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To Be Muslim In Central New York

By Michael Benjamin


Pulaski, NY – It's a Saturday morning at Oswego High School, and a group of students is testing for various Tae Kwan Do belts. One of those students is 12 year old black belt Mo Ragab.

"I'm the president of my 8th grade class," says Mo, "I'm at the top of my class with a couple other people, and I'm an athlete, but [bullies] just want to take me down They're trying to find some point and, well, they found it - it's my religion."

In this case, Mo is short for Mohammed. Mo is Muslim. He lives in the northern Oswego County village of Pulaski. As of the 2000 census, Pulaski had a population of about 2,400. It's 98% white.

"We're the only Muslim family in Pulaski, and we stick out like sore thumbs," says Mo's mother, Miriam, "but in general, we don't have issues unless we have to speak up about something."

Miriam says the reason she enrolled Mo in Tae Kwan Do was because she knew someday he would face bullying. She says last year the bullying got so bad, she told school administrators Mo would start putting his Tae Kwan Do skills to use unless they did something.

Miriam says the Ragabs have set up a sort of support system to deal with the bullying. That support system includes the family of Mo's best friend, Nick Peters.

"Middle school is ripe for bullying and a non-tolerant atmosphere," says Nick's mom, Susan Peters, "so when you add that to the fact that he's the only Muslim child in his school, of course that's where the kids are going to start targeting him. If they're going to bully him at all, that's where they're going to target."

The Ragabs worship at the Islamic Society of Central New York (ISCNY) on Comstock Avenue in Syracuse. More than 40 miles away, it's the closest mosque to their home in Pulaski.

The Imam there is Yaser Alkhooly. He says the upswing in anti-Muslim sentiment since 9/11 is largely a product of politics.

"The slogan of politicians is just divide and dominate,'" he says, "and also, if you don't have an enemy, create an enemy in order to be able to dominate."

Alkhooly says the media then picks up on the message from politicians, until it's the only view on a subject the average person hears.

Former president of the ISCNY, Mohamed Kater agrees. He says it's easy to label Islam a violent religion based on the actions of extremists carrying out terrorist acts in the name of Islam. But, he says, it's important to understand the context of those actions, and the fact that Islam literally translates to the word "peace."

"You do not define the religion by its extremists," Kater says, "you define it first by what the books say, with the correct understanding."

So, why Islam?

Bill Redfield is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. He says Islam is likely being targeted because it's one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, and threatens the perceptions of many U.S. Christians.

"Many people want to think of the United States as a Christian country," says Redfield, "and I don't. I mean, one of the things that I value most about this country is the religious freedom that we have. But someone else who believes that the character of this country is and should continue to be Christian would be threatened by the growing number of Muslims in our communities."

Redfield also works with Interfaith Works, a group dedicated to developing relationships among all the religions in Central New York. He says until people of different religions are willing to come together and discuss their issues or tensions, it's only natural for them to misunderstand their counterparts.

"We really don't like to look at our own dark side," he says, "it's a lot easier to point at the dark side of the other.' And right now, in our country, Islam is the other.'"

So, is Mo Ragab the other? He doesn't think so.

"I'm just a normal boy," he says, "I play video games, build legos, all that fun stuff."

His best friend, Nick Peters doesn't think so either.

"I honestly don't get any of it really," says Nick, "he hasn't done anything to anyone else. They haven't done anything to him until now. Why couldn't it have stayed that way? That's the big question."

The answer, says Yusuf Qadir of ISCNY, is that Muslims are just taking their turn in an unfortunate cycle in American history.

"It's a part of a test," he says, "that I feel African-Americans had to go through, Native Americans had to go through, Asian-Americans had to go through, [and] unfortunately right now it's the Muslim-American community's turn to go through it; and it's unfortunate. But I think that America, when history looks back, will just say this is an unfortunate stain on our history, and not representative of our history as a whole."

Well, that makes two tests for Mo Ragab. He's taking his Tae Kwan Do test now so he can defend himself if the bullying gets any worse in the broader, cultural test he's taking because he's Muslim.