Published: May 18, 2004

United by Faith

Muslims find strength in faith, frustration in politics


Al-Arian family

[Courtesy of Al-Arian family via AP] Former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian, center, and the rest of his family meet President Bush and first lady Laura Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign in Plant City. Local Muslims think al-Arian is innocent of charges he has ties to terrorists.


Learning the System/Hernando County Muslims

The men in the Hernando County mosque had just finished wishing peace to the Muslim brothers next to them after the Friday prayer when Ayman Joud stood to speak.

Joud, a doctor of internal medicine, wanted to issue an invitation to a political fundraiser the next day at the home of urologist Nazir Hamoui.

The candidate has been "very fair" in her views, Joud said, and everyone who comes should bring his checkbook. The blatantly political announcement caused not a one of the 46 men in the mosque to bat an eye. And more than a dozen raised their hands to say they would attend.

The candidate Cynthia McKinney of Georgia is someone the men in the mosque will probably never get a chance to vote for. The congressional seat she seeks - and held until two years ago - serves a district 400 miles away in suburban Atlanta.

As the men began to exit the mosque, Joud handed them a flier about McKinney. It praised her willingness to speak for the rights of Arab-Americans and American Muslims, and her willingness to speak against "the dehumanization of Palestinians and Iraqis."

Unmentioned on the flier was the stance McKinney is best known for: her declaration two years ago that the Bush administration knew the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were coming but took no action so his friends could reap profits from a war.

McKinney's comments - made just six months after the attacks - created a storm of controversy. Even a prominent fellow Democrat called her "loony." And McKinney lost the congressional seat she had held for a decade.

But recent questions about what the Bush administration knew prior to 9/11 and why it went into Iraq have struck a chord with many local Muslims, who see McKinney as a woman unafraid to speak the truth. And two years after her defeat, they are lining up to support her political revival.

In fact, McKinney's perspective is tame compared to some of the everyday political viewpoints expressed by members of Hernando County's Muslim community.

Mohammad Shuayb, a dentist born in Syria but raised in Hernando County, says Bush wasn't misspeaking shortly after Sept. 11 when he called the war on terror a "crusade."

"It is an open-ended war on Islam," Shuayb said.

Mahmoud Nimer, a cardiologist born in a Palestinian refugee camp, said Bush's decision last month to end any semblance of America's neutrality in the Middle East peace process is part of some greater plan to prepare Israel for the apocalypse.

"He is preparing the Middle East for the return of Jesus," Nimer said.

Those are just examples of the strong sense of alienation that local Muslims feel when it comes to the present course of American foreign policy.

For a community of immigrants who explain their original vision of America in Ellis Island terms - a beacon of liberty, a land of opportunity - these are difficult days.

Until recently, America had been as good as advertised. Muslims found prosperity and freedom of movement unimaginable in the countries they left.

Then came 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

"We knew this was going to bring terrible consequences for Muslims in general," said Ghiath Mahmaljy, a spiritual leader in the Muslim community who left the repression of Syria 25 years ago.

When laws such as the Patriot Act flew through Congress, Muslims began to worry that its powers of surveillance would be disproportionately used to invade the privacy of Arab-Americans.

As their unease grew, certain Muslim charities - including two that received $1.3-million from Muslims in Hernando County - were shut down and investigated for links to terrorism.

For many Muslims, "random" checks at the airport have never been random.

And former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian, whom many local Muslims know and appreciate for speaking out for the Palestinians, was charged with raising money for terrorists. Hatem Fariz, a Muslim living in Spring Hill, was pegged as his accomplice. Local Muslims think both men are innocent.

"We have seen when the government takes control," said Rodwan Hiba, a gastroenterologist who came from Syria. "When the government takes control, and you as a citizen do not have control, it is scary."

As the war on terrorism in Afghanistan blossomed into a confrontation with Iraq - a leap most local Muslims cannot comprehend - some began to fear the beacon of American justice was about to flicker out.

"We all want to fight real terrorism," Mahmaljy said. "What I'm seeing, what I feel, is that it is becoming a pretext for violating civil rights in the United States and a pretext for violating the sovereignty of other countries."

As they continue to disavow - and some say apologize for - the actions of the Sept. 11 hijackers, local Muslims are starting to get a bitter taste in their mouths.

That was especially true when President Bush stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last month and endorsed a new direction for America's policy in the Middle East.

