope in the young faces that look back. Perhaps, she thinks, this generation will understand.

When she talks with her friends, a resident of a metro Atlanta community where a mosque wants to locate always reaches the same conclusion. I should have moved.

And, whenever he walks in the soaring space of the quiet room where he and fellow believers kneel to pray, an Atlanta Muslim gives credit where it is due. God is great.

But how humans serve the Almighty varies. That may be the best explanation for America's complicated and occasionally contentious relationship with Muslims. The followers of Muhammad the Prophet make some of us uneasy.

That uncomfortable feeling has not gone away in the 15 years following the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. On Sept. 11, 2001, radical followers of Islam hijacked four commercial jetliners, destroying the World Trade Center’s twin towers, damaging the Pentagon, and crashing to earth in the Pennsylvania countryside.

Now, that date is simply called 9/11, the day when terrorism got a face — that of a Muslim.

In a series of interviews, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked with local and national experts about Islam in the United States. What emerged is a picture of a country sometimes at odds with one of the tenets on which this nation was founded — freedom of religion. You may recognize that tenet by its proper name, the First Amendment.

Examples of that conflict are everywhere, perhaps most notably in New York, where a proposed Islamic cultural center near the site of the twin towers' destruction touched off national howls of protest.

The friction also is local — in Lilburn, where city officials struggled (and failed) to curtail a Muslim congregation's building plans; in Alpharetta, where people worried out loud that a mosque would create traffic congestion, noise and maybe a few terrorists; and now, in Newton County, which will address another congregation, another mosque, next week.

At least one scholar who has tracked the growth of Muslims in the United States believes people in Newton County are right to be wary. Too many mosques, he said, have provided fertile soil for the seeds of religious hatred to sprout. “Have you ever heard of Buddhists with firearms?” he asked.

Others disagree. One, a Roswell Muslim, believes people of her faith are but the latest scapegoat in a nation with a history of fearing the unknown. In the inventory of American whipping boys, she said, Muslims are “the flavor of the day.”

‘HEART OF EVERYTHING’

Moiz Mumtaz kicked off his shoes with the practiced grace of someone who repeats the process several times a day. His socked feet stepped into the dim coolness of the Islamic Center of North Fulton's masjid. In a Protestant church, the room would be called the sanctuary.

“This,” he said, “is the heart of everything.”

There, in a carpeted room that can accommodate about 300 people, is where the beat of Islamic life emanates in Alpharetta. It’s where 25 believers formed a congregation in 1998 and watched it grow to the point that two other mosques have spun off from the center, located on Rucker Road.

In 2010, the center’s board of trustees applied to Alpharetta’s municipal officials to build a new mosque. The city said no. The proposed building, officials said, was too big. There would be too much traffic, too much noise.

Was the city’s response a standard answer to a house of worship’s expansion plans? Or was it a decision based on animosity and fear? The trustees took the issue to court. Through a series of compromises, a new mosque took shape.

The mosque is stately, a brick building flanked by hardwoods. It’s topped by six domes, each dome crowned with a crescent moon. It features outdoor facilities where the devout can wash their hands and feet before entering to pray. On Fridays, it is abuzz with believers coming together as a congregation.

Last month, the center invited some of Alpharetta’s influential residents — council members, the mayor, the chiefs of the police and fire departments, among others — to walk the quiet confines of one of the city’s newest holy houses. Mumtaz helped lead the tour.

"I want to bring out the positiveness of what we are doing," said Mumtaz, a pollution-research scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Of how being together helps all of us."

Mumtaz is among the steadfast. He has a Quran, the Muslim holy book. Covered with plain brown paper, like a kid's textbook, it has been his since 1981. He drives a black Infiniti whose Georgia plate proclaims, "In God We Trust."

“Whether we are Muslim, or not, we are no different than other citizens,” said Mumtaz. He blames “radical” Muslims for tarring the reputation of Islam worldwide.

“We should be speaking more with the community so they’ll know what we do and believe in,” he said. “If we don’t speak out, others may speak out and will not be speaking for us.”

‘CHANGE SCARES SOME PEOPLE’

In 2010, an estimated 53,000 Muslims called Georgia home, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives. Six years later, some believe 150,000 Muslims may live here. The executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) offers a more modest number: 70,000. That's based on an estimated 70 mosques across the state, each serving about 1,000.

