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September 26, 2001
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Expressions of Support Surprising to Muslims
* Culture: Public displays of compassion, kindness come as a shock to many Middle Easterners, who had been braced for a widespread backlash.

Times Headlines

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!"

Culver 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 scripture.

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 particular.

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.

A Westwood 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.

There 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 this.'

"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 too."

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 explanation."

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 book.

"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?' "

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Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
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