NY Newsday: Long Island Muslims Say They're Wrongly Portrayed

Press Release

By:  Pete King
Date: Aug. 24, 2009
Location: Unknown

Beneath the white tent outside the gleaming peach-colored mosque in East Meadow, the women in their colorful head scarves and flowing robes sat on the left, while the men, some wearing traditional Muslim skull caps, sat on the right.

Politicians, police and even a rabbi spoke with delight from the podium over the opening of the newest mosque on Long Island, its 21st, and this one built by the Bangladeshi community. Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey called it "a wonderful thing" and bemoaned that the Muslim community "unfortunately gets maligned unjustly."

The festivities Wednesday evening at the Long Island Muslim Society mosque underscored the dynamic growth of Muslims on the Island, and how since the Sept. 11 attacks they are increasingly in the spotlight.

That spotlight is often unwelcome, like last month when authorities announced they had arrested a 26-year-old Patchogue man, Bryant Vinas, who had traveled to Pakistan to join al-Qaida and attend a terrorist training camp. Vinas had worshipped for about 18 months at a mosque in Selden. According to some local Muslims who said they knew him, he had even spoken of jihad, though members of the mosque described him as a largely unknown character there who never said anything suspicious.

Flourishing but still a cloud

Most Muslims on Long Island say the arrest paints an inaccurate portrait of their community, which started expanding four decades ago with an influx of pharmacists, doctors and other professionals from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, among other places.

Members of a religion that counts 1.2 billion adherents worldwide, they contend that for the most part they are flourishing professionally, entering the mainstream of life on Long Island, raising their children to be successful and patriotic Americans. Even so, some feel they live under a cloud of suspicion, and they are divided as to whether they have fully become part of mainstream Long Island.

"I came to this country with $5 in my pocket. How can I not appreciate this country?" said Mohammed Rafiqur Rahman, an immigrant from Bangladesh who helped found the new mosque in East Meadow and works as a pharmacist.

Mosques, schools on LI

Besides 21 houses of worship, Long Island's 70,000 Muslims have two full-time Islamic schools, including one in Hempstead that is K-12, and a facility at a mosque in Bay Shore to prepare their dead in shrouds for the quick burial their religion dictates. They hope to buy their own cemetery on the East End.

"We are very integrated," said Dr. Hafizur Rehman, a pediatrician originally from Kenya whose office in Bay Shore is filled with hundreds of photographs of his patients, mainly native-born Americans. "We have been able to practice our religion, keep our culture, but assimilate very well into society."

But others say they are not so sure.

"Some of them are a little bit on the side," said Habeeb Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island, a mosque in Westbury. "We are largely an immigrant community."

The Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by men who said they were Muslims waging jihad, or holy war, were a blow to the image of Muslims on Long Island. Community leaders say they reject terrorism, and that the attackers perverted their religion, which preaches peace.

Last month's arrest of Vinas did not help their cause. "I got very upset," Ahmed said. "It affects the whole community, giving us all a bad name."

He and other Muslims say they'd be the last ones to want to harm the United States: Many are professionals who have adopted this country as their own, and sent their children off to elite colleges.

"This is my home. We are not going back," said Iqbal Sayeed, a dentist in Patchogue originally from India. "We live here. Our kids live here. We want to flourish here. We want this country to prosper."

While the community includes professionals like him, there are also owners of 7-11s, Dunkin' Donuts and gas stations, along with car mechanics, cleaning people and taxi drivers. Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, head of the Suffolk County Health Department, is a Muslim. So is Wali Karzai, a chemistry professor at Stony Brook who is also the brother of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.

Accused of not cooperating

Some critics, chiefly Rep. Peter King (R-Massapequa Park), contend the community has not cooperated enough with law enforcement officials in the fight against terrorism. "The overwhelming majority of Muslims are solid, sound, good Americans," said King, who is a member of Congress's Committee on Homeland Security. "But on the other hand they seem reluctant to cooperate" with law enforcement by providing information on suspicious activities.

Muslim leaders deny that. They say they regularly invite local politicians and law enforcement officials to their mosques, and give classes on Islam at local police academies. Some have even undergone "citizen" training by the FBI to learn how to assist the agency.

The community is slowly raising its profile and gaining access to the power structure. On Aug. 14, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy hosted local Pakistani businessmen, doctors, professors and other leaders - all of them Muslims - in his office for a proclamation ceremony marking that country's Independence Day.

Then last Wednesday, Levy raised the Pakistani flag outside the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge - a first in Suffolk's history.

Islam's roots are in the African-American community of the 1960s, back to the time when Malcolm X was the nation's most famous Muslim leader. Mosques run by African-Americans eventually opened in communities including Freeport, Roosevelt and Wyandanch, said Ghazi Khankan, a Nassau County-based consultant on Islamic affairs.

Visas for professionals

The U.S. opened the door to large-scale immigration from predominantly Muslim countries when it began issuing visas for pharmacists and doctors amid a shortage in those professions, Khankan said. Crises in some of the home countries, such as the 1979 revolution in Iran, also propelled immigration. The community expanded more as Muslims started families here, and native-born Americans converted to Islam, Khankan said.

Their first mosques opened in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the basements of churches or houses the community eventually purchased, he said. Later, they built mosques on some of the properties such as in Westbury, or converted a former church like the one in Selden where Muslims now worship. Some of the mosques have links to a particular country. Melville's faithful are mainly from Egypt, East Meadow's from Bangladesh.

Many of Long Island's Muslims pray five times a day as Islam dictates, starting before sunrise and ending about 10 p.m. Rehman, the pediatrician, pulls out a rug in his office and prays during his lunch hour.

He believes his religion helps him treat his patients by including a spiritual element.

"There are other ways to heal people," he said, "than by giving them amoxicillin."

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