Twisting jihad"East is East and West is West," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "and never the twain shall meet." If ancient custom divided Muslim-Americans from the community around them, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - mass murder carried out in the name of Islam - hammered in the wedge. What once amounted, in most cases, to mutual misunderstanding born of ignorance or incuriosity morphed in a single, historic morning into full-fledged suspicion.
To ordinary Muslim-Americans - that vast majority who work hard (in many cases at several jobs), save carefully, donate 2.5 percent of their income to charity by custom, and teach the importance of education - it's axiomatic that the terrorists of five years ago were demented killers with a false and twisted notion of Islam.
"It is unfortunate but true that in any large group, you'll have a small percentage of psychos," says Akbar Ansari of Lutherville, director of the Baltimore County Muslim Council.
"Extremely stupid fellows did 9/11," adds Habeeb Ashruf, an Islamic scholar and former ISB president. "They twist the concept of jihad, which means a spiritual struggle."
Abid Husain, a real estate agent and an officer at the Islamic Society, cringes at the memory of those days. He insists he sent news releases to local media outlets that clearly and officially condemned the attacks on behalf of the ISB. He even oversaw the hanging of banners along the outer fence that expressed solidarity with Sept. 11 victims, at least 200 of whom, he and others point out, were Muslims.
"We did absolutely everything we could," he says. "These things were simply not reported."
That's one reason many Muslim-Americans have lost faith in the nation's press. In a meeting at ISB one recent evening, Raees Khan, a postal service manager who lives in Pasadena, laughs ironically. He used to disbelieve 10 percent of what he read in the papers, he says; now he assumes news stories are at least half-wrong and goes from there.
"If you speak and speak, and no one listens," he says with a shake of the head, "what can you do? I can't say why the message is lost. We are delivering it, again and again. Perhaps it is that people don't want to hear."
Shortly after Sept. 11, ISB members say, tensions were high. It is the practice of devout Muslims to lay out traditional rugs and pray wherever they happen to be during the five prescribed times (Fajr, at 5:20 a.m.; Zuhr, at 1:30 in the afternoon.; and Asr, Maghrib and Isha, all in the evening.)
To Muslims such as Ahmed Bendebba, a Timonium real estate agent, those occasions are the essence of his faith. "Something about praying those five times, bowing, touching your forehead to the ground, is so humbling," he says. "It's so easy, and unwise, to get swept up in ego. Humility is very healthy."
If so, Muslims grew ill for a while. Husain stopped praying in public. Rizwan Habeeb, a medical student at the time, said he and his friends debated whether to continue greeting one another, when meeting in the wider community, in the standard Muslim fashion (as-salaam o alaikum, or "peace be with you"), or to adopt American salutations or say nothing at all.
Not all Muslims had such experiences. Many say their faith in American open-mindedness was renewed after Sept. 11, when they found themselves unbothered in prayer, even in the aisles of American jetliners. After the attacks, neighbors inundated Khan, the postal worker, with cards, flowers and letters of support.
Jameel, who has 60 first cousins in Pakistan and contacts all over the world, says Muslims around the globe still love Americans, even if U.S. foreign policy seems disproportionately to favor Israel, and such times showed why.
One Baltimore County police officer, he says, came by the ISB the day after the attacks and gave Jameel his personal cell number. "Call me, day or night, if you need anything," he said.
On another occasion, fear somersaulted into gratitude. A burly stranger from the neighborhood sought Jameel out just after the attacks, walked straight up to him and, alarmingly, started jabbing him in the chest. It wasn't what Jameel thought.
Said the man: "I'll leave you my picture, sir, and you can stick it to the fence with a big sign under it that says, 'This is my big brother, and if anyone bothers us, he'll beat the crap out of you.'"
Jameel fights back tears. "Some people do understand," he says.