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.
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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).
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.
Wali said the discipline of the Muslims he encountered also caused him to question his own upbringing as a Christian. "When I was in my mother's faith, there was a lot of hypocrisy. People going to church singing and then coming out of church (they would start) drinking, cursing and fighting. I couldn't stand that," Wali said. "But when I came to (the Muslims), I saw people who were living what they were preaching. They were not only talking about religion -- they were living religion, praying five times a day. And I thought that was interesting."
By 1958 Wali had made the full transition to a Muslim. He even had his birth name legally changed in 1960. He won't even mention his old non-Muslim name, referring to that time as his "days of ignorance. It's R.I.P. on him," Wali said. Above the front door of his home is a sign posted in Arabic: "In the name of God who is most gracious and ever merciful" -- a maxim which, to a large degree, encompasses his feelings about Islam. "I worship the one who created me," said Wali, "You can call him God, Jehovah, Allah -- whatever you want." Wali also pointed out that the type of Islam to which he belongs, called Ahmadiyya, has a saying: "Love for All, Hatred for None."
Since his conversion, Wali said his life as a Muslim has been extremely fruitful. He has studied Islam throughout the world, visiting Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, where he lived for two years. He also once had a brief conversation with El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the man who was formerly known as Malcolm X, when the late black American leader was speaking at Harvard in the mid-1960s. "I was surprised because he was such a humble man," Wali said of the encounter.
He eventually moved to Pittsburg in 1979 with his wife of 31 years, Rifat. Soon they moved to Merced after he landed a federal job as a counselor. They have six children and four grandchildren.
Like most local Muslims, Wali and his family practice their faith in the privacy of their own home, even though Merced is home to a mosque -- a small white building with green trim off Franklin and Ashby Roads. Called the Islamic Center of Merced, the mosque has several daily services and upwards of 200 members. In back, shelves hold a few prayer rugs, there's a small fenced swimming pool and a basketball rim with no net. Orange trees and neatly trimmed conifers rise behind a wooden fence.
Although Wali is Muslim, he also notes that he and his wife have friends who are Sikhs and Hindus, as well as a few Christian friends.
Despite his encounter on the airplane, Wali said Merced is a friendly place for a Muslim to live. "We really enjoy Merced very much," Wali said. "It's a family town, good place to raise your kids. You can go downtown, sit on a bench and eat your lunch," Wali said.
Still, Wali said there have been a few instances where he's seen people express prejudiced attitudes toward Sikhs -- who are commonly mistaken for Muslims. He recalled an incident that occurred while he was standing in a local Sikh-owned store. "I happened to be in there one day and I heard someone say, 'They must be making money for Osama bin Laden.' Just to hear somebody say that is a problem," Wali said. "We, in this country, are very ignorant of other people's faith. So when 9-11 happened, so many people looked at Sikhs and thought they were Muslims because they wear a turban and long beards."
Because of his Islamic name, Wali said he also is frequently pulled aside in airports by security -- an issue that he views as merely an inconvenience. "They go and check the (no-fly) list and find that I am not on there," Wali said. "They never say that, but they do."
Amir Falahi may have been born and raised as a Muslim in Tehran, Iran -- but he's unconditional in his love for the United States.
At age 13, he arrived in San Jose as an exchange student, knowing very little English and having never left his home country. Still, even at a very young age, Falahi realized the opportunities that coming to America would offer.
"This is the best country to be in," opined Falahi, a 54-year-old counselor at Merced College. "When they say it is the land of opportunity, it is true to that."
Twelve years after leaving Iran, however, Falahi's home country underwent a violent revolution that would result in the Shah of Iran being replaced by a radical Islamic government. Not long afterward, 52 Americans at the United States Embassy were taken hostage and diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran were severed.
Even with the bad blood between the U.S. and Iran, Falahi said he never experienced any discrimination in the United States. And despite the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the ongoing controversy over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Falahi said he's never had any negative experiences. "It has had no effect on me whatsoever. Living in Merced has been very good. (Being Muslim) has never affected my job or living in the city," Falahi said. "(People) are more interested and they take more time to find out where you are at."
Although Falahi is a practicing Muslim, his son Abrahim does not practice Islam -- a decision that Falahi said he endorses. "He was brought up in this culture. It is his life. It doesn't bother me," he said.
Being one of the few Muslim staff members on campus, Falahi said he also feels a need to educate students about Islam, to dispel whatever myths exist. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he helped organize informational discussions about Islam. Like Wali, he said the small percentage of Muslims who engage in terrorist acts are not practicing true Islam. "Islam means peace and love. And if you are a true believer, you are not even supposed to hurt any animals," Falahi explained. "It is unfortunate that people use religion for political reasons."
