A framed poster depicting a crowd of Muslims praying around the Kaaba, a giant black cube located in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, graces Alhaj Abdur Raqeeb Wali's living room wall.
In 1973, the 75-year-old Wali was among more than 2.5 million Muslims who made the pilgrimage to Mecca to pray at the sacred Kaaba -- the object toward which all Muslims turn during prayer.
The event left a lasting impression. "Everyone was wearing the same white cloth," smiled Wali. "You couldn't distinguish a policeman from a president."
Wali, who teaches English to non-native speakers at Merced College and serves as a Muslim chaplain at Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, is one of many Muslims living in Merced County.
While the region may not boast a visibly large Muslim presence, many like Wali have been here for decades, participating in numerous phases of the community's civic and professional life -- mostly without fear of discrimination. Although no one is sure how many Muslims live in Merced County, some believe the number could be as high as 1,000 people, although not all of them attend a mosque regularly. Merced also hosts a small community of Muslims who immigrated from Yemen.
Worldwide, there are more than 1.1 billion Muslims, about 20 percent of humankind's total population. Fewer than one in 10 Muslims are Arab, and Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. Estimates vary widely about how many Muslims live in the U.S., ranging from 2 million to 7 million, depending on who's counting. The U.S. State Department estimates there are more than 1,200 mosques in America.
A poll earlier this year "found a largely content and hard-working U.S. Muslim population, and one that is fast assimilating," according to the International Herald-Tribune.
Those findings dovetail with the views of several Muslims from various cultures and walks of life who live in and around Merced. They recently related their experiences about living in the midst of the global war on terrorism in post-9/11 Merced -- and the paths that brought them here.
One Muslim, who was formerly a Christian, converted to Islam to be closer to God. Another recently traveled here from war-torn Lebanon to pursue his dream of becoming an immunologist. Another Muslim Mercedian can share stories about the days when the Iranian city of Tehran was considered one of the Middle East's most cosmopolitan cities, before the brutal revolution of 1979.
Across the United States and around the world, however, being Muslim in the midst of the war on terrorism sometimes has meant being subjected to anti-Muslim backlash and discrimination.
According to a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) 2007 report, "The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States," the organization received 167 reports last year of anti-Muslim hate crimes -- a 9.2 percent increase from 153 hate crimes in 2005.
The CAIR report also cited an August 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll that indicated around 39 percent of Americans felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same poll also found that 22 percent of those polled would not want Muslims as neighbors.
According to the FBI's 2006 Hate Crimes report, of the 1,750 victims of an anti-religion hate crime reported in 2006, 11.9 percent were victims of an anti-Islamic bias (65.4 percent of that total were victims anti-Jewish bias).
Of the 1,306 hate crimes reported in California last year, 14 were were anti-Muslim, according to the Office of the Attorney General. In Merced County, police and Merced County Sheriff's officials said there have been virtually no reported hate crimes against Muslims. Livingston Police Chief Bill Eldridge said the city reported one threatening phone call placed to a Sikh Temple after Sept. 11 (Sikhs are commonly mistaken for Muslims, even though their faiths are completely separate).