Despite the national hate crime numbers, many Muslim Mercedians describe their community as a remarkably welcoming place to practice their faith. From recent transplants who came to pursue higher education to longtime residents who planted roots that blossomed into families, Muslims in Merced mostly viewed their experience in the city as a positive one.
"Muslims who are living here have been here for a long, long time. And the ones that come in make positive contributions," said Tahir Yaqub, a family doctor who practices in Atwater.
While each local Muslim tells an individual story, besides their faith they all share one common feeling -- they are proud Mercedians.
Alhaj Abdur Raqeeb Wali
Alhaj Abdur Raqeeb Wali still gets a hearty laugh out of a post-9/11 experience on an airline flight -- one that a humorless person might consider anti-Muslim bias.
He was on a flight from Washington, D.C., to California and happened to be sitting next to an older woman who was curious about the red topi hat he was wearing on his head and his thick, silver beard. While the style of Wali's hat and beard are not exclusive to Muslims, the woman felt compelled to dig a little deeper into the identity of this rather odd-looking black fellow.
"She said, 'Do you mind if I ask you what is your religion?'" Wali recalled. "I said, 'I'm a Muslim, and she said 'Ahhhh!,'" said Wali, bursting into laughter, as he retold the story. "She almost jumped out of her chair, that poor lady."
For the next three or four hours, however, Wali and the woman talked about his life and Islam, and he was able to dismiss many of the myths the woman had held about Muslims. "When we reached our destination, she was pretty happy," Wali said.
It's with such frankness that Wali approaches anyone who asks him about the religion that many Americans still misunderstand -- and associate with radical extremists like Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. He hopes to change that image by educating people: "When people find out that I am Muslim they are surprised, because they are looking for a Muslim to be a terrorist, talking about killing, infidels and all of this stuff. People have a bad image of Islam."
He also likens Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida to groups like the Ku Klux Klan that manipulate passages from the Bible to spread hate. "No religion will teach what any of these people are teaching," Wali explained. "Everything they are doing is totally against the teachings of the prophet Muhammad."
Wali, who was born a Christian and hails originally from Chester, Pa., came into contact with the prophet's teachings for the first time while he was a student in his early 20s at Brandeis University in Massachusetts -- the first Jewish university founded in the United States.
The year was 1956, and Wali was a fan of the local jazz scene in Boston. He had invited a trombone player to his home for a few drinks. The meeting would change his life. "He came to my house, and I offered him some wine. He said 'I don't drink,'" Wali recalled.
"I said, 'Well, let's go get some girls.' He said 'I don't fool with girls.'" Perplexed by the trombone player's behavior, Wali then offered him some marijuana -- which he also refused. Finally, the trombone player told Wali that his religion prohibited him from doing any of those things.
"He said, 'I am a Muslim,' and I said, 'a Muslim?'" Wali recalled.
The trombonist then gave Wali a book about Islam and invited him to hang out with a group of Muslim jazz musicians who called themselves "The Brothers." The group encouraged Wali to study Islam more deeply and to buy a prayer book from local Muslims. "I was very pleased, the way they treated me," Wali said.