Augusta Muslims say they face suspicion

Heather Abdelnur's reaction to the deadly shooting at Fort Hood on Nov. 5 wasn't all that different from her reaction to Sept. 11.

The same fears flashed through her mind. "As soon as I heard about this thing, I thought: 'Please don't let it be a Muslim. Please don't let him have a Muslim-sounding name."

It was, and he did.

The suspected shooter, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, is an American-born Muslim. So is Mrs. Abdelnur, an assistant professor of history at Augusta State University.

"It was a letdown to find out a Muslim was involved," she said.

Muslim leaders were quick to condemn Maj. Hasan's actions, calling it "a black eye" upon Islam and its practitioners. Many said they feared retaliation; some increased security.

Retaliation against Muslims does occur -- Augusta's Imam has even taken to wearing a T-shirt and jeans out in public this week instead of his traditional tunic -- but Mrs. Abdelnur and others are quick to emphasize that experiences with discrimination vary widely among Muslims.

About three-quarters of American Muslims say they've never experienced discrimination, according to a survey of Muslim Americans released by the Pew Research Center in May 2007.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Islamic Society of Augusta, the largest mosque in the area, was vandalized with graffiti directed at Osama bin Laden.

What gets less media attention is how members of the community sent money and flowers to the mosque upon hearing the news, said Hossam Fadel, a member of the mosque.

Dr. Fadel retired this summer as an obstetrician.

He's lived in Augusta for 35 years, working first for the Medical College of Georgia and later in private practice.

On the wall of his office he had hung a certificate recognizing completion of a pilgrimage to Mecca.

"Patients asked, but never in a bad way. They're curious," said Dr. Fadel, who was born in Egypt, but immigrated to the United States in 1970. "I've lived here for more than half my life. My kids were raised here, but sometimes you sense that people think I'm not a part of this community."

Discrimination happens, but it's often subtle, Dr. Fadel said, and he counts himself fortunate.

"It happens but it's not an everyday occurrence and it doesn't affect every individual equally," he said. "I haven't had a problem, but that's because my job has given me a privileged position. People won't come to a physician they don't trust."

Once, a few years ago, Dr. Fadel said an associate cautioned employees to keep an eye out for suspicious-looking characters.

"Obviously, I am in the category of suspicious looking. I am not a white, Caucasian male and it's easy for people to make mistakes," he said. "You want to look at how people act. There is a difference in how I look and how I act. It is suspicious behavior people should be on watch for."

Mrs. Abdelnur's attire usually invites at least one question from a student every semester.

She's a Boston native who converted to Islam, later marrying a Muslim from Sudan.

"I'm a soccer mom in a hijab. People don't know what to make of it," she said. "We're a mixed race, multicultural family. When people stare, my husband and I turn to each other and ask, 'Is it because you're black, or because I'm wearing a scarf?' "

On occasion, Mrs. Abdelnur finds books about Christianity in her mailbox.

"Being Muslim, it makes me a pretty easy target for anonymous mail, but that's about as sinister as it gets," she said.

"I've got some girlfriends who stopped wearing their scarves after 9/11. The discrimination is different for people," she said. "It matters how long you've been in the country. It matters how much exposure a person has had to American culture."

"There's not even a good word for what Muslims face," she said. "Anti-Semitism describes the problem. The best we've got is Islamophobia, and it almost sounds like a joke."

In the Pew Research study, Muslims ranked discrimination as the most important problem facing people of their faith. "Being viewed as a terrorist" came in second, followed by "ignorance about Islam."

They're very real concerns, even years after Sept. 11, said Imam Majed al-Sobke of the Islamic Society of Augusta. He typically wears a dishdasha, a long robe for men, but after he picked up on traces of suspicion at a coffee shop this week, he's now wearing T-shirt and jeans for a while.

"People are skeptical. They're scared," he said. "I understand. We cannot give an excuse or an alibi for Maj. Hasan's' wrong actions, but it's not right for all of us to pay for them."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.