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York Muslims wary of bigotry after attacks

Julia Scheib
505-5439/@JuliaDispatch
Local Muslims are making sure that the York community knows they do not support recent attacks, including the terrorist attack in CA last week. Sunday, Dec.  6, 2015. (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)

Last Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., which, according to the New York Times, killed 14 people and wounded 21 and has been connected with the militant group ISIS, has some worried that more attacks could happen in this country.

The shooting, together with last month's attacks in Paris, has also spurred a wave of Islamophobia in the public discourse, which has Muslims in York concerned.

On Sunday morning Rick Ramos, one of the founders of York City mosque Masjid At-Tawheed, was moving furniture into his new home. He bought the house next to his place of worship deliberately, to be closer to it, he said.

"I am concerned about safety — especially being a father and husband. ... The general atmosphere is growing hostile toward Muslims," Ramos said. "It's spearheaded by people who are vying with each other for the greatest office in this country."

Local Muslims are making sure that the York community knows they do not support recent attacks, including the terrorist attack in CA last week. Sunday, Dec.  6, 2015. (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)

'Open bigotry': Last week, CBS reported that Republican candidate for president Donald Trump proposed the idea of requiring American Muslims to register in a database and on Sunday advocated the profiling of Muslims.

Ramos, who has eight children with his wife, noted that some radio talk show hosts and TV commentators have been "especially brutal" toward Islam.

He said he was disturbed by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s comments. In an address to students at the university last week Falwell said, "If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in."

"That's an incitement to violence," he said, adding that he believes the politicians and commentators who make Islamophobic statements are faking their ignorance to gain a political advantage.

"They understand it's a religion that promotes peace," Ramos said. "They're opportunists. ... I don't believe that anyone at that level could possibly believe what they're saying."

Ramos, who was born and raised in York City and converted to Islam in 1997, is upset at his own observation that politicians and members of the media seem to have stopped making the distinction between extremists and Muslims. "It's becoming open bigotry because you're painting an entire group of people with one brush," he said.

Countering the narrative: Muslims must constantly battle the narrative that they are terrorist sympathizers and that their religion condones violence, Ramos said.

Counter to that narrative, he said, converting to Islam was what led him out of the "violent lifestyle" he'd been leading. "I see Islam as a vehicle to salvation," he said.

As the Muslim chaplain at the York County Prison, he said, he delivers a sermon every Friday. Last week's was about the religion's prohibition of murder.

Kwame McPhaul, who is deeply involved with the mosque and said he has been a member since 2001, said he and others in the local Muslim community are wary.

"When you hear of these attacks of terror, often the first thing that comes to mind is, 'It better not be a Muslim,'" he said.

But, McPhaul said, they have been safe from hate crimes so far.

Outreach: "The community in York has been nothing but kind and generous," he said.

McPhaul attributes this to two factors: that members of the mosque actively and publicly refute the validity of the terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam, and that members are deeply rooted in the community.

On weekends when it's nice out, McPhaul said, members of the mosque often put a table out on the sidewalk to pass out literature that explains the position of Muslims toward violent extremists.

If someone who enters the mosque expresses sympathy with terrorists, he said, members of the mosque immediately notify the police.

"Certain lingo, we pick up on," he said. If someone focuses on Muslim rulers, or talks a lot about political affairs in the Middle East, or disagreement with international policies, McPhaul said he sees cause for concern.

Even if someone who visits the mosque talks about committing a crime that has nothing to do with terrorism, McPhaul said, the police are called.

"As Muslims, we have an obligation to be safe and obey the law," he said.

Does McPhaul worry for his family's safety?

"Of course you have to be worried — there are a lot of sick people in the world, who try to justify their acts of terror and murder and crime by using religious principles that aren't true," he said.

McPhaul and Ramos both emphasized that American Muslims are caught up in their daily lives and just trying to make ends meet, like anyone else in this country.

Visible: "I express Islam through my conduct and my character," said Kalimah Abdul-Rashid, a single mother and business owner who has been Muslim for 23 years and has lived in York for 24.

Abdul-Rashid said she wears a hijab and has experienced mild harassment, but "negative vibes" don't often come her way because she is very social and active in the community and very open about her religion. She even has an Internet radio show called "Muslimah Reality."

It airs live every Sunday at 5 p.m. and can be found at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/americanmuslim360.

"Islam is about the unity of humanity," Abdul-Rashid said, adding that the greeting "As-salaam Alaikum" means peace, blessing and mercy be upon you.

"We say it to each other, but really it's a greeting to all of humanity," she said.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.