He also said Islam shares many similarities with Christianity and Judaism -- a fact that he believes could help build a bridge of understanding between different religions. "We believe in the same God, and we believe in Christ as a prophet," he pointed out. "You say God. We say Allah, It's the same word, the same God."
Falahi also admits, however, that he is concerned about the ongoing tensions between the governments of Iran and the United States. For months the U.S. government has alleged that Iran aims to develop a nuclear weapon -- despite the Iranian government's claims that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful. A recent U.S. intelligence assessment on Iran, however, claims the Iranian government ceased plans for a nuclear weapon four years ago.
Still, constant speculation in the media over a possible U.S. attack on Iran has Falahi worried.
He describes himself as a peaceful man who is very much against war -- particularly because of the carnage that resulted from the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq. "A lot of people died for nothing," Falahi said. He also worries about his remaining family in Iran. "Any war is devastating. I don't like any war," Falahi said. "But I hope both sides will be more understanding toward each other for the sake of the people."
Falahi said the last time he visited Iran was six years ago -- a country he described as regressing "back 30 years" after the revolution in 1979. He remembered his hometown of Tehran as a chic and modern Middle Eastern capital. "The (fashion) styles would first go to Iran, then to Paris. We were always stylish under the Shah," Falahi said.
As an American citizen visiting his former home, Falahi said the Iranians were still very friendly toward him. And while Falahi said the Iranian government under the Shah allowed little freedom of expression, he said the current government is even more repressive. "(The people) do want a change to take place, but they are under so much control that they are not able to voice their opinion," Falahi said.
Ali Abdul Sater
After living through 10 years of civil war and surviving countless bombing campaigns against his home country of Lebanon, it would seem a little ironic that Ali Abdul Sater would be afraid of coming to America.
After seeing news reports about the war on terrorism on CNN and other news outlets, the 27-year-old UC Merced student said he didn't know what to expect as a Muslim upon arriving in the U.S. a year ago -- partly because he had never been outside of Lebanon.
Even after he finally arrived in Merced, he was so paranoid that at first he would not speak Arabic on the phone. After a few weeks, however, Sater said his apprehensions melted away. "When I actually came here, it was different. But after meeting other people, they were so nice. It's nothing like we hear," Sater recalled. "Maybe (bad experiences) have happened to someone else. I don't know. But I have never felt it. Not even a tiny bit."
Raised as a Muslim, Sater said he's a believer in Islam, although not an active practitioner of the faith. He does, however, fast during Ramadan and adheres to many principles of Islam, such as eschewing alcohol.
Sater is pursuing his doctorate degree in immunology -- a goal he expects to complete by 2011. He dreams of having his own lab, doing research and maybe teaching at a university.
He describes himself as a decidedly nonpolitical person and an independent thinker -- a side effect of growing up amid the daily sounds of gunfire and explosions in his hometown of Beirut. As a youth he lived between Beirut and a small village in the country's rural Bekaa Valley during the civil war -- depending on where the bombs were falling. "In the civil war, it was like no one cannot be killed. It was just random bombing," Sater said.
Fortunately for his family, which includes his parents, two sisters and one brother, the near-death experiences were few -- although survival was always dicey. "It was up and down, up and down all of the time," Sater said.
These days, he's more interested in science. "I love Lebanon -- I hate the politics there (but) the country is beautiful," he said.
Sater also attributes Merced's diversity and the kindness of strangers to his easy transition in a new country. He mentioned how his neighbors gave him a new desk after he moved into his apartment -- a gesture that spoke volumes and pleasantly surprised him. "You have all kinds of races, all kinds of cultures (in Merced). It's cool. I've never felt like a foreigner," Sater said.
He said Lebanon, a country with 18 religious sects, still struggles with issues of religion. "Wherever you go in Lebanon, your name labels you. My name is Ali. Everyone knows I am Muslim and what sect you are .... People, they have it in their blood. They want to know what you are," Sater said. "Here, nobody cares about whatever you are."
Achieving understanding through dialogue
While the U.S. continues its military engagements in the Middle East and South Asia, local Muslims said they will engage in their work for peace and understanding between Muslims and all people of other faiths.
Falahi will use his position at Merced College to educate young minds about the truths of Islam. "Really, it's human nature to have disagreement," Falahi said. "And the best thing is to educate yourself. The more education you have, the more you are able to understand each other."
Wali said he regularly holds interfaith meetings at his home among Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and others to bring people together. Next week, more than five million Muslims will make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca -- more than double the number who visited the city when he made the pilgrimage in 1973.
"I truly believe that if Americans really knew about Islam, we would have more people accepting Islam," Wali said. "I know it deep in my heart."
In this belief, Wali hopes others will have hearts as open as his own.