On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Clermont resident Imam Abdurrahman Sykes flew into Washington, D.C., just behind history. Four minutes before his flight's landing gear touched the asphalt of the Washington Dulles International Airport runway, American Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon a few miles away. Wearing the same type of clothing he had proudly worn for 20 years a long, calf-length shirt traditionally worn by religious Arab Muslim males (known as a galabiya), and a long, thick beard Sykes casually walked to the airport's main terminal along with dozens of other travelers, unaware that the nation had been attacked.
A few yards away, Sykes noticed a large crowd of people gathered around an airport restaurant's television. But it was the grief-stricken and angry faces within the crowd that caused Sykes to quicken his pace and join them. The blur on the television set became clearer, and he was confronted with the images of the attacks.
Filled with confusion and immense sadness, Sykes immediately thought of his wife and four young children in North Carolina. The family had been separated for a few months while Sykes was finishing school in Washington, D.C., and preparing a new home for them in Clermont. He was making his weekly commute to attend classes at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Scientists in Leesburg, Va., 30 minutes outside of the nation's capital. He was working on a master's degree to secure a job as a religious chaplain at a Florida prison.
Sykes dialed his home number but could not break through the busy signal on the other end. He had no idea that a misinformed friend of the family was mistakenly telling his wife that her husband was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon, and that he was dead.
As Sykes stood frozen in front of the television, the TV reporter told the nation that America was being attacked by terrorists who were Muslim extremists. Sykes began to notice uneasy stares in his direction. He was wearing the same long beard and Arab clothing as the terrorists on the screen.
But Sykes is no terrorist. Nor is he a foreigner. He is the son of two Christian farmers from North Carolina who had converted to Islam two decades before. For the first time in his life, Sykes was terrified to tell anyone his name.
It isn't an unusual story. Muslim Americans throughout this country have watched their lives change since Sept. 11, and according to the Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Florida has been a center for anti-Muslim activity.
Ahmed Bedier, spokesperson for the Tampa center, has seen the after-effects of hate crimes in Central Florida, including the vandalism of the Community Education Center in Lutz, an Islamic center in a Tampa suburb. In June, a group of vandals broke into the center and scrawled anti-Muslim phrases on the walls in red lettering "Kill all Muslims!!!" and "You killed my sister and now I seek to kill you." Bedier was devastated by the act.
"This is very offensive," he said in an interview with the Tampa Tribune. "It makes me so sad and upset. When Muslims see this, they feel intimidated and helpless. Clearly this was done by a bunch of ignorant people, a bunch of bigots who have a lot of hatred in their hearts."
There's been a steady rise in anti-Muslim activity in Florida and around the country. According to a CAIR study, anti-Muslim activity increased by 15 percent nationally, topping out at 602 incidents between Jan. 1, 2002, and Dec. 31, 2002. Florida saw big increases too. There were 78 anti-Muslim incidents in Florida during 2002, a 95 percent increase from 2001.
It's only getting worse. From Jan. 1, 2003, to Dec. 31, 2003, there were 108 anti-Muslim incidents in Florida, a 38.5 percent increase from 2002. According to Bedier, the numbers for 2004 have already surpassed the 2003 numbers. For the 8 million Muslims living in America 35,000 of whom live in Central Florida these numbers are frightening.
The CAIR report, "Guilt by Association: The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States 2003," blames governmental policies like the USA PATRIOT Act, along with the public's lack of education, for contributing to the problem. It also shows how influential Christian leaders, like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jerry Vines, employ "Islamophobic" rhetoric, inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments.
Case in point Jacksonville Rev. Vines, former president for the Southern Baptist Convention, said in 2002 that "Islam was founded by Mohammed, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives and his last one was a 9-year-old girl."
A few days after the incident, Islamic Center of Northeast Florida president Shakur Bolden addressed Vines' comment during a sermon by asking, "How can one be demon-possessed and tell us to live in peace and harmony? Is that a demon-possessed person?"
"If we were even to read the history of our country, the United States of America, we would find that up to a hundred years ago, marriage was legal at the age of 10," added Bolden.
THE MUSLIMS NEXT DOOR
With the exception of their Arabic names, the Sykes are much like any other American family. The younger two children, Haleema, 13, and Billaal, 10, run from room to room in their Clermont home, belting out excited laughter as mom and dad straighten up in the kitchen. The two oldest teenage girls, Naasiha, 17, and Kamila, 15, silently walk into the living room, plop down on the couch and call their two younger siblings to join the rest of the family.
