Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the September 19,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Meet the Muslims

Diversity is one of Princeton’s strengths. In offices, classrooms, and

shopping centers filled with people from different faiths and nations,

Muslims meld into our American mix. Some wear traditional garb —

turbans for men, scarves and long skirts for women — some do not.

The number of Muslims working in Princeton has grown exponentially

over the past 10 years. Yet except for the occasional lecture series

on world religions, or news coverage about the Feast of Ramadan, those

outside that faith community hear very little about Islam. Devout

Muslims pray, attend services at the mosque on Route 1 in South

Brunswick,

observe fasts, and make pilgrimages to Mecca without much notice.

That all changed on Tuesday, September 11. An infamous Muslim, Osama

Bin Laden, became a prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade

Center and the Pentagon that left nearly 5,000 dead or missing.

Suddenly

the faith of Islam has come under the spotlight, and if ignorance

about the religion didn’t really matter before — now it matters.

Though things have been quiet in Princeton, 300 incidents — ugly

anti-Islamic sentiments, acts of vandalism, and brutal assaults —

have been reported by the Council on American Islamic Relations in

Washington, D.C.

Who are the Muslims and what do they stand for? Leaders of the mosque

on Route 1 South, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, called a

press conference Friday, September 14. Guests are welcome at any time,

but this prayer service, held on the National Day of Prayer for

victims,

was a special opportunity to meet Muslims in the community. They were

anxious to dispel stereotypes about their faith and voice their hopes

for the future.

"There is absolutely no religion in this world that supports such

cruel acts of inhumanity, and Islam is no different," says Parvaiz

Malik, a plastic surgeon with offices at Princeton Professional Park

who chairs the board at ISCJ. "Islam, a religion of tolerance,

holds the human soul in high esteem and considers attack against

innocent

human beings a grave sin."

"We come from one father, and one God," says the mosque’s

religious director, Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli. "What will hurt one

person will hurt the rest of the family. If any one of us has a doubt

that the color of the blood in the United States is different from

the color of blood in any part of the world, this country is not

yours."

"I am here in America because I didn’t like what was happening

in the Middle East," says Ahmed Azmy, a founding architect at

HABCM who has the distinction of having "planned" Mecca, the

Muslims’ holy city inn Saudi Arabia. "I would like to see peace

in the whole world. People need to know we are with them. We pray

for them. We hope to get to the root of the problem."

Like many other families here, Azmy had some bad moments on September

11. His daughter, his son-in-law, and his son were in lower Manhattan

during the terrorist attacks. "It was a really horrible day for

us, to pass the hours and the minutes, but I thank God they are

safe,"

he says. He came to the mosque to give an interview before the 1 p.m.

Friday prayer service.

Azmy has contributed impressively to the Princeton business and

architectural

community. The son of an Egyptian architect, he did his undergraduate

work at the University of Cairo, earned his graduate degree at

Princeton

under Jean Labatut, and stayed in Princeton.

He helped found two architectural practices, CUH2A in 1974, which

has 288 people working on Roszel Road, and HACBM, now a 30-person

firm on College Road, in 1989. His current projects include

renovations

for nine buildings at Rutgers and a master plan for the enlargement

of the Central Jersey mosque. HACBM’s projects include an addition

to IKEA on Route 1, a city hall for Metuchen , and the Hopewell

municipal

building.

Yet developing the 1987 master plan for the sacred shrine of Kaaba

in Mecca was certainly Azmy’s most prestigious work. Worshipers during

the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage, must arrange themselves in concentric

circles so that all can face Mecca. Two million people converging

on Mecca presents a safety problem. The master plan is designed to

accommodate more pilgrims and make the route safer.

"As an architect I learned how to analyze any problem I am facing

to see what the worst case is. When you see it from there, that makes

you feel better. Then you work on that situation until you can be

satisfied with what you are doing. The nature of architecture is that

you are never satisfied until you solve the problem. And there are

so many ways to solve it," says Azmy. "You work until you

are satisfied."

Family influence is so important, says Azmy. The oldest of six (the

first five were boys), he followed in his father’s footsteps to be

an architect. "We were taught to love, to treat people fairly.

I pray, I fast, I have been on the Hajj. Moderation I say, and Islam

says, is what’s right."

"These radical people. I think if you look into it, they got

brainwashed,"

says Azmy. "Something happened in their lives. This is hatred,

this is not Islam."

The problem will be solved not by monitoring airports but by peace

in the Middle East and social justice, says Azmy. "Conflict has

been going on for 50 years, it is happening every day." Those

who live in the Middle East are subject to intense propaganda.

"When

you are here you have a better vision of what is happening. If there

were a peace treaty, they would have no reason to think America is

responsible for what is happening. The hate diminished when we had

the peace treaty."

He quotes the Qur’an (Koran) which says "You have no right to

kill anybody." Adds Azmy: "As churches and places of worship

we should put our hands together. We should take care of the people

in the world, have more treatment for social justice and human values.

We have to get through to the fanatics somehow."

As Azmy completes the interview, prayer has begun and worshippers

are filtering into the mosque. Including the CJIS’ 950 individual

and family members, about 2,000 people will come to the mosque this

year, but more than 6,000 Muslims will gather for major festival days

in December and February, when family gatherings swell the number

of observant Muslims in New Jersey, and the prayers must be moved

to an area hotel.