Many Muslims, such as Nimer, see Palestinian blood on Sharon's hands. For them, it appears Bush has given America's final blessing to the land grab that created Israel in 1948 and made refugees of the Palestinians.

When most Americans were focused on the rising body count of American troops in Iraq last month, local Muslims were also reacting bitterly to the pictures of dead Iraqi babies in Fallujah - images beamed into their homes via the Arab news network al-Jazeera, images most Americans haven't seen.

Local Muslims shake their heads in disgust at the beheading of an American by people who praise Allah as they do the deed. But they also recoil at the sight of naked Iraqis being abused by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison.

They see the death and destruction on both sides. And they wonder what happened to the righteous cause of answering the Sept. 11 attacks. It is from this perspective that their political desperation grows.

"We've been apologizing since 9/11, and every single day we keep getting attacked," said Shuayb. "It bums me out because I grew up here."

His father, gastroenterologist Husam Shuayb, puts it in a different perspective.

"I don't think the United States is like when I came here in 1972, when I felt the freedom," he said.

At this point, local Muslims just hope the beheading of an American by men praising Allah will not lead to a new backlash. Beyond that, they are hoping, somewhere, to find a sympathetic ear in the American political wilderness.
Alienation replaces admiration

Four years ago, Muslims thought they had found such a person in Republican George W. Bush.

On social issues such as abortion and gay rights, Bush's conservative views fit their own. His aversion to taxes was sweet music to this community of wealthy doctors. And his discussion about his faith, albeit Christian, left the impression he valued religious freedom.

More important, Bush had come out against the use of "secret evidence" in deportation and criminal proceedings. At the time, al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar, was in jail on such secret evidence. Bush even went so far as to pose for a campaign photo with al-Arian.

The overtures spoke to Arab-Americans.

On Election Day, more than 90 percent of Florida Muslims, estimated then to number nearly 60,000 voters, cast ballots for Bush in an election decided by fewer than 600 votes.

Less than two years later, Bush's response to the terrorist attacks had so alienated local Muslims that they were lining up to give money to Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat who supports abortion rights but someone unafraid to speak out against Bush.

The $33,800 that local Muslims gave McKinney in 2002 - most of it at a single fundraiser in June - was more money than local Muslims spent on candidates they could actually vote for in Hernando County. Ginny Brown-Waite and Karen Thurman, for instance, received only about $22,000 in their race for the congressional seat serving Hernando.

There's no word yet on the results of the recent McKinney fundraiser promoted in the mosque last month. But it drew some of the same contributors who turned out two years ago.

Aside from McKinney, Hernando's Muslim community has sent money to candidates in Michigan, California, Alabama and Illinois. More important than geography is finding someone who has shown concern about secret evidence, the nature of the response to Sept. 11 and the rights of Palestinians.

Of those three issues, support for the Palestinians seems to resonate the loudest.
Views through the prism of Palestine

Most Americans see the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as an indecipherable cycle of killing and revenge killing - all adding up to a hazy mess. But for a Muslim community nearly unanimous in its view of the conflict, the Palestinians are victims who continue to be terrorized by Israel while the rest of the world sits idly by.

"We all sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians," Mahmaljy said. "These people have nothing but misery. They have no rights. They have no life."

No, local Muslims say they do not condone the suicide bombings that have killed scores of civilians in Israel - people whose only crime was to get on a bus.

"There is never any justification for the killing of innocent children," said Syed Ali, who came to Hernando from India.

Nevertheless, some say the decisions by Palestinians to resort to suicide bombings against Israel are a byproduct of the hopelessness and oppression they face.

Nimer vividly recalls the village near Jerusalem that was once his family's home. As a young man, he was shown the trees his grandparents planted and the streets his parents roamed as they came of age.

Nimer would love to go back. But he and his family - all Palestinians - have been cut off from their ancestral home. Israel, in seeking to make itself more secure from suicide bombers, will not allow Palestinians into the area, Nimer said.

Israel took control of the area in 1948, when it established its statehood. Land and property were redistributed to Jews seeking a homeland after the Holocaust.

Israel refers to this as the rebirth of its nation. Palestinians - even those such as Nimer who have since moved to America - see it as the beginning of a continuing nightmare.

"Some were killed, and some were kicked out," Nimer said. "Basically, Israel was built on terrorizing the Palestinians out of their land. They did not want to leave."