The home is spotless. A large and elegant staircase winds down to greet guests in the foyer, and points like a finger to an empty dining room on the left. There are no pictures or paintings hanging on the Tuscan yellow walls of the empty room. The only thing in the room is a single microphone, used for praying, resting on a bed of soft beige carpet against the far wall.
The foyer hall opens up to reveal an expansive living room. Wearing a black sweatshirt and jeans, Haleema quickly shuffles into the room and sits in a plush, oversized chair that swallows her petite frame. Billaal rushes to sit near his sisters, wearing a small blue Iverson jersey and athletic shorts. No one wears shoes on the carpet; this is where they pray.
Suddenly it's quiet. The four children nervously look to their parents, waiting for them to talk. Their father discusses the day his world changed. "I was getting my master's in D.C., and landed on 9/11 four minutes after the Pentagon was hit. So it was very traumatic because someone called my wife and told her, 'I think your husband may have died on the plane,'" Sykes says quietly.
A look of sad remembrance washes over his wife Nuran's soft features.
"That was really traumatic for her because she didn't know that that wasn't the case. I had no idea someone told her that," he says, looking at her adoringly.
Sykes pauses to rub his dark, trimmed beard, and his almond-shaped eyes look down to the ground.
"This is the first time in many, many years that my beard has been this short," he says in a near whisper. "One of the reasons, I'm ashamed to say, is because I'm under investigation right now. And I have been, ongoing. I've been before the FBI and I've been before the Office of Attorney General." He runs the palms of his hands against his loose, button-up, short-sleeved shirt. "I normally don't dress like this either. I was wearing a galabiya on 9/11, which is the long shirt that I wear most of the time in public. I looked like an Arab, not an American."
His tone becomes more confident and he sits up straighter in his chair. "I knew I had to get out of D.C. that morning. I called the hotel where I was staying because I had become friends with some of the managers. I remember telling them, 'You have to get me out of here. My name is Abdurrahman, and I don't need to be here.' So they sent an airport shuttle to come pick me up and eventually I got on a train. The train had to make four unexpected stops, so it took me 19 hours to get from D.C. back to Florida."
He pauses and his voice drops again. "It was a miracle I was able to get in touch with my wife that morning. I called her and told her, 'I want you to know that I'm safe.' And of course she was crying and sobbing at this point because she thought I was dead, she thought I was gone." He glances at his wife as her dark eyes well with tears.
He sighs, then continues. "A couple of weeks after that, it was confirmed for me that I had some terrorists in the prison where I was an Imam, and they made open statements in the chapel such as, 'If you are a Muslim, you should overthrow the country, and join the jihad, and you shouldn't be a coward.'" His eyes narrow. "I immediately told them, 'You will never speak about this because this is not Islam. Islam teaches that any Muslim or non-Muslim that does an atom's weight of good will be rewarded. Islam is a religion of peace, and jihad is the struggle within. Jihad doesn't mean war or killing the innocent.'"
AGAINST THE TIDE
Convincing Americans of that is an unenviable task.
Bassem Chaaban, assistant director for the Center for Peace at the Central Florida Islamic Society located off Goldenrod Road, has committed his career to resolving such misconceptions through interfaith education.
"These terrorists are not Muslim. If you told me you were a doctor, and I fell on the floor choking, and you had no knowledge or understanding of how to help save my life, you're not a doctor. You can call yourself a doctor all you want, but you're not a doctor," says Chaaban. "The same reasoning applies to terrorists who label themselves Muslim. The proof is in their actions. They may say they are Muslim, but their actions go against the fundamental teachings of Islam, which are teachings of peace, not murder."
Bedier of CAIR points out quotes from the Koran that illustrate the point. Chapter Eight, verse 61, for instance: "And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allah; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing." Or Chapter Two, verse 190. "And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits."
Chaaban adds, "When I see a person on the street who needs help, I don't go ask him, 'Are you a Christian, are you a Muslim?' I say, 'Do you need help? You're my brother, you're my sister.' And that's what true Islam teaches, and that's what Judaism and Christianity teaches also."
Areej Zufari, a spokesperson for the Central Florida Islamic Society, says the media only contributes to the problem. "Violent extremists are not practitioners of Islam, a religion of peace and compassion. Nor should the media associate the two. But unfortunately, the media is often succumbing to the sensationalism that draws an audience rather than practicing journalism correctly."
