Other communities could take a lesson from Youngstown, a professor says.
By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, Fatima Alhashem walked into a local Pizza Hut restaurant and everyone stared.
"They all stopped eating and just looked at me," the 22-year-old Youngstown State University student said. "That really affected me."
A Kuwaiti Muslim, Alhashem is easily identified by her traditional dress, a long-sleeved, loose-fitting floor-length dress and head covering. All that is exposed are her hands and face.
Another time a passer-by spit at her while she was driving.
"I didn't do it. I'm not a terrorist. Why do they blame me?" she said, the pitch of her voice rising.
Alhashem is at YSU on a scholarship and eagerly awaits graduation with a degree in education. "I'm going back home to Kuwait. I'm not going to live here," she stated.
Since she arrived in America a year and a half ago with her husband, an engineering student, and their infant daughter, the Kuwaiti government has tightened regulations for students wishing to study in the United States, Alhashem said.
Students she knows have been delayed at least four months because of more complicated paperwork and background checks.
Not all Muslims in the area have had the negative experiences Alhashem has suffered.
"I don't feel any discrimination or prejudice," said Wajiha Ghauri, 19, of Boardman.
Ghauri moved to the United States from Pakistan two years ago and is a freshman at YSU. She graduated from Liberty High School.
Ghauri said that in the weeks after the terror attacks, her high school teachers and classmates were especially considerate of her feelings.
"They were friendlier toward me and asked how I was doing, if everything was OK," she said. It also provided Ghauri an opportunity to clarify things about her religion that her classmates and teachers didn't understand.
Because Ghauri does not dress in traditional shalwar-chemise -- like most college students, she wears jeans and T-shirts -- she is not as easily identified as a Muslim as is Alhashem.
"The community here has been exceptionally supportive. I'm not aware of any untold incidents," said Mustansir Mir, professor of Islamic Studies at YSU. "Everywhere I've gone everyone has been very understanding. I didn't see any signs of hostility."
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Mir has spoken at many area churches and community organizations, and granted numerous interviews to help dispel myths about Islam.
"Of course," Mir added, "Youngstown may not be representative of the entire country. I am sure some people may have suffered discrimination. But with the passage of time, the people of America have shown understanding."
Effort to understand
They've also demonstrated an eagerness to understand Islam, Mir said. The demand for copies of the Koran and books that explain the religion have skyrocketed.
More college courses exploring Islam and Islamic issues are offered at universities across the country, and enrollment in these classes has grown. So the interest is continuing, Mir said.
This is especially true of better-educated people, he observed.
"In the long run Americans have shown more understanding than what would be expected in other countries. I have had no negative experience," Mir said. "People ought to say nice things about Youngstown. ... Other communities could take a lesson from Youngstown."
"Society here in general is very fair," agrees Shokat Fatteh, a Youngstown pathologist. "People treat me as I am and not according to my religion."
Despite the devastation of the terror attacks last year, Fatteh said some good has come as a result: The general population, eager to learn about Islam, has developed a better understanding of the religion.
"Islam means peace," Fatteh said. Before the terror attacks, educated people knew that. Today, many others know it too, he said.
Learned of diversity
The general public has also become more aware of how diverse Islam is, said Nafees Ahmed of Warren. She emigrated from Pakistan to the United States in 1973.
Because Muslims live throughout the world, "we don't all look alike," Ahmed said. "I think that was quite an eye-opener for some people."
Ahmed, who dresses modestly but does not cover her head outside of the mosque, said she is often mistaken for an Indian.
Among the six women gathered in the mosque on a Friday afternoon to discuss the status of the Islamic community in Youngstown, one was born in Uganda, three in Pakistan, one in India, and one in the United States.
All of the women have lived in the United States at least 10 years and none has experienced discrimination as the result of the terror attacks.
Friends and neighbors "know us one-on-one and know what kind of people we are." Ahmed said that, if anything, they were more concerned and protective.
Zainab Dinani, of Liberty, agrees.
Zainab said neither she nor her husband or children have suffered any discrimination.
On the contrary, she said, "People have been sympathetic and concerned. Last week someone came up to me and asked: 'Are you and your family OK?' People haven't just forgotten."
Her son, Ali, a freshman at YSU, said he and his two roommates -- one a Christian, one a Hindu -- were discussing Islam just a few nights ago. The terror attacks, he said, have opened the door for such discussions. Coming from a high school environment he describes as "very diverse," Ali said he has never been the target of hatred because of his religion: In high school he was readily accepted; in college, classmates are eager to learn about his religion.
Ali's father, Dilu, owns the Best Western motel in Warren and another in Akron. Although business is down, he said travelers are not boycotting his properties because they are Muslim-owned.
"The hospitality business is slow because the general economy is down," he said. "There is less corporate travel, less business and leisure travel. Businesses are using teleconferencing rather than sending employees to meetings," Dilu said.
Fewer people are traveling for pleasure because they are afraid of what is in store for the U.S. economy. Because the economy of the Mahoning Valley is slower than some other communities, the pinch here is a little tighter; business at Dilu's Warren hotel is slower than at his hotel in Akron.