This story also appeared on The Dallas Morning News.
911 reshaped lives of Dallas-Fort Worth Muslims
Dianne Solis, The Dallas Morning News, September 20, 2011
For Rais Bhuiyan, a shooting victim turned peace activist, the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to forgiveness — and a mission.
For Imam Zia ul Haque Sheikh, it meant serving as a liaison between Muslims and law enforcement.
And for Nia MacKay, discrimination and hate led her to champion religious tolerance. Here are the stories of three North Texas Muslims whose lives were reshaped by the events of 9/11:
Rais Bhuiyan was in London at an Islamic cultural center this summer when a fellow believer became irritated with his message of forgiveness.
After all, nearly a decade ago, a white supremacist, believing Bhuiyan was Arab, had tried to kill the Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh in revenge for 9/11. “Why can you forgive and the U.S. cannot forgive?” the man yelled. Perhaps the U.S. government “brainwashed” Bhuiyan, the man said.
So began yet another delicate dance for Bhuiyan, 37, who believes the world must find a means other than violence to end conflicts.
He seeks his own healing from the shooting on Sept. 21, 2001, at the Dallas convenience store where he worked. Muslim Americans grieved with the rest of the nation when planes became bombs. But soon they realized they needed to watch their own backs.
He was one of the first to learn the lesson. Ten days after the attacks, Mark Stroman launched a vigilante spree, killing two immigrants and wounding Bhuiyan, who nearly lost his right eye.
Trauma and fear imprisoned him. He would see a white man with tattoos and relive the shooting. Eventually, his physical wounds healed.
Now, his story of forgiveness seems biblical. No, Bhuiyan said, it’s Koranic: Islam’s Quran teaches forgiveness. “God gave me a chance to do something more,” he said. “I’m attached to this disaster, too. I’m a survivor of a hate crime.”
And so the humble clerk became a global spokesman against hate crimes. Late last year, he met Rick Halperin, the head of a human rights program at Southern Methodist University, and Dallas peace activist Hadi Jawad. Soon Bhuiyan took his message to London and other European and U.S. venues.
His first mission: Save his attacker, who had a July 20 execution date.
From prison, Stroman penned a poem with the lines: “Premeditated hate, I await my fate.”
It didn’t matter to Bhuiyan. He wanted Stroman’s death sentence reduced to life in prison.
As his advocacy grew, the compactly built Bhuiyan dropped nearly 20 pounds.
In Texas, Stroman waited on death row while legal maneuvers were attempted days before the execution.
Somehow, he talked with Stroman by cellphone, telling him, “Mark … I never hated you.”
Four hours later, Stroman was dead. The next day, Bhuiyan went to give his condolences to Stroman’s 25-year-old daughter. “This entire family is devastated,” he said. “They also deserve help.”
Today, he works as a technology manager for a large travel company. There are more speaking invitations and a Facebook page filling with admiring comments, especially from Muslims. Despite the failure of the Stroman reprieve, Bhuiyan’s message remains the same.
“Killing is not the answer,” he said. “If you take revenge, you are increasing the cycle of violence.”
He calls the day he became a U.S. citizen last November one of the happiest. “I never hated America for what happened to me,” he said
Halperin remains impressed with his friend’s optimism. “If anyone has the right to be bitter or cynical or sour on the American dream, it would be someone like him,” he said. “He’s just the opposite.”
Imam Zia ul Haque Sheikh
In Irving, Imam Zia ul Haque Sheikh greets his guests with “peace to all of you” and explains that compassion for the poor can be achieved by experiencing hunger through fasting. It’s Ramadan, the annual holy month for Muslims worldwide.
Non-Muslim guests enjoy the ritual breaking of this night’s dawn-to-dusk fast by munching sweet dates.
Within minutes, the full brunt of the last decade’s conflicts and fears becomes apparent as the imam with the precise English accent introduces a special guest. It’s FBI agent Tom Petrowski, the head of an anti-terrorism task force in North Texas.
“Having a dialogue, having communication, having a relationship to identify problem people,” Petrowski told the crowd, can avert trouble with “tragic misfits” with “perverted justification.” Those who’ve assisted the FBI are “unsung heroes.”