Adds Chaaban, "The media always ties the word 'Islam' to `fundamentalists and extremists`, and so anytime you hear the word Islam, it's negative. We want `the media` to be balanced. If you have to show the bombings and the fundamentalists, fine. But also show the praying, show how Christians and Muslims and Jews are talking peacefully together."
Sykes crosses his arms and takes another deep breath. "After `I reprimanded the terrorist inmates for spreading messages of violence`, my life was threatened. They tried to assassinate me. One of the members of the Islamic community in the prison tipped off a correctional staff member and told them that they were planning to do something to me, and that there was a weapon in the chapel. So the staff checked the chapel 20 minutes before I was scheduled to teach, and they found that the inmates had taken some copper piping and sharpened it into a weapon."
Darkness falls over his face. "But when these inmates were not successful, they put an underground contract out on my life to a non-Muslim inmate, and he was found down the hall from my office with a sharpened metal rod." He pauses for a moment, as if in deep thought. "It was very dangerous, because some of these homemade weapons are even more dangerous than regular weapons. For example, if I were to stab you with a knife, you'd have a cleaner wound than you would with a homemade knife," he says with a nervous chuckle.
"So it was very stressful. My life was being threatened and people were looking at me in a different way. I guess what made it harder is the fact that I am a minority among the minorities among the minorities. I am the only white imam in corrections in the United States of America," he says matter-of-factly. "That really makes me sort of an anomaly."
Nuran breaks into the conversation. "Tell the story about Denny's," she suggests softly.
"Oh yeah, Denny's," he says with wide eyes. "I had been living in Clermont and commuting to school in D.C., and my family flew down to Florida about a month after September 11 to move into our new home here. I took my family to Denny's the night we arrived in late October 2001, and when we walked in the door, someone yelled, 'BOOM! There goes the towers!'"
A look of disappointment stains his expression. "I looked at my family and said, 'We don't need this,' and we just turned around and left." He reaches up and strokes his beard and abruptly switches the topic, relaying the story about how his school was raided by the FBI and he, along with everyone else involved in the school, was put under investigation. Agents took the school's computers, he says, and returned them broken.
His shoulders slump and he looks down at his hands. "I've always been a person who has tried to live my life with integrity and good virtue and character. Yet everything that I was a part of was being attacked, and I mean everything," he says with solemn eyes.
The family remains silent and still. Sykes looks at his three daughters and smiles.
"I think the very fact that we are white has caused us to suffer both internally and externally. Because sometimes the children have felt they don't fit in on either side of the coin. There are all these Pakistani children, Arab children and Lebanese children who often ask them, 'Where do you guys come from?' And of course they feel like they don't quite fit in."
Kamila musters the courage to talk about her own experiences. Her dark, piercing eyes stay focused on her blue athletic pants, and she struggles to keep her composure without showing emotion.
"We moved here right after September 11, so it was kind of hard. The first day I started at Windy Hill Middle School, my locker was broken into. And then later that day in English class, a boy stood up during a conversation about 9/11 and said, 'I think all Muslims should be killed and if I saw them in the street, I would shoot him or her.'"
Her voice cracks and she brings her hands up to her face to cover the tears that began streaming down her face. She is unable to speak for nearly 30 seconds. "I didn't really want to say, 'Hey, I'm Muslim,' so I just kept quiet. It was very scary. I called my mom and she came and got me. I went to a different school after that. I liked it a little better, because the teachers didn't allow the kids to stand up and say things like that, which I was grateful for."
After a few more moments, and three or four sniffles, Kamila continues talking. "I have a great friend named Safiyah, and she wears the hijab `or women's head scarf`. The last time she was over here, we went to the Publix down the road. As we stepped out of the car, some kids from my school were yelling things from another car, calling her a towel head and a terrorist." She stops to sniff twice more. "I don't like sharing with people that I'm Muslim. But it also makes me feel frustrated and confused `to have to remain secretive about my religion.`"
Sykes interrupts his daughter. "When the child stood up in her class and said that, the teachers did nothing. I went to the principal about it, and he did not even apologize. It was absolutely devastating for me," he says, hand over his heart.
Haleema grabs the giant arms of the swanky, oversized chair she sits in and pulls her legs underneath her. Her sister's speech reminds her of something she wants to relate. She speaks quickly while playing with her long, straight, black hair. "I was covering my head in fourth and fifth grade and a couple of incidents happened. One time on the bus, a girl and a boy ripped off my hijab and threw it out the window. They would pick on me in PE pretty badly as well. Now I don't wear my hijab, but sometimes some kids will bring my yearbook picture to school that shows me wearing it just to make fun of me." Haleema pauses for a moment and looks up at her mother. "They used to pick on me really bad, especially during the presidential election. Because I wanted Kerry to win, and people would say, 'You just want Kerry to win because you know he can't get Osama Bin Laden, and you want your people to be free.'"
