Muslim Converts Face Discrimination
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
Published: April 30, 2005
In the wake of 9/11, Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Egypt and other countries have found themselves living in a newly suspicious America. Many of their businesses and mosques have been closely monitored by federal agents, thousands of men have been deported and some have simply been swept away - "rendered" in the language of the C.I.A. - to be interrogated or jailed overseas.
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
From left: Gladys Muchammad, Stephanie Lewis and Malikah Alkebulan are suing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over an order to remove their head scarves. They were given different assignments.
Richard Patterson for The New York Times
Khalid Hakim, a Muslim, refused to take off his kufi for an identification photo.
But Muslim immigrants are not alone in experiencing the change. It is now touching the lives of some American converts: men and women raised in this country, whose only tie to the Middle East or Southeast Asia is one of faith. Khalid Hakim, born Charles Karolik in Milwaukee, could not renew the document required to work as a merchant mariner because he refused to remove his kufi, a round knitted cap, for an identity photograph last year. Yet for nearly three decades Mr. Hakim's cap had posed no problem with the same New York City office of the Coast Guard.
In Brooklyn, Dierdre Small and Stephanie Lewis drove New York City Transit buses for years wearing their hijabs, or head scarves, with no protest from supervisors. After 9/11 the women were ordered to remove the religious garments. They refused, and were transferred, along with two other Muslim converts, out of the public eye - to jobs vacuuming, cleaning and parking buses, said the women, who are suing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York City Transit.
"I'm a U.S. citizen and I'm supposed to be protected," Ms. Lewis, 55, said with tears in her eyes. "On 9/11 I was scheduled to take policemen to that site. I felt compassion like everyone else. And now you're singling me out because I'm a Muslim?" New York City Transit officials said they would not comment because the case is in litigation.
Regardless of how their cases play out legally, Mr. Hakim, Ms. Lewis and other converts have come to view America after 9/11 through a singular lens. An estimated 25 percent of American Muslims are converts. Some came of age as Americans first and discovered Islam as adults. In the years since 9/11, many have faced a contest of loyalties they never imagined: between their nation and their faith.
They have watched events up close and from afar - the raids of mosques, the deportation of Muslim immigrants, the incendiary language from abroad and the threats made against their American homeland - with a special, if complicated brand of anger and loyalty, affection and worry.
Straddling two worlds came naturally to Ms. Small, who grew up in East Flatbush with a Christian mother and a Muslim father. But she spent more time in mosques than in churches.
It was the daily expression of Islam and its emphasis on the "oneness of God" that won her heart to the religion, said Ms. Small: the five daily prayers, the way sentences are capped with words like inshallah, which means "God willing."
At 12 she became one of the few girls in her neighborhood to wear a hijab. If this called for bravery, Ms. Small shrugs it off. She has worn the scarf ever since, growing used to the occasional stare that multiplied after 9/11. If anything, she is drawn to daring.
"I always wanted to drive a bus because it's big, it's huge," Ms. Small, 36, said as she picked through a fried shrimp sandwich on a recent lunch break. "My own personal conquest, I guess."
Ms. Small joined the transit authority in 1998, at 30, after her fourth child was born. She was assigned the B44 route, a loop of two and a half hours from Williamsburg to Sheepshead Bay and back. "What really got me the most was when you're sitting in that seat, how far you can see - how many blocks," she said. "It was like a sea of vehicles."
From the beginning, Ms. Small wore a navy blue hijab to match her uniform. No one objected, she said, until after 9/11. The first trouble came with a more recent hire, Malikah Alkebulan, who said she was asked to wear a transit authority cap over her scarf after starting work in March 2002.
By chance, Ms. Alkebulan stepped onto Ms. Small's bus one day that summer. They began talking, and Ms. Alkebulan told Ms. Small about the order, explaining that she was scared to disobey it because she was still on probation.
"I said, 'Let them mess with me because I've been here, and I'm willing to fight,' " Ms. Small said.
By the early fall, all three women had been transferred from their passenger routes to jobs parking and cleaning buses. Ms. Small now spends her days waiting for buses to pull up inside a drafty, cavernous depot in Flatbush, near where she grew up. She parks the buses and vacuums them, clearing them of coins. On good days, she drives empty buses to other locations, taking in the view with a new longing. She always makes sure to be in uniform. That way, she says, people don't think "a Muslim woman stole a bus."
Equal to her frustration, however, is a deep and very American conviction: that justice will be served in court, she said.
Decades ago, when Khalid Hakim was still Charles Karolik, the only faith he knew was Catholicism. Every Sunday, Mr. Hakim dutifully attended Mass in Milwaukee with his parents and two sisters. He sang in the choir and served as an altar boy.
While in grade school, he came upon Shackleton's "Valiant Voyage," the true tale of an expedition to the South Pole. "That was the seed," Mr. Hakim, 57, said.
The book did two things: it drew Mr. Hakim into a lifetime of seafaring, and, with that newfound love, severed him from the Catholic Church.
Mr. Hakim's first job was to wipe down the engine room of an iron ore carrier that traveled the Great Lakes. But he wanted to be at sea, so a year later, in 1974, he headed to the harbor in New York City and began a nearly 30-year career riding oil barges, eventually as a captain, from the Maine coast to Norfolk, Va.
By the early 1970's, he had met Dianuthra El Is'vara, a Trinidadian Muslim, who told him to read the Koran. On his first reading, he found the Islamic holy book "boring," he said. But after another try, he said, "I knew that this was filling the empty space that I had inside, the spiritual longing."
Ms. El Is'vara instructed Mr. Hakim to wear a kufi at a Brooklyn mosque in February 1975, when he was officially converted by reciting the Shahadah, the declaration of faith in Islam. The cap reminded Mr. Hakim of cartoonish characters from his childhood who wore beanies with propellers, he said.
But after the ceremony, he said he never removed the kufi again, except to sleep. At first, the men on the barge teased him, almost coming "to blows" with him a few times, said Mr. Hakim, who changed his name in 1978.
"He prayed on the barge," said Charles Chillemi, president of Mr. Hakim's union, Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, who worked with him in the early 1980's. "He's religious to a fault."
Mr. Hakim eventually married Ms. El Is'vara, and while he continued to work out of New York Harbor, they bought a house on Nevis Island in the Caribbean. She died in 1993; he remarried and now lives there permanently with his wife, Francine, and two young sons.
Before 9/11 Mr. Hakim never had trouble explaining the round, knitted cap to Coast Guard officials. But when he went to renew his merchant mariner's document that served as a license last year, Coast Guard officials in New York City pointed to a federal code requiring applicants to be photographed with their heads "uncovered." The code has been in effect since at least 1994.
"That law is hard and fast," said Lt. Commander Paul E. Gerecke, chief of the Coast Guard's regional examination center. "It applies to everybody, and we enforce it uniformly. Whether you are wearing a kufi or a Mets' cap you've got to take your headdress off to have your photo taken."
Mr. Hakim refused to remove the kufi and was denied the document: a year later, he is out of work, despite attempts by Mr. Hakim's union and Senator Charles E. Schumer to question the decision. He is looking for a lawyer to take his case, he said. "I love my country," Mr. Hakim said. "He's asking me to choose between my country and my God. I can't do that."
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