Husam Zarad, a Muslim doctor in Spring Hill, says his family was one of the thousands who fled their homes after the 1948 massacres that preceded Israel's statehood.

For five years, Zarad's family lived in tents at a refugee camp in Syria. They thought world opinion would turn and they would be restored to their home near Haifa. Eventually, they gave up, tore down the tents and built houses in the refugee camp that would become Zarad's birthplace.

His family remains there to this day.

Nimer, born nearly a decade after the establishment of Israel, has seen his ancestral village only through the eyes of a visitor. But since the escalation of violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis in 1985 even that sort of access has been cut off.

"We lost all our property," Nimer said. "We are refugees."

When you ask local Muslims about Middle Eastern terrorism, this is their definition: what Israel has done to the Palestinians for the past 56 years.

Nimer has a catalog of examples:

-- In 1948, 254 Palestinian villagers were killed in Deir Yassin, a western suburb of Jerusalem. Israel called it a battle, Palestinians a massacre. But the deaths sparked the Palestinians' flight from their homes.

-- In 1982, hundreds of Palestinian villagers - including women and children - were massacred at the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The killings came at the hands of a Lebanese Christian militia, but Israel bore much of the blame for authorizing the militia's movement.

-- In 2002, an Israeli pilot dropped a 1-ton bomb on a Palestinian residential neighborhood. The bomb killed its target, a militant leader of the terrorist group Hamas. But it also killed 15 others, including several children.

"Palestinians are getting killed in their homes. Palestinian kids are going to school, and somebody shoots at them and that's fine," Nimer said. "But the person who is trying to free himself is (called) a terrorist."

Nimer sees Ariel Sharon as a common thread through much of that history, particularly at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, when Sharon was in command of the Israeli defense forces.

So when Bush refers to Sharon as "a great man of peace," as the president did last year, Nimer grows nearly nauseated. "There are probably very few war criminals that have hands as bloody as Sharon does," Nimer said.

Declarations such as the one uttered by the president cause America to lose credibility in the Arab world, Nimer said.

"The free world is the biggest hypocrite that ever existed," he said.

Local Muslims say Americans are ignorant of such history because the American media have filtered out the Palestinian point of view. They say Jewish ownership of television networks and national newspapers has resulted in the news being biased in favor of Israel.

For that reason, they get their news from overseas, using satellite providers such as Dish Network to tune into al-Jazeera or any number of broadcasts emanating from the Middle East.

They lament the fact that more Americans do not share their outrage about Palestine.

"It's a central crisis," Zarad said. "If you know the truth, you will be passionate about it."
Even charity viewed with suspicion

In sizing up how Hernando County Muslims see the world, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the Palestinian cause.

Some think it is the real reason that Sami al-Arian is in jail.

Al-Arian, whom local Muslims know and respect for articulating the Palestinian argument, has visited Hernando's mosque - most often to seek support for his Muslim academy in Tampa.

Last year, al-Arian was arrested and accused of raising money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization the U.S. government has deemed a terrorist group. The organization is blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people in Israel.

Arrested with al-Arian was Hatem Fariz, who lived in Spring Hill and attended the mosque for less than a year. The case sent shock waves through Hernando's Muslim community.

Aside from knowing al-Arian and Fariz, four Hernando Muslims were members of the board of al-Arian's school, which was described in a federal indictment as a front for terrorist fundraising. A handful of local families even sent their children to school there. Members of the mosque were asked to donate money to the school as recently as two weeks ago.

The case is due to go to trial next year, but local Muslims say they simply do not believe al-Arian and Fariz were supporting terrorists.

"They don't like al-Arian because he was very effective at what he was doing, which was to show what the truth is in the Middle East," Nimer said.

Samar Shakfeh, a local Muslim who once served on the board of al-Arian's school, sees a tragic irony in al-Arian's downfall: "One day, Dr. al-Arian is invited to the White House, and the next day he is in jail."

Beyond politic concerns, Hernando Muslims send money to various charities that include those serving poor Palestinians.

For Muslims, it is mandatory to give 21/2 percent of one's standing wealth to the poor each year. But some of their giving has come under intense government scrutiny.

Two Muslim charities in particular - the Global Relief Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation - received $1.3-million from 15 local doctors in the five years prior to 2001.

Imad Tarabishy, a local orthopedic surgeon who sometimes delivers the weekly sermon at the mosque, gave nearly $800,000 alone.

