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Charlotte Muslims Reach Out To Community

Sanah Ahmed, Iman Usmani and Ayesha Khan.

Consider for a moment all of the high profile news stories in just the last ten months related to the Muslim community. The shootings at Fort Hood. The Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane. Charlotte Congresswoman Sue Myrick wrote the foreword to a controversial new book called "Muslim Mafia." Meanwhile a young Muslim man living in Charlotte started a blog promoting terrorism. And now, a very divisive debate rages about the proposed Islamic center and mosque in lower Manhattan. WFAE's Julie Rose found all of those incidents seem to have brought Charlotte's Muslim community to a crossroads "We haven't done enough to explain ourselves." That's what I heard from one Muslim after another on Sunday night at a mosque in east Charlotte. They had come for the first major effort by the Islamic Society of Greater Charlotte to set the record straight about their faith. Hundreds of personal invitations went out to the community for a celebration feast of the Muslim holiday Ramadan. "The negative news is really going on in an acceleration," says Haroon Sait, who helped organize the event. "It's not a good sign. So we now feel - everybody feels we need to do extra efforts to catch up before it is too late." As the sun sets, several hundred Muslims are gathered in the multi-purpose room at the mosque to break their daily fast. Dozens of non-Muslims join them at round tables. "Please, ask anything you want," the Muslims urge. Alysha Causey takes them up on it. She wants to the know the name of the God Muslims worship. "In English you'd say 'God,'" responds Izzat Saymeh. "We call him Allah in Arabic." "So you all worship the same god that Christians do, you just all Him Allah?" asks Causey. "Exactly," says Saymeh. The discussion stops as a call to prayer ends the day's fast. The Muslim community has planned the evening carefully to put its best foot forward. The food is plentiful and there are frequent interludes for explanation and translation of the prayer and rituals. It's also telling that each table of visitors has been assigned a young man as host. They're in their 20s and 30s, clean cut, well-spoken and dressed in Western clothing. Many, like 32-year-old Izzat Saymeh, are American-born. "I've seen the community mature, trying to really blend in and become part of this American fabric," says Saymeh. "It's time for us to bring that out." Saymeh is frustrated that the media and politicians seem to be defining who he is as a Muslim American. He says he feels free to worship. But he also feels like Muslims are shunned in America right now. "We're American and Muslim in the same token," says Saymeh. "But what does that mean now?" Whatever the answer, he'd like to be the one to decide for himself. He'd certainly rather it not be the people in the news perpetrating violence in the name of Islam. In the last few years, Charlotte's Muslim community was shaken by the arrival of a young man who is now under federal investigation for ties to terrorism. People at the Islamic Society are hesitant to talk about Samir Khan, but many knew of him and the things he wrote online. There's been increasing attention nationwide on young American Muslims being lured into terrorism. But the youth in Charlotte's mosques are anything but radical, says Azim Beg. He leads the Islamic Society's Sunday School program. "They're very moderate children," says Beg. "They listen to music, they watch movies, they do everything else. But they also come to the mosque for prayer and fasting and everything else." Like 12-year old Ayesha Khan and 13-year old Sanah Ahmed. Khan is a common last name in the Muslim community, so Ayesha is no relation to Samir Khan. Her long brown curls are loosely wrapped in a colorful headscarf. Sanah is wearing a more stern-looking black scarf pulled tightly with elastic around her face to hide even the hint of hair. Neither wears her headscarf at public school, but Sanah says she'd like to. "I'm hoping I can later in the future where Islam will be more widely accepted," says Sanah. "But right now I just don't feel as comfortable." The girls say they've been called "terrorist" and they're hurt by the anti-Muslim comments they see on blogs. But they're also not afraid to talk about their beliefs. In fact, they wish more people would ask. All evening, they've been eyeing my microphone. When I finally come to their table, the girls admit they've been rehearsing what they'll say. Giggling, Ayesha holds an imaginary microphone and turns to her friend "Sanah, what do you think about all these Muslims and non-Muslims mixing today?" She holds the imaginary microphone out to Sanah who plays along. "I think it's a great step for Islam," says Sanah. "People are learning about Islam and the ways that we are." For too long, many Charlotte Muslims say they've let other people define who they are. Now they're ready to do it themselves.