Muslims: Prayers amid questions of loyalty and faith

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SHAFAQNA - It is a season of joy for Muslims like Brenda Poydence-Sotomayor but along with prayers, her thoughts will be clouded by recent episodes of mistrust and anti-Islamic sentiment – from the presidential campaign trail to a 14-year-old Texas boy’s arrest after bringing a homemade clock to school….

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Poydence-Sotomayor, a Palm Bay grandmother and Muslim, of the aching moment she saw the picture of Ahmed Mohamed staring out at the camera with a puzzled looked, draped in a faded grey NASA shirt, wrists bound by handcuffs. The young Muslim student was later exonerated and even received an invitation to the White House from President Obama as questions of his treatment were raised.

“This was a child…a child. They were looking at him as a Muslim adult. He was judged before he was even proven innocent. And there was no one there who could tell him it would be alright,” said Poydence-Sotomayor, a one-time Catholic who converted to Islam more than two decades ago in New York.

For Poydence-Sotomayor, Ahmed’s arrest, coupled with remarks from Republican presidential contender Dr. Ben Carson – who said in an interview that he could not support a Muslim as president of the U.S. – and the failure of candidate Donald Trump to correct an audience member’s anti-Islamic rhetoric at a recent political rally, seemed to feed into lingering biases about Muslims and their loyalty as Americans.

“It’s completely unfair. We’re not wicked or evil. Being religious doesn’t mean I would turn my back on my country. Where is it written that you can’t be a Muslim and president. I say choose someone who will do the job,” she said.

The incidents come as the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, the holiday that commemorates the Patriarch Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, according to the Quran. It also marks a time of community that in some mosques can bring together people from across the globe in a time of unity and prayer. More than 800 Muslims from around Central Florida are expected to attend worship services Thursday at the Melbourne Auditorium, organizers say.

“It will be a message of peace to the human society,” said Dr. Muzaffar Shaikh, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Brevard Mosque in south Melbourne. There will be families, food, games and those sharing the ancient faith from more than a dozen countries.

“We want to send a message of tolerance. We want people to understand that we are normal like anyone else. We are not any different…we practice our faith, we have businesses, we are doctors, we all contribute to American society,” Shaikh said.

Generations of Muslims have lived in the U.S. since the turn of the 20th Century, settling in states as far flung as Michigan, New York and California. Today there are over 2,100 mosques dotting the American landscape and at least four in Brevard County, with the sounds of the muezzin – a person announcing the start of worship service – echoing the call to prayer in a growing number of communities nationwide, according to a University of Kentucky study on American mosques.

South Brevard, with its high tech companies, affordable housing and Florida Tech’s international outreach, is a selling point for a growing number of Muslims. A survey conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies shows that there are an estimated 4,100 Muslims living on the Space Coast.

Shaikh added that Ahmed’s arrest and the comments from Carson, show that Muslims continue to remain under the spotlight in a post-Sept. 11 America. Several Muslim organizations have already called for Carson to drop out of the presidential race.

A Pew Research study of Muslim Americans also shows that 28 percent say that people have acted suspicious of them with another 22 percent saying they have been subjected to offensive names. “Those with a dislike for Muslims, it looks like, will continue to be strong in their rhetoric and that points to a lack of knowledge about who we are,” Shaikh said.

That rhetoric resurfaced when Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and African-American, made comments over the weekend that he did not see Islam as compatible with the U.S. Constitution and said that a Muslim should not be president of the U.S. The reason; Carson’s belief that Muslims would rather be loyal to Quranic-inspired law.

Stung by the backlash of criticism involving the comments, Carson backtracked somewhat Tuesday by saying he would support a Muslim who pledged loyalty to the Constitution rather than Islamic law. Trump, a billionaire and reality star businessman, seemingly ignored a questioner’s contention at a campaign event Friday  that President Obama was a Muslim and that Muslims represented a “problem in this country.” Obama, whose father was a Muslim, has repeated that he is a Christian.

Theresa ElGamil, a former Presbyterian and white American who became Muslim 24 years ago, said a lot of the anti-Islamic sentiment often comes from people looking at the cultural aspects of Islam’s followers – such as those from the Middle East - rather than the aspects of the faith itself. She also said that people should truly focus on each other’s humanity rather than attempting to categorize them by religion.

“I think it’s narrow minded. Who’s to say there won’t be a Muslim president? There are a lot of Muslims who are judges, doctors, so many people who have come to this country, who work hard to bring about an open mind,” the Palm Bay mother of six said, adding that she didn’t believe that Trump or Carson represented the majority of Americans. “I would tell people that if you have a question ask, get to know me, then you’ll find out that I’m just like most everyone else. I’m fearful of my creator,” said ElGamil, adding that she has even been stopped in the supermarket with questions from people about Islam.

“I try to do what’s right in this world, I have kids, I like to go to the beach. I’m just like you.”

 

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