Before Sept. 11, such giving went unnoticed. But in searching out the funding sources for terrorism, the U.S. government began alleging that Global Relief and Benevolence International were funneling donations to al-Qaida.

Tarabishy has declined to discuss his donations with the Times. But late in 2001, he told the Associated Press that he knew no more about where his money went than anyone else who donates to a church or a charity.

He assumed it went to the needy Muslims the charity had pledged to help. "Every penny I ever paid, I paid to a United States-approved, tax-deductible charity," he said.

Global Relief and Benevolence International have had their tax-exempt status revoked. And the government has frozen Global Relief's assets.

Last fall during Ramadan, representatives from an organization called Kind Hearts visited the Hernando mosque. One of the representatives, Khaled Smaili, preached about the blessings of charitable giving during Ramadan.

Kind Hearts sought money for impoverished Palestinians - money to buy food baskets and Ramadan meals, and to pay for new schools and clean water systems. It wasn't clear how much money came through then. But Smaili said local Muslims had pledged $30,000 to $40,000 to Kind Hearts the year before, though not all the pledges were fulfilled.

Within two months of the visit, the Washington Post reported that Kind Hearts was among 24 Muslim organizations having their financial records reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee, which is looking into alleged ties between charities and terrorism.

Also appearing on that list was the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group whose trust agency holds title to the property where the Hernando mosque sits.

Local Muslims say honest charities and positive, progressive nonprofit groups are being swept up in a dragnet by the government they helped elect.

"The power that has been given to (Attorney General) John Ashcroft is out of control," said Mahmaljy, one of the local Muslim leaders. "And the public isn't doing anything about it."
Seeking benefits through involvement

Local Muslims are seeking sympathetic ears by getting more involved in the political process, as their support of McKinney illustrates. After giving just $23,000 to congressional campaigns in 2000, they spent $96,500 in 2002.

They have established ties - through cash and personal relationships - with local politicians such as U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, state Rep. David Russell, County Commissioner Nancy Robinson and Sheriff Richard Nugent.

Some of the connections were made even before Sept. 11. And after the attacks, Russell visited the mosque to hear Muslim concerns. And after someone fired a bullet into the mosque, Nugent offered extra patrols there.

The sheriff, whose agency was peripherally involved in the arrest of Hatem Fariz last year, said there are good people and bad people in every ethnic group and every community.

By and large, Nugent said, the local Muslim community's friendships with al-Arian and its contributions to charities under scrutiny do not concern him, and its outlook on politics gives him no cause for alarm.

"From what I know of the Muslims that I know, I think they are as American as anyone else," Nugent said. "Do they have some strong beliefs? Of course. So do I."

Russell, who says Husam Shuayb saved his father's life in 1985 by discovering cancer in his colon, similarly says, "There are good apples and there are bad apples. The Muslims I know and have known for years are good people."

Now, as Muslims see their interests threatened, these political connections are becoming more important. And broadening the community's influence has become part of the lessons they learn at the mosque.

"This is the system here in America. The money and the votes count," Ahmed Bedier, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told worshipers recently while delivering the Friday sermon. "This is the system here in America."

The Muslim most local politicians are familiar with is Adel Eldin, a cardiologist who gave more than $10,000 to candidates in 2002. He continues to build friendships with Republicans even as many Arab-Americans are abandoning the GOP.

Eldin says he wants to work within the system.

"Everybody is a lobbyist," he said. "I want to be a Muslim lobbyist."

Others, such as gastroenterologist Rodwan Hiba, aren't sure the fight is winnable.

In Syria, Hiba remembers a government officer pointing a gun at his head when he objected to the officer cutting in front of him in a bread line.

"We took oppression for granted in Syria," Hiba said. "Here, we realized what it meant to be a human being."

Hiba tells this story to make a point about the direction in which America is heading.

"I see it going that way," he said.

For Hiba, to remain in an America that is a shadow of its former self would be difficult. But the way America has changed since 9/11 has him considering a return to Syria - where he would be living under government oppression, but at least doing so among a nation of Muslims.

"I am a very proud American citizen. I don't want to be treated as a second-class citizen. I do not want to be discriminated against," Hiba said.

"I'm here. I'm doing a service. I'm trying to be as helpful as much as I can. All I'm asking back is respect."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this project.
Robert King can be reached at 352 848-1432.
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