The family goes silent again, and the young Billaal anxiously squirms on the carpet. His eyes well with tears. "This one boy was making fun of me because I was Muslim, and he told me that Osama Bin Laden was my uncle when he saw my dad wearing the galabiya." He stops talking, and his tears never spill from his eyes.
The oldest daughter, Naasiha, is silent as her siblings tell stories. She says she doesn't want to speak. The children look to their mother, who is silently sobbing in her chair. Nuran wipes the tears from her face.
"Obviously all the stories that have happened to my family have affected me," she says, revealing a lilting British accent.
Nuran was born in South Africa where she met Sykes in the early 1980s. The couple moved to the United States together and have been married for 20 years.
"When we got `to Florida` at the end of October, I immediately told Billaal's school that I would volunteer to help out in any way I could. They phoned me and told me they would find something for me to do, and to just come on up. The office staff was wonderful, and the teachers were wonderful. But one day, one of Billaal's teachers came to me and told me that some of the kids at school were making fun of Billaal because they had seen me `wearing the hijab.` So he said, 'Come and share what your religion is about so that the children who are making fun of Billaal will be educated.' And Billaal actually did the lesson himself, he talked about Islam … ." She stops short and begins crying.
Sykes scoots his chair closer to hers to comfort his wife. She tries her best to gather herself and continues. "So I had been volunteering at his school for so long that the office staff actually insisted on hiring me permanently and paying me for my work. But soon I found out that some of the parents were approaching the principal and asking, 'How can you hire this lady? How can you hire a Muslim?'" She weeps quietly to herself, unable to continue. Sykes breaks into the conversation.
"I had `prostate` cancer in May of last year `when this was happening.` And from May of last year to March of this year, I had to undergo 10 surgeries. They actually told me I was going to die, and they sent me home to die. So she really needed this job to keep her mind off things," he says.
He switches his glance to his children. "But any time your children are in pain, you are in pain. It's hard enough to be an adolescent in this world. It's really like the worst part of life, I think. And our kids have all this pressure for being in a minority religion, and a minority race within their religion. Their mom wears a hijab, their dad wears a long shirt that looks like a dress. The other kids will taunt them and say, 'Oh, your dad wears a dress.'"
Haleema bursts into giggles, "Like a drag queen," she laughs.
"Yeah, they don't call it a galabiya, or anything respectful. They denigrate it," Sykes says. The tension fades for a moment.
"But even though things are hard, we are still able to get over all of this," says Sykes, his hand over his heart. "For me, I am so grateful to have been called to Islam. And my whole approach in life is one of gratitude. When I got cancer, it was very hard for my family. My cancer was very serious. When people would come to see me, I'd say, 'Listen, get a smile on your face, it's a win-win situation. If I die, I'm going to heaven, and if I don't die, I'm going to experience God's healing. I cannot lose here.'"
His eyes move up to the ceiling and he scratches his head. "There was a scripture I read right after I found out I had cancer, and it's in Surah, Chapter 29 of the Quran. And it says, 'Does not man think that he was placed on this earth merely to be tested? No. I've tested him a fourth time and I've tested him now, to see who is the true among the false.'"
His expression lightens. "So I said, 'If I'm a true Muslim, then I'm going to come through this with flying colors.'"
The family stretches their limbs, rises from their seats and prepares for their prayer at sunset. Billaal runs to the empty room in front of the house, stands in front of the microphone, places both hands on the sides of his head and begins singing in perfect Arabic. His young voice is flawless, and it echoes throughout the house. Noran and Kamila cover their hair with white scarves, and stand behind Billaal as he finishes his prayer. Sykes enters the room, stands next to his son and takes over the prayer. The family falls to their knees for seven minutes, rocking back and forth several times.
When the prayer is finished, Billaal runs over to Kamila, who is lying on the floor resting. He crouches down next to her, wraps his tiny arms around her waist and hugs her. They lie silently together with their eyes closed, as their parents continue to pray quietly to themselves a few feet in front of them.
The kids get up and run into the kitchen, excited to talk about lighter things and to eat dinner, fettuccine Alfredo. The hustle and bustle of the household returns, and the kids laugh and talk together.
Standing with his arm around his wife, Sykes watches his children without saying a word. A tired smile spreads across his lips, and he seems at peace.