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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Local Muslims met with support and distrust after 9/11

    Nisreen Joudeh, right, of Groton, talks about the Muslim religion and discrimination while Tahreer Mansour, left, and her daughter, Esraa, 5, listen after a prayer meeting at the Islamic Center of New London Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

    Badr Malik had been living in Old Lyme for about eight years when the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a third plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

    The world changed for the nuclear engineer at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station, who had immigrated to the United States at age 19 from Pakistan to study at Buffalo University. Malik was troubled by the backlash against longtime local residents, who suddenly drew suspicious eyes from friends and co-workers.

    [naviga:img class="img-responsive" alt="9/11 We Remember" src="/Assets/news2019/911weremember.jpg"/]

    Click here for more stories in our 9/11 We Remember series.

    On June 17, 2004, a Norwich man and Pakistani immigrant, Sahibzada Ali, 26, was killed as he worked as a clerk at a gas station on Route 2 in Preston. Police could not determine if it was a robbery gone bad or a targeted hate crime.

    It was the last straw for Malik, who wanted the homicide investigated as a possible hate crime. He contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, and asked how he could start a Connecticut chapter to help educate residents, government leaders and business owners about the Muslim faith, culture and experiences.

    When Ali was shot and killed, Malik recalled, “the whole Muslim community was very afraid. We couldn’t prove it was a hate crime. It was listed as a robbery. That incident was the origination of CAIR-CT.”

    Police didn't make an arrest in Ali’s murder, and it is now among the region’s cold cases.

    Many of the region's Muslims have lived here for decades, raised families and educated their children in local schools. They say they continue to pray for peace and understanding.

    Like all Americans on 9/11, the Muslim men and women interviewed by The Day in recent weeks said they were scared, angry and profoundly saddened.

    “On Sept. 11, I cried,” said Nisreen Joudeh of Groton, who was living in New York City at the time. “I cried a lot. A lot of Muslims died that day too.”

    Joudeh, a Palestinian immigrant, said Muslim women in New York were afraid to stand out in public. Many stopped wearing their hijab head scarves or swapped them for western-style small hats, as she did.

    Malik said he founded CAIR-CT to improve relations. But he said it cost him. He had been a nuclear engineer at Millstone since 1994, when Northeast Utilities owned the power station. In 2005, a year after he founded CAIR-CT, he said his superiors at Dominion Energy, which took over Millstone in April 2001, told Malik some company officials “did not feel comfortable” with him working there.

    Supervisors questioned him about possible affiliation with “terrorist organizations” and asked him to leave. Malik said he never filed a complaint, because Dominion officials assured him they would not “blacklist" his name, if he left quietly. Malik continued to work as a senior nuclear engineer for various contractors and worked to design nuclear plants in the United States and China.

    Twice after trips to Canada, he said, he was stopped for hours returning home, as U.S. authorities questioned his ties to Muslim organizations.

    But at home in Old Lyme, Malik, now 65 and retired, said he and his wife, Sajda Malik, a pediatric physician, daughter, Rabia Malik, an emergency room physician at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and daughter, Madiha Malik, an attorney for the firm Murtha Cullina, never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. It was  government officials and employers who had cast suspicion, he said.

    “I think all the Muslims in America suffered a lot,” Malik said. “Our kids suffered a lot. And we had nothing to do with that. We just wanted to live our lives. I just feel we were targeted for no good reason.”

    Saeed Shaikh, 72, of North Stonington said he worked at Electric Boat in Groton for 36 years until he retired as a principal engineer a year ago.

    “It did impact me as a Muslim,” he said of 9/11. “Because the very people who are my friends, they started looking at me funny.”

    About 18 months after 9/11, Shaikh’s manager told him EB had received a call from Washington instructing him to seize Shaikh’s computer and equipment with no explanation. Shaikh's secretary and colleagues were questioned.

    “It was a Friday,” he recalled. “My weekend was miserable. On Monday, my manager came to me and said it was all a mistake. But those kinds of things happened.”

    Community support

    Prior to 9/11, Muslim communities in the United States traditionally had kept a low profile, remaining within their communities, said Tark Aouadi, former executive director of CAIR-CT. After the terrorist attacks, Muslim leaders and residents realized they needed to talk to neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens on what their religion and traditions represented.

    “It invigorated us to reach out to our local mosques and churches and synagogues,” he said, “and there were a number of events.”

    At the same time, the Islamic Center of New London was in the process of purchasing the vacant church at 16 Fort St., Groton. Leaders were nervous they would not be welcomed, said Mahmoud Mansour, the imam, or leader of prayers, at the mosque. But the community was supportive and even offered to help protect members, he said.

    The biggest complaint, he said, was about traffic and parking.