Their countries of origin range from Indonesia (the country with the

largest Muslim population), to the Far East (Pakistan and India are

the next largest), Africa, and the countries or the Middle East. Of

the 2 billion Muslims around the world, 7 million are in the United

States, and 2 to 2-1/2 million of those are African American. (Though

the language of Islam is Arabic, Muslims should not be confused with

Arab Americans. Of the estimated 3 million Arab Americans living in

the United States, some are Muslims, but many are Catholic, Orthodox

Christians, and Jews. Similarly, not all those living in Afghanistan

are Muslims in the Taliban. That country has Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs,

and Christians).

The mosque holds religious schools on Saturday afternoon and Sunday

morning. A health clinic on Saturdays at noon is open to both Muslim

and non-Muslim people for such services as flu shots, and the current

focus of the clinic is blood donation. The society hopes to build

housing for the elderly, a community center, increased parking

facilities,

an addition to the mosque, and a school for the 200 children in grades

K through 10 who now attend classes in trailers.

On the day of the press conference, September 14, a volunteer member

of the CJIS, Imam Mamdouh Salim is reciting the Qur’an in preparation

for the 1 p.m. prayer. This recitation is not considered music, but

it has strong musical qualities, sonorous vowels, and a somber tone

that befits the mood of the moment.

Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, once a week, and two

times a year. This year’s festival days are predicted to be Saturday,

December 15 (the end of the Feast of Ramadan), and Friday, February

22 (the Hajj), but they may change depending on sitings of the moon

during those months. The mosque holds prayer at 5:45 a.m., 1 p.m.,

4:30 p.m., 7:10 (or at the sunset hour), and 8:45 p.m. The most

popular

time for prayer is 1 p.m., but sometimes the parking lot is so full

(it has 210 spaces) that worshippers are turned away.

Today the parking lot has guards. When cars pull up to the white

building

with its graceful gold minaret, strangers are asked to leave

briefcases

in the car. Tension is high.

Worshippers enter and remove their shoes. Most of the women wear

headscarves,

long sleeves, and long skirts. Some of the men wear crocheted caps

and traditional dress but most are dressed informally, or business

casual. Men enter through the atrium, bordered by white columns and

graceful Persian arches, to find their place in a carpeted room. Bare

of furniture, it has a ceramic-tiled arched niche that is inscribed

in Arabic with brilliant blues. This "mihrab" indicates the

direction of Mecca. Women kneel behind the atrium in a large, carpeted

multipurpose room with a view of the mihrab.

Initially worshippers bring their hands up to their heads in a brief

gesture. "We like to make our mind clear that we are standing

between God’s hands," Imam Chebli later explains. "We like

to take everything that makes us busy in front of us and put it to

our back, so there is nothing in front of us except the face of

God."

Then the worshiper kneels to salaam, touching his forehead to the

floor, then sitting up, then salaaming again, then standing. Their

lips move soundlessly, and when they sit, their hands rest open on

their knees. The peace of the room is broken only by the random,

visual

rhythm of standing, sitting, kneeling, and bowing.

As the recitation finishes, Imam Chebli begins his talk. To illustrate

how the prophets prohibit injuring any living being, he tells a

parable

about a pious woman who mistreated her cat. She prayed, she fasted,

she went to Hajj, but she never fed the cat nor opened the door to

let the cat go outside to hunt its own food. Versus the adultress

who dipped water from a well by holding the shoe in her teeth to give

a thirsty dog a drink. The pious woman will go to hell, the sinner

to Paradise.

"Why are we hating each other? Why are we killing each other?

Why are we waging war against each other?" asks the imam.

"Look

at the way God created you. Allah is watching you. The Prophet says,

`the Lord is one.’ If you destroy one hair of a human being, according

to the Torah, according to the Bible, according to the Qur’an, you

are destroying the entire life of mankind."

He ends with a plea for donations for the victims of the attack. Women

rush up to welcome the guests. Tasneen Shamin, an ophthalmologist

with a practice in Somerset, wears traditional dress — long skirt,

long sleeves, and head scarf — in red, white, and blue. "We

are in this together," she says, "because we are fighting

evil." She brings up the quintessential argument against ethnic

hatred: the Timothy McVeigh case, a double whammy, because not only

were Muslims mistakenly targeted after the Oklahoma bombing, but also

because "not all Christians are like Timothy McVeigh. Let’s

identify

and find the culprits."

Reporters and visitors from the Princeton Theological Seminary and

area churches crowd into the library for the press conference. Parvaiz

Malik, the plastic surgeon, reads an impassioned statement disavowing

violence.

"America’s heart is breaking, but her great spirit never

will,"

says Malik. "Let us know each other for what is in our hearts,

not for the colors of our skin, for our faith, or for our

ancestry."

What do Muslims want non Muslims to do? Imam Chebli answers: "When

you have something that is not true, it is your responsibility to

stand up and say, I am witness to the fact that it is not the truth.

One word from the mouth of an individual can do that."

Khalid Iqbal, a spokesperson for the Council on American Islamic

Relations

in Washington, D.C., has received reports about a Muslim woman beaten,

stores vandalized, and shootings. But he also says he has heard from

a schoolteacher who wants her eighth graders to be pen pals with

Muslim

students, a lawyer offering his services, and a Web organization with

5,000 women members offering to wear headscarves in sisterhood with

Muslim women.

The parking lot of the mosque is almost empty now, and when a car

pulls up to the curb, the driver enters the mosque undisturbed. He’s

from one of the nearby retirement communities, he says, and he asks

to speak to somebody in charge. "I just want them to know that

I support them," he says.

— Barbara Fox


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