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9-11 In Focus: Charlotte's Muslim Community Grows, Unites Since 9-11


Muslims from Charlotte filled the Crown Ballroom for the Eid al-Fitr celebration marking the end of Ramadan. Turn the clock back several decades, and the most obvious change in Charlotte's Muslim community is one of sheer numbers. Thirty years ago, Mohamed Moustafa says you could count the Muslims in Charlotte "on one hand." They had no mosque, praying instead in Moustafa's one-bedroom apartment. "It was an apartment," recalls Nasreen Naushad, shaking her head. "Women were praying upstairs in the bedroom and men were downstairs in the living room." Today all the Muslims in Charlotte don't even fit in the city's biggest ballroom when they gather for holy days - like the end of Ramadan last week. There are at least seven mosques in the region and as many as 30,000 Muslims. Nasreen Naushad and her daughter Maryam. Nasreen Naushad is from Afghanistan. She came to Charlotte with her husband and 1-year-old daughter as political refugees in 1981. Settling on the edge of Myers Park, she was an anomaly in her head scarf and long, loose robe. People often thought she was a Catholic nun. Her neighbor didn't know where Afghanistan was. "She thought it was in Texas," says Naushad, with a chuckle. She never gets that kind of reaction today. The change began gradually as Charlotte's economy became a magnet for newcomers from around the country - and the world. But many Muslims here say the most noted change happened after September 11, 2001. "The biggest change has been that more people know about Islam," says Munira Von Briesen. "When we pray at rest stops, people know what we're doing." More than once, Von Briesen's husband D.I. says people approached him praying on the side of the road thinking he needed CPR. "Now Islam has entered the public consciousness," he says. D.I. and Munira VonBriesen The Von Briesens are white. They've raised their children Muslim. Their teenage daughter wears a head scarf in public, as does Maryam Naushad. She's Nasreen's 21-year-old daughter. Maryam started covering her head in public in the 5th grade. A year later, 9-11 happened. She remembers her parents picking her up and telling her she couldn't go to school the next day. She was just 11 and didn't understand that the 9-11 attacks were "being blamed on people that called themselves what I called myself." After her parents' initial fear passed, Maryam went back to school - and kept on wearing her head scarf right through graduation from public school. Her dress made her a target for curious questions and ignorant taunts. And in the years since 9-11, she says her faith has grown. "I think that I practice my religion more correctly because I see these people that make it something that it's not," says Maryam. "I want to show what it is." She's seen the same thing among her friends. They attend Mosque more regularly. They're more inclined to speak up when they hear their religion misrepresented at school or in the media. Her mother - Nasreen Naushad - has noticed changes in the larger Muslim community, too. On a Saturday night at the end of Ramadan, she took me on a tour of festivities at several local mosques. People stopped to greet her with a kiss on the cheek and traditional Muslim greeting "Salaam Alaikum" - "peace unto you." Nasreen Naushad says the community feels more united, despite ethnic differences that have sometimes caused rifts. They come from vastly different countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, India, Somalia. There are African American Muslims and white converts - all with distinct customs, dress and languages. But since 9-11, Naushad says Charlotte Muslims have been moved to focus on their common faith. Challenges remain: Naushad says she still gets the occasional racial slur out in public. And last year, Charlotte's Muslim community had to address the uncomfortable possibility of radical ideology in their ranks: a young man named Samir Khan - who'd recently moved to town - created one of the most popular Al Qaeda websites. He's no longer in Charlotte, but the Muslim community here still bristles at the mention of his name. Each time a Muslim is linked to a violent incident, Nasreen Naushad worries it will affect the way people view her. She'd like people "who don't know about Muslims" to take just five minutes and find one to talk to. "We are everywhere," says Naushad. "Just sit and talk."