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The Nation | MUSLIMS IN LAS VEGAS

Still Living in the Shadow of a September Day

For many followers of Islam, it's as though the ground shifted beneath them on 9/11. Dealing with hostility became a part of everyday life.

August 03, 2004|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Late one weeknight in the middle of last summer, Khalid Khan, a stalwart among Las Vegas Muslims, sat in his living room with his daughter, a law student, discussing Islam in America, clashes between culture and religion, and the tensions large and small stirred by the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11.

As president of the Islamic Society of Nevada, it was Khan's task to maintain contact with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, to build their trust and talk them down should they overreact to dubious tips about specific Muslims.

"They have been honest with me," he said of his FBI contacts. "They told me: 'Mr. Khan, try to understand our situation. Before 9/11, our job was to solve a crime. When there was a crime committed, we would be assigned to solve it. Now they are saying to us, there might be a crime that might be committed, and you go find it.' "

On first impression, Khan had seemed a stern, humorless fellow. His textile company supplies sheets to large hotels on the Strip, and in an introductory interview a few months earlier he had been asked, in a feeble attempt at jocularity, if he ever thought about what transpired on all that linen.

"That," he had replied with a frown, "is something we never think about."

Now, though, as his visitor stood to leave, the interview completed, Khan gestured to the sofa and said, "Wait, I have to tell you a joke."

Everybody sat back down. Khan leaned forward, eyes bright, voice low, almost a whisper.

"You know," he began, deadpan, "that in Islam we believe in angels. We believe that, after death, the person has to go into the ground and an angel comes and asks three questions. Who was your God? Who was your prophet? And what was your book? The right answers are: There is only one God, Muhammad is the prophet, and the book is the Koran.

"So then this Muslim died. And the angel came and said, 'Who is your God?' And the Muslim answered, 'President Bush.' 'Who is your prophet?' 'John Ashcroft.' 'What is your book?' 'The Patriot Act.' The angel was really confused by these answers. He went back to God and said, 'Look, I found one person who has some really strange answers I have never heard.' And God said: 'Bring him to me. I'll ask him the questions.' "

Now, standing before the obviously true God -- Allah, in Arabic -- the Muslim answered the questions again, this time giving the proper Islamic responses. But why, God wanted to know, hadn't the fellow done this the first time, why all this business about Bush, Ashcroft and the Patriot Act?

Khan paused a beat, smiling in anticipation of the punch line:

"Because, Allah, I thought the angel was an FBI agent."

*

Las Vegas Muslims have lasting memories of Sept. 11, as do all Americans. They can recall the horror they experienced watching the towers crumble, their short-lived hope that the perpetrators might turn out to be, as one young man put it, not terrorists touting Islam, but "Timothy McVeigh's brother, or someone like that."

The Sept. 11 stories they tell, however, are not confined to the past tense, not limited to recollections of a singularly bad day in American history. Instead, nearly three years after the event, their narratives are still unfolding. It's as though the very ground shifted beneath them that day, and they have yet to regain balance.

"Sept. 11, of course, touched everybody and all lives," said Diba Hadi, an executive with a private social services agency. "Yes, we were questioned. We were harassed, on and off. We were pulled over. But it happens, you know. Unfortunately, I think that before Sept. 11 people were much more receptive to the Muslim community. And it is very unfortunate that that has changed.

"Right now," she said, "any time the TV is on and you hear of a bombing or whatever, you're like: 'Oh, God. There goes Muhammad or Ahmed or Abdul.'... The same way that blacks or African Americans did many years ago: 'Please God, don't let it be an African American who's raping or who's committing murders, whatever.' We are feeling the same way now: 'Oh God, please don't let it be a Muslim.' "

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there were a number of relatively small-bore incidents involving Las Vegas Muslims, or people mistaken for Muslims. Police officials told reporters that they had responded to about 15 hate crimes, some verbal, others physical, in the first week after Sept. 11. Punches were thrown at an Arab-looking tourist on the Strip. A teenage girl was taunted at a soccer game and pelted with ice cubes.

"Go back to Afghanistan!" her tormentors shouted.

The girl was from India -- a Hindu, not a Muslim.

Within hours of the Sept. 11 strikes, a young man described by witnesses as looking like a skinhead marched onto the campus of a private Islamic grade school here, brandishing cans of spray paint. The handsome, tan-and-green facility had opened, with some fanfare, only the day before. The intruder was hustled away by authorities but vowed to return and "reclaim the neighborhood."

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