Baltimore Muslims Share A Sense of Community

November 19, 2000

Source: The Baltimore Sun

On November 19, 2000, The Baltimore Sun reported that "Maryland's Muslims used to have few places to worship outside Baltimore or Washington. Over the past 15 years, however, as more Muslim families have settled across the state, mosques have sprung up in places such as Gaithersburg, Prince Frederick and La Plata. In church-dotted countrysides, where suburbia has arrived but rural ways endure, many Muslims say they have found themselves more at home than they anticipated. They are often very successful, active in their communities, schools and workplaces. But they also struggle with an isolation that can come with preserving and practicing the strict discipline of Islam - a religion that forbids dating, encourages modest dress and requires prayer five times a day. 'Our parents told us right from the start, 'You're different,' says Ayesha Shaheer, 18, who grew up in Charles County's tiny Hughesville. Drawn by high-tech and medical job opportunities, increasing numbers of young Muslim professionals appear to be migrating to Maryland, both from overseas and from other states. Others are second-generation American Muslims whose parents arrived from Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere after 1965 changes in immigration law. Still others are converts to Islam, believed to be the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Exactly how many live in Maryland is unclear because the state does not keep track of religious affiliations. But based on the overflow crowds at mosques new and old, Muslim leaders believe Maryland might now have at least 15,000 families who follow the Islamic faith...Perhaps most noticeable is the increasing presence of Muslims in the state's smaller towns and outer counties. In Annapolis, the faithful pray in a shopping center, and in Germantown, at the community college. In Frederick County, Muslim families tired of commuting half an hour to a mosque in Hagerstown have been waging a bitter land battle to build their own. Plans for the Frederick mosque - which depend on water and sewer service that was denied last summer - provoked an emotional debate over diversity, development and religious tolerance in Western Maryland. But Muslims have encountered nothing similar in the southern parts of the state. Several prominent Pakistani and Iraqi doctors, using money given by Saddam Hussein, built a large white mosque with a traditional minaret in Prince Frederick without opposition in 1983. When Hammad's father, Shaikh Matin, converted the split-level structure in La Plata into a mosque in 1994, residents and the mayor voiced their support. The neighbors even offered to keep a spare key. 'This community is small. It's religious,' says the elder Matin, a Pakistani mechanical engineer who taught at the U.S. Naval Academy before settling with his wife in Charles County. 'People are very accepting of our religion.' Southern Maryland's Muslim population has grown steadily since the Matins arrived in the early 1970s to as many as 150 families today. It's an ethnically and economically diverse community. There are Pakistani and Middle Eastern immigrants, African-American converts, business owners and welders, computer engineers who work in Washington. Many are engineers and doctors who graduated from prestigious American universities. Every so often, particularly during strife-ridden times such as the recent Palestinian uprising in Israel, they encounter stereotypes - or an odd question or two. During the Persian Gulf war, the sheriff's office searched the Prince Frederick mosque. Dr. Emad R. Al-Banna, who has a clinic next door, says a man knocked and said, 'I don't know how to say this, Doc, but they want to know what's inside.' I said, 'Here's the key. You won't find any bazookas. This is a house of God.' Such moments are memorable because they seldom occur, according to longtime Muslim residents. Newcomers agree. Says 29-year-old Salwa Tagouri, a Libyan who grew up in Northern Virginia and moved recently to La Plata with her husband, a pathologist: 'I've never felt like an outsider here.'...Local schools, both public and Catholic, have excused children for holy days and accommodated other religious requests. Muslim women who wear head scarves - increasingly popular as a fashion among younger generations - say they rarely get stares. Still, even though they now have a mosque in Calvert County and another one in neighboring Charles, Muslims remain a tiny minority in Southern Maryland. They live a considerable distance, 40 miles or farther, from the nearest large Muslim communities in Northern Virginia and Washington. Muslim families say that often strengthens their commitment - but can make the demands of their faith and traditions more difficult...Children learn early the differences in skin color and religion. They often come home from school with questions: Why don't we eat pork? Why don't we celebrate Christmas?...Nearly a quarter of a century later, while once-rural Charles County has been transformed by subdivisions and strip malls, Muslim childhood experiences are much the same. Six-year-old Noor Tagouri has only one other Muslim schoolmate - her cousin. Before Christmas last year, her mother asked the school to let her put up 'Happy Ead' decorations, a Muslim celebration that falls around the same time...Muslim children often struggle the most with navigating two cultures - reconciling their Muslim upbringing with their American school experiences - during the awkwardness of adolescence. When they reach puberty, they are expected to begin their daily prayer regimen and to fast during Ramadan, the month of spiritual renewal. Not all teen girls wear scarves, but they do have to put on sweatpants in gym class - or a longer school uniform skirt - to show the modesty expected of women. And high school boys and girls have to look for empty classrooms if they can't make it home for midday prayers...The hardest part, she and her brother agree, is not being allowed to date. Marriage is traditionally arranged by families. That means missing out on a high school rite of passage: the prom. Moreover, if they don't belong to a large mosque, young Muslims have fewer opportunities for an accepted social life. Even though Hammad Matin was popular in high school, he felt lonely at times. But when he went to the University of Maryland, College Park, he 'met hundreds of Muslims' and became active in the student association. 'It was a wonderful experience for me. I found that network I was looking for.'Last summer, after graduating from Virginia's Washington and Lee Law School, Hammad Matin returned home to La Plata. He went to the mosque his father had since opened - and saw new faces. Now, as he learns to become a lawyer, he dreams of doing 'something in public service, to give something back to the community.' If all goes well, he says, this is where he intends to stay."