“I’m sure that there are some that may expand,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell. An Atlanta lawyer, he became the chapter’s first paid director earlier this year. CAIR, a nonprofit Muslim advocacy group based in Washington, has chapters across the country.

Regardless of which numbers you choose, said Mitchell, one fact is clear. Muslims in Georgia aren’t going away.

Nor, apparently, are their critics.

“Most of the blame for Islamophobia lies with Muslim extremists overseas and anti-Muslim bigots here at home, both of whom tarnish the image of mainstream Muslims,” Mitchell said in an email. “…We represent change, and change scares some people.”

If the results of a 2014 Pew Research Center survey are to be believed, people are scared.

The center asked 3,200 Americans to attach numeric values to eight different religions. Included in the survey were Protestantism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. One-hundred was the best number a belief could get; zero was the cellar.

The most-favored: Judaism, at 63. The worst: Islam, with 40. Even atheism fared better: 41.

The survey came to another conclusion, noted Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew.

“Violent people,” he said, “use religion as an excuse for their actions.”

‘RELIGION OF VIOLENCE’

Beverly Collier moved to Covington in 2008, following the death of her husband, Bob. She liked the quiet, the town square, the feeling that she belonged.

Now, she worries that those qualities of Newton County life will vanish if Al Maad Al Islami's plans proceed. The mosque, in Doraville, last year bought 135 acres in Newton County. It wants to build a house of worship and a cemetery there.

Collier and others protested when they learned about the mosque's plans. Newton commissioners responded by issuing a five-week moratorium on building new places of worship. They are scheduled to lift that moratorium on Tuesday.

A Facebook page, STOP the Mosque Newton County Ga., has become a forum for residents to share complaints, suspicions and fears about the proposal. Collier, an accountant with a DeKalb hardwood company, has used it.

Muslims, Collier said in an interview with the AJC last week, practice a “religion of violence.”

“Most people don’t know a lot about Muslims,” she said. “I’m afraid we’ve been targeted. … I’m afraid of what’s coming.”

She also fears that she made the wrong choice earlier this year when she decided to sell the South Georgia home where she and her late husband planned to retire. “If I’d known what I know now,” she said, “I would have kept that house and sold this one.”

Collier is right to be concerned, said Daniel Pipes, who has studied radical Islam for decades. A resident of Philadelphia, Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit whose website says the organization "protects Western values from Middle Eastern threats." CAIR has called him an Islamophobe. He cheerfully denies it.

“CAIR,” he said last week, “is my big enemy.”

His advice for Newton County and other communities facing the establishment of mosques: Get to know the mosque and its board of trustees. Learn about its imam, the congregation’s spiritual leader.

He also scoffs at claims that people are afraid of mosques because they don’t understand the Muslim faith.

“People don’t know about Buddhism either,” he said. “But people aren’t concerned about that.”

And Buddhists, he said, pointedly, don’t have a reputation for using firearms.

‘LIFE IS SACRED’

She was raised a Baptist, but is one no longer. Ten years ago, Karla Evans converted to the Muslim faith. She embraced it fully, donning the hijab, the head scarf some Muslim women wear. It's about humility before God, she said — not before men.

Evans teaches an introductory course to Christianity, Judaism and Islam at the University of Georgia. Twice a week, she leaves her home in Duluth to explain the faiths' differences — their similarities, too.

As the semester wears on, said Evans, “my students ask: ‘Why can’t we just get along?’”

Her answer: People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Mosques are brick-and-mortar reminders of that fear.

A lot of Americans, Evans said, don’t consider Muslims “real Americans” — fully vested in U.S. society, its customs and beliefs.

“It wasn’t that long ago in this country,” she said, “that the same thing was happening to other groups.”

Soumaya Khalifa agrees. The Roswell resident is founder of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, created just weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Since then, "I've done thousands of speeches," said Khalifa.

Speech topics range from a primer on Muslim beliefs and practices to a biography of Muhammad. One talk is titled, “What the World Would Be Like Without Muslims.”

No matter the audience, said Khalifa, someone always asks: Do you breed terrorists?

Her response? “Muslims believe life is sacred.”

She also expressed contempt for radical Islamists. “I wish somebody would stop them right now.”

Why are Muslims so often a target of community anger? Khalifa thinks opposing a religion brings people together. For the wrong reasons.

“It’s something to unify against,” said Khalifa. “It’s the others — immigrants, Muslims, whatever. It’s the flavor of the day.”

In Other News