Local Time

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Woman who lost 8 relatives on 9/11 embraces Islam

By Sherri Day – DAWN

An American woman who lost eight relatives in the 9/11 attacks has embraced Islam. Elizabeth, now Safia Al Kasaby, 43, lives in Tampa, Florida. She is a former sergeant first class of the US Air Force National Guard. She lost one uncle and seven cousins in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Her grandfather was a Jew and her grandmother was Catholic.

Safia said that in 1997, nearly destitute, she approached a synagogue in North Tampa for help. Officials at the shul wanted to know if she was a member. She was not. They asked her if she was really Jewish. She became disillusioned and for eight years she did not participate in organised religion.

She found Islam in 2005 on the third day of a Moroccan vacation. At first, Safia’s family didn’t take her seriously and some colleagues at her banking job made fun of her new attire. She dared not pray at work. Mostly, Safia kept her new faith at home, learning about her religion on web sites and Islamic chat rooms.

After a meeting with an imam at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area in June, Safia felt more at ease with her new faith. But some in her family are reluctant to accept her new faith. Her eldest daughter, Sylvia, wants little to do with her. A Baptist and young military widow, Sylvia berated Safia when she showed up at her husband’s funeral wearing a Hijab.

At home, Safia raises two daughters. Ten-year-old Natalia says her mother’s religion is cool. Ada, 18, appreciates Safia’s transformation and doesn’t put up with people who make fun of Islam or stereotype Muslims. “I say, ‘Wait a minute. My mom’s a Muslim,’” Ada said. “She’s not a terrorist.” Safia says she looks forward to the day when her religion is not an issue.

Like other Muslims, Safia feels the tension all around her: curious stares because she wears the Hijab or head scarf and store clerks who ask for extra identification. Just last month, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo turned down an initial request from Safia's Egyptian fiancé for a temporary visa. Safia was certain bigotry played a role. Her new faith also has widened the chasm among her Christian family. Her mother, three sisters and one of her daughters question her choice. Safia presses on.

Some demographers consider Islam to be the fastest-growing religion in the world. Of the 1.3-billion Muslims worldwide, 4.7-million live in the United States, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. One of the world's oldest religions, Islam has been in the United States for generations. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, thrust the religion and its adherents into the spotlight. Before the attacks, American Muslims largely kept to themselves. Now, many feel the public expects them to answer for the actions of those who commit heinous acts in the name of their faith.

Across the country, some Muslims complain of stereotyping, racial profiling and discrimination. Others pine for the days when Islam was rarely mentioned in headlines. Most dare not complain openly, religious and civic leaders say, for fear of being labelled unpatriotic or sympathetic to extremists.

Opinion polls back up what American Muslims say they feel every day: Masses of the U.S. populace view them negatively. In a USA Today/Gallup poll released in August, 39 percent of Americans said they feel prejudiced toward Muslims. Nearly one quarter of Americans polled said they would not want a Muslim as a neighbour. Another 39 percent want Muslims to carry special identification at all times and undergo enhanced security checks when boarding airplanes.

Safia hopes the world will see her as an example of what Islam really is. Still early in her conversion, she is a Muslima in transition. She studies the Koran and prays five times a day. She also wears makeup and has French-manicured acrylic nails. Sometimes she covers and sometimes - when she fears heckling or worse - she does not. She looks forward to the day when her religion is not an issue. "I don't want to have whispers behind me, whispers in front of me," she said. "I want to be able to blend in, keep my faith and blend in."

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