Lanham resident Ahmad Azzaari recalls in 2002 driving to a nearby hospital to pray for the newborn baby of one of his fellow Prince George’s Muslim Association members, when a car with three young men stopped alongside him at a red light.
Azzaari, who at the time was wearing a twab and kufi — traditional muslim robe and hat — said the trio began cursing and yelling, “Go back to your country!”
Azzaari said such incidents were common in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also remembers a time when his wife and children were playing in their front yard, and motorists cursed them as they drove by. At the time, his wife was wearing a hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women.
But as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy approaches, Azzaari and other county Muslims said their treatment is slowly improving.
“The world is busy now with much more important stuff, like the economy,” said Azzaari, the imam at PGMA.
Springdale resident Hareesa Mohammed, 16, who is Muslim, said the not-so-subtle reminders of fear and ignorance are still present. Last year she was reminded that symbols of Islam, such as her hijab, still elicit angry feelings in some people.
“One time at school in art class, some girl came up to me and said, ‘Do you blow up stuff like they did on TV?’” Mohammed said. “And I said, ‘On the contrary. What you saw on TV isn’t everybody.’”
Ibrahim Hooper, communication director at the Center on American-Islamic Relations, said in addition to incidents similar to those described by Azzaari and Mohammed, there have been others involving arson and vandalism of mosques around the country.
“The trend that we’ve noticed over the last two years has been a tremendous rise in anti-Muslim sentiment ... all over the country. No one area exhibits more,” Hooper said.
While Hooper said anti-Muslim sentiment has been especially prevalent since 9/11, the watershed moment of the recent spike was the May 2010 announcement of plans to build Park51, a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, just blocks from ground zero, the site where two airplanes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center.
“That really led to the rise in anti-Muslim hate groups and the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim hate,” Hooper said. “Education and outreach is about the only thing we can do to show that Muslims are productive members of society.”
PGMA board member Taheeb Cocker of Laurel said the Lanham-based association has been proactive in engaging the surrounding community since 9/11 to help end negative misconceptions of the Muslim community.
“Our neighbors are very cooperative. We meet with them at least once every month and hear their concerns,” said Cocker, adding that most concerns are about the center’s overflowing parking lot during daily prayer time and less fears of terrorist activities.
“Just [recently] we, about 50 members, were invited to a Christian church. It was a dialogue to tell them what Islam is all about,” Cocker said.
Mike Gladish of Bowie, pastor of the Washington New Church in Bowie, held the July forum as part of his congregation’s year-old Faith and Works series, where congregation members share how they integrate their faith into their daily life.
Gladish and Azzaari took questions from two moderators and a crowd of about 100 people.
“Some church members did ask about extremism in Islam,” Gladish said. “But Imam Azzaari was careful to point out that those who commit acts of terror do so not based on religious teaching but on cultural interpretations, and I think his explanation went over well with the audience.”
Cocker said PGMA plans to hold similar forums in the future, in addition to its ongoing outreach efforts.
“Every three months we have a dawa, or an outreach program, to reach out to our non-Muslims neighbors,” he said.
Hyattsville resident Sakina Sheikh, 18, who is Muslim, said she has seen an overall improvement in the way people view Islam in the years following 9/11.
“People are more exposed to Islam, and some people I know even try to go and learn more about it,” Sheikh said.
She said she still expects some backlash in the form of hurtful words or stares, but she remains optimistic about the future of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
“I guess ignorant people will try to take advantage of this day to let out the hate in their heart,” Sheikh said. “But the hate and ignorance is being solved with knowledge now.”
Gladish said people in his congregation possess that knowledge and attribute the 9/11 attacks to extremism, not Islam.
“Islam is a word that means submission,” Gladish said. “That involves all the things that contribute to peace. Terrorism doesn’t fit with that.”