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Muslims in South Florida

Muslims in South Florida, Some find their religion can hinder assimilation, By Ruth Morris, August 19, 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

At 16, Salma Howeedy already has learned to handle suspicious stares. The Weston high school student has covered her head for a year and dons leggings and long sleeves, even when swimming-- a sign of her piety and Muslim faith.

If she feels people gawking, she tries to approach them politely and explain that she doesn't like to show a wisp of hair because, for her, that would be immodest.

"I feel my right as a woman is to be protected," Howeedy said. "By doing this I feel safe."

Muslims living in South Florida have long endured, even welcomed, curiosity about their religion -- a faith that runs counter to many mainstream indulgences.

But the curiosity has sometimes merged with distrust, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks by Islamic extremists. Since the recent news of an alleged bombing plot by suspects thought to be British Muslims, some of Pakistani descent, local Muslims again have wrestled with how to express religious devotion, without making non-Muslims uncomfortable.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day, while steering clear of pork, alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. They also avoid socializing with members of the opposite sex, and Muslim youth groups in South Florida usually hold separate events for men and women.

Now, many find themselves walking a line between the nation's security jitters and their religion's prescriptions. Some said they were less likely to pray at highway rest stops, mostly to avert suspicion, or to wear skullcaps to the supermarket.

"There are a lot of Muslims I know who don't keep beards. They don't even allow a 5 o'clock shadow to form, because they feel if you wear a beard that might make you look like a shady person," said Saif Ishoof, a Miami attorney.

Ishoof recently found himself the subject of an exhaustive luggage search when he returned from a business trip, just after British authorities arrested 24 suspects in the alleged bombing plot.

At one point, a customs official read through legal documents that Ishoof said were protected by client privilege.

"I'm a Republican. I'm very big on security," said Ishoof, a frequent business traveler. "But I don't see how these kinds of precautions help."

Not all Muslims think there is a conflict between their faith and fitting in.

Rashad Jillani, a Pakistani doctoral candidate in Boca Raton, said practicing Islam has never been a problem for him in the United States. He finds kosher meat at the market, butchered in accordance with Islamic precepts. He heads to an Islamic center for prayers and has found core Islamic values embedded in the culture here.

"I am seeing things here -- honesty, devotion to your profession, being clear in your dealings -- these are the kinds of things we don't have in our countries," he said of the Arab world. "And we find them here."

There are about 70,000 Muslims in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, up from about 45,000 in 2001, according to the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Since the Sept. 11 hijackings, the U.S. government has sought to build bridges to the U.S.-Muslim community, extending a hand to moderate Muslim leaders. Critics say these efforts, led by the FBI, are geared more toward gathering information than building trust.

Some Muslims have urged members of their community to volunteer, and get closer to non-Muslims.

"The environment has been unquestionably poisoned after 9-11, and I think Muslims are going to have to do some serious public relations," said Mohammad Shakir, director of the Asian-American Advisory Board in Miami-Dade County. Some have withdrawn into "a shell," growing more religious, he said.

Others have redoubled efforts to de-mystify their faith.

That's why Howeedy swept streets in Davie last weekend with a Muslim youth group. On Friday, she joined friends who took sandwiches to homeless people in downtown Miami.

"I remember what happened up in Pompano Beach," said Howeedy, referring to a July campaign by black leaders to block plans to move a mosque to their neighborhood.

"I remember watching a woman protest, saying that Muslims promote hate," she said. "You think that people are more knowledgeable. That kind of hurt."

Others seek harmony by avoiding awkward moments. Suhail Nanji, a Parkland financial advisor, doesn't drink alcohol, so when colleagues invite him to happy hour he talks shop over lemonade. He also tries to withdraw before women move in to give him a friendly peck on the cheek.

If he can't quite pull off this maneuver, he said, "I just let it go."

Ruth Morris can be reached at rmorris@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5012.

Copyright © 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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