Nine years ago today, it was the story no one could find.

The wreckage still smoldered from the carnage in Lower Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania.

Maine, like the rest of the nation, looked in horror at the work of 19 suicidal terrorists, including two who passed through the Portland International Jetport, and wondered how these madmen could take 2,977 lives in the name of Islam.

Looking for answers, reactions, whatever, we in the media fanned out in search of Muslims living in Greater Portland.

But our telephone calls mostly went unanswered. Our knocks on locked doors prompted perhaps a peek from behind a tightly pulled window shade, but nothing more. Nobody, it was clear, dared say a word.

“At that time, it was really very sad,” recalled Abdullahi Ahmed, president of the Islamic Society of Portland, as hundreds of smiling Muslim families streamed into the Portland Expo on Friday morning. “Everyone was concerned. We all knew that something could happen.”

We still have much to contemplate as yet another anniversary marks the day that forever changed not just the United States, but the entire world.

A wild-eyed pastor in Florida, fueled by a national media frenzy, played the entire planet like a fiddle last week with his on-again, off-again plan to mark Sept. 11 by burning copies of the Quran, Islam’s equivalent of the Christian Bible.

Dueling protests planned for Saturday over a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero in New York City, again fueled by a national media frenzy, proved only how far we have to go to close this still-open national wound.

Then, inevitably, the Rev. Terry Jones of Florida headed for New York City — and just like that, the two hot-button stories melded into one.

Yet here sat Ahmed, 39, in his suit and tie, his face lit up like a Christmas tree as he welcomed his fellow Muslims to Eid al Fitr — the annual prayer gathering that marks the end of the Ramadan fast.

“I want to look at (Jones) from another place,” Ahmed said. “I want to look at it from another perspective.”

Which is?

“Which is to look at the positive energy that came out of this,” he replied. “I want to mention the millions of people who are really standing by the Muslims, who are saying this is not the right thing. This is not the American value.”

Of course, there are those who, even as they read this, are firing up their keyboards to go online and, with their caps button locked on, lambaste any and all Muslims because THEY are not like US and THEIR beliefs and customs are a THREAT to the AMERICAN WAY and THEY need to be STOPPED and blah, blah, blah. …

If only they’d come by the Expo on Friday — not to hurl insults or wave a protest sign, but simply to watch and listen.

They’d have seen a thousand or more people from more than a dozen countries, resplendent in their finest clothing, greeting one another with holiday wishes, handshakes and hugs while their freshly scrubbed kids ran here, there and everywhere.

(Sound familiar?)

They’d have learned the Ramadan fast — no food from sunrise to sunset for 30 days — is meant to remind Muslims through their own hunger that many around the world have little or no food all the time.

(When, you have to wonder, was the last time Jones spent 30 days fasting?)

They’d have learned that, contrary to the conventional ignorance, being a