Serving as a cultural interpreter, as a bridge-builder for U.S. law enforcement, isn’t part of any job description this 42-year-old imam ever foresaw. But it’s a role he has accepted since Sept. 11, 2001.
His life is frequently a vigil to educate those outside the mosques that Islamic religion is rooted in peace.
He was born in Pakistan but grew up in England. At the time of the attacks, he was co-imam at a Tampa mosque. Within weeks, his Bangladeshi-born co-imam was arrested by immigration officials after he was being videotaped at various locations, including the Tampa port.
The imam wanted to prove to his Bangladeshi family that he was fine in the wake of terrorist attacks, he said.
Law enforcement was hyper-vigilant that ports might be attacked. The Bangladeshi imam eventually conceded to leaving the U.S. as immigration processes dragged on, Sheikh said.
Finding a defense attorney was arduous. “In the initial stages, anyone who represented people like that were deemed unpatriotic,” he said.
He said there were parallels between what happened to Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor bombing and what happened to some immigrant Muslims after the terrorist attacks.
“It was almost the same for us,” he said. “But instead of being camps, they put us in immigration prisons.”
Today, the imam of the Islamic Center for Irving is still taken to secondary screening when he goes through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
“Now, I am even a U.S. citizen,” he said.
Still, he has worked at establishing relationships with other clerics and with law enforcement. But whenever an episode of possible terrorism happens, the Islamic center’s voice mail fills with false accusations.
Sheikh speaks multiple languages, holds a doctorate in theology and has embraced technology with such geek-like energy that one Muslim calls him “Imam Techie.”
Some of his sermons, or khutbahs, are on YouTube. He has a Facebook page and his own website at www.imamzia.com.
When Osama bin Laden fell dead in Pakistan, hope rose for Nia MacKay.
Bin Laden damaged Muslims around the world with planes used as bombs in the name of a faith he twisted, said MacKay, 49, who is Muslim. “What he did is actually cause a lot of hate towards us,” she said. “He didn’t solve the problem. He made it worse.”
Only two months before the attack, MacKay had decided to use the hijab, the head scarf that’s a signal of a woman of Islamic faith. But within months after the attack her boss told the Indonesian-born microbiologist that she was “scaring” employees because she dressed “liked a terrorist.”
MacKay, a trim, lifelong athlete who loves soccer, ice-skating and volleyball, had a quick comeback.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. I am 5 feet 1, and I’m scaring big American guys.”
Soon, she was told she would only be used as a consultant from “time to time.” She quit.
Then, there was the time she was in a Starbucks and a woman handed her a note. It read: “We find hooded creatures like you undesirable. Go home.”
MacKay redoubled her activism, as did her U.S.-born husband, who is a Muslim convert. They appeared in the 2006 documentary titled American Ramadan, a look at various Dallas and Los Angeles families.
In 2009, she became president of Peacemakers Inc., a Texas nonprofit dedicated to building peace. And she has questioned mosque practices that separate genders in prayer rooms. That isn’t written in the Quran, she asserts.
MacKay wants to foster more tolerance of religion — of all kinds.
“In Indonesia, religion is part of the curriculum,” she said. “You learn all these other religions because as a human being you have to be tolerant.”
WHAT THEY SAY …
“We are not the ones who did it, and yet we pay for it. I hope we can get together and talk about it and get hatred out of us. That would be great.”
— Amarra Jangda, 18, Richardson, who moved to the U.S. in 2006 from Pakistan
“First off, the primary concern is the safety of the nation. … I know the FBI has a humongous, monumental task in deciphering who is who. We have bent over backward in being transparent with the FBI.”
—Mustafaa Carroll, Houston, of the Council on American Islamic Relations of Texas
“If the people are going to attack us, our answer will be love.”
— Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Geneva, Islamic scholar and guest speaker at a Richardson charity event for the Islamic Circle of North America
“It is time to do something to stop the tide of Islamaphobia.”
— Aftab Siddiqui, Arlington, leader in the Muslim Democratic Caucus of Texas