It was a white-hot e-mail, still echoing with thunderous keystrokes: "Go back to your beautiful land of sand and pig dirt, and take your HATE with you!"
City-based IslamiCity.com, a popular Islamic Web site, was an easy target
after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Mohammed Abdul Aleem, the site's
chief executive, thought the insults had more to do with ignorance than
anger, so he replied with a short compilation of Islamic
The next day, the writer's
anger had turned to shame: "I want to apologize for the hate mail I sent
you the other day. I was upset by all the things that happened. My
brother, who works in the armed forces, lost several of his friends at the
Pentagon. . . . I appreciate your calm and informative response . . . and
as a result have since then come to my senses." Reports of ethnic
profiling and sporadic attacks on perceived Middle Easterners persist, but
Muslims in Southern California say they have been astounded by more
numerous reports of restraint and kindness. They see it in the woman who
brings roses to her Persian American colleague. They hear it in the
reassurance of the auto mechanic who tells his Pakistani customer, "It's
OK" to be named Mohammed.
The explosive rage that initially seized
many Americans seems to have become less focused on Islam and the Middle
East in general and more focused on Osama bin Laden and terrorists in
Many Americans also are investigating, some for the
first time, one of the world's great faiths and oldest civilizations.
Bookstores are selling out of copies of the Koran. University classes and
teach-ins on the Middle East and Islam are filled to capacity. Middle East
scholars are being invited on television news shows repeatedly and being
spotted on the street like celebrities. And many everyday Middle
Easterners--Muslim or not--are fielding a daily barrage of questions about
Islam from neighbors, co-workers and strangers.
"They don't ask in
a rude way," said Mitra Mikaili, a Persian American who is a member of the
Baha'i faith, a persecuted minority in Iran. "They say, 'You are from that
part of the world. What is your insight about this?' They ask about the
Muslim religion and the way they do things."
Other local Middle
Easterners are reporting more visceral expressions of support. On a
call-in show on Radio Iran, KIRN-AM (670), one caller said her Wilshire
Boulevard doorman had even gotten into the act.
"Since the attack,
he hugs me every time I come home," she said.
psychologist, Nehzat Farnoody, said one of her colleagues gave her flowers
and said, "Nothing has changed."
Such displays of compassion come
as a shock to many Muslims and Middle Easterners, who braced for a
widespread backlash after Sept. 11 and are still keeping an eye out for
scattered incidents of discrimination.
Some Muslims in Southern
California say that public shows of support from political leaders, such
as President Bush reading peaceful passages from the Koran, set the tone
for the rest of the country.
"We are overwhelmed," said Mahmoud
Abdel-Baset, religious director of the Islamic Center of Southern
California. Since the attacks, the Los Angeles-based center has hosted a
steady stream of dignitaries, including Gov. Gray Davis, Los Angeles
County Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.
also was the quiet Christian man with anger in his heart for Islam.
Abdel-Baset was locking up the center's mosque when the man came in and
wandered around for a moment.
"He said he had lost a friend in the
World Trade Center attacks," Abdel-Baset said. "He told me, 'I want to
come face to face with a real Muslim person. I want to overcome my anger
toward Muslims and separate it from the people who committed
"It was the first time he had been in a mosque, but I didn't
lecture him on anything, nor did he ask questions. He just wanted to see a
real-life Muslim and talk to him. He cried on my shoulder. I cried
Sarah Eltantawi, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs
Council of Southern California, said her organization has been deluged
with requests for speakers and literature.
"I am a cynical person,"
she said. "But I am heartened by the earnestness and sincerity with which
people are trying to learn about Islam."
Eltantawi said the
supportive response toward Muslims is especially surprising because of the
treatment she received as an Egyptian American Muslim during the Persian
Gulf War a decade ago.
"People had these inflammatory T-shirts
[against] Iraq," she said. "People were calling me a Jew-hater. It was
terrible. It's different now.
"I think people are desperate for an
explanation of what happened, and getting to know Islam is part of that
Katherine Koberg, the religion editor for online
bookstore Amazon.com, said copies of the Koran are selling at
unprecedented levels, with three editions on the religion bestseller list
at one point.
Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore,
said he is sold out of most copies of Islam's most holy
"Having seen other situations from the Gulf War to Iran
contra . . . I've seen books on current events and history go like this
before," Dutton said. "This is different because these are people who are
very interested in looking beyond the headlines and at the actual texts of
1,500 years ago."
Richard Hrair Dekmejian, a USC professor on
Middle Eastern politics, said this thirst for knowledge about Islam is a
result of the powerful impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and the general lack
of religious knowledge in America.
"We don't offer our citizens a
comprehensive view of the world," he said. "Now, all of a sudden everybody
wants to know. I get stopped all the time because I talk about this on TV.
. . . They stop and ask, 'Is Islam violent? Why are they doing this?' "