    Islamic Center members love that the mosque at the corner of Fort and Thames streets has been a house of worship for many faiths. It had been a Christian church, a synagogue and now is a mosque. The Islamic Center had been leasing space in New London prior to the move at the end of 2001.

    After 9/11, the Islamic Center held an open house in New London and a public forum at The Garde Arts Center. Later, they held an open house at the new mosque in Groton. To everyone’s surprise, the public flocked to the events.

    “At the first open house, we thought we would be lucky to get 20 people,” Shaikh said. “We had 300 people. The same for the event at the Garde, about 300 people came. We realized there is a hunger in the community to learn what’s right and what’s not about Islam.”

    'We are very grateful'

    At home in North Stonington, Shaikh said he went to his children’s elementary school and spoke to students for four hours about the Muslim faith and traditions. Muslims also spoke at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton.

    Shaikh said his family never felt uncomfortable in rural North Stonington. His wife, Mumtaz, worked at Pfizer, Inc. Their son is studying to become a physician, and their daughter is studying medicine at Connecticut College.

    “I have enjoyed my life in Connecticut,” Shaikh said. “Connecticut is by and large, particularly this part of the state, very good. We are very grateful.”

    Zuhoor Awawdeh of Norwich and her husband Mohammed, have twin girls almost 8 years old and twin boys, almost 5. The couple moved to Norwich from Jordan in 2010. Zuhoor Awawdeh said people have been friendly, welcoming, and she often gets compliments such as, “I love your scarf.”

    She said four years ago, a woman at her dentist office hugged her and said, “I can’t believe what people say about you,” referring to negative comments about Muslims.

    Zuhoor Awawdeh said when her daughter started wearing a hijab in middle school, the girl was nervous. But classmates, teachers and school leaders were fine, she said. “They’re really nice.”

    But a few weeks ago, the Awawdeh family spent a day at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Mass. As they walked by, someone whispered “terrorists,” she said.

    “I don’t care,” Zuhoor Awawdeh said. “I’m not.”

    Eman Mansour of Groton, wife of Imam Mahmoud Mansour, said when their daughter was in middle school in Groton several years ago, a teacher told the class if they see a Muslim in a store, call police. Eman said her daughter stood up and said she was a Muslim, and she and her family were not terrorists. Her father called the principal, and the teacher apologized and admitted he did not know about Muslims, Eman Mansour said.

    “I’m proud of her,” Eman Mansour said. “She stood up for herself.”

    When describing their religion, Muslims emphasize that the main message is peace. A common greeting is: “Peace be upon you,” Zuhoor Awawdeh said.

    Members of the Islamic Center of New London have an English translation of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, and leaders point out that the Quran has an entire chapter on Jesus and confirms that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and was one of the greatest of God's messengers, but as a prophet, rather than God's son.

    Muslims believe God gave his word, the Quoran, to the Prophet Mohammed, and it is the direct word of God.

    The preface in the English Quran defines Islam as an Arabic word meaning “peace acquired by submitting one’s will to Allah.”

    The preface also states that Islam believes in “all of the earlier prophets,” including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Jesus.

    'Not everybody is the same'

    On Friday afternoons and evenings, local Muslims attend prayer services at the Islamic Center. They face east toward Mecca and chant prayers from the Quran either in groups or individually.

    Islamic Center members represent about 18 different countries and ethnic backgrounds, Shaikh said.

    Halim Jones, 46, of North Stonington grew up in an African American Pentecostal family. As a teenager, he had a strong faith in God but questioned some aspects of Chistianity. He embarked on a deep study of other religions, and at age 18, converted to Islam.

    Jones joined the Navy, the third generation of military service in his family. A communications watch officer, Jones was stationed in Naples, Italy on 9/11. He said the base immediately locked down. Many Muslim immigrants in Italy “were treated badly,” Jones said. Muslims tried to explain their religion to Italians.

    “We knew that they had hijacked the religion for personal and political goals,” Jones said. “We know this is not our religion. No credible cleric ever teaches this.”

    Joudeh and Eman Mansour said they get upset when they see news on TV about “Muslim terrorists,” or statements that a shooter in an incident is Muslim. But non-Muslim shooters are not labeled by their religions, the women said.

    “It’s crazy people,” Mansour said of the perpetrators of mass shootings.

    “Not everybody is the same,” Joudeh added.


    Eman Mansour, center, of Groton, talks about the Muslim religion and discrimination while Zuhoor Awawdeh, left, of Norwich, and her daughter, Mariam Awawdeh, 7, right, listen after a prayer meeting at the Islamic Center of New London Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Mohammad Malik, of Old Lyme, outside the Islamic Center of New London Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Saeed Shaikh, of North Stonington, talks about his experiences after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while outside the Islamic Center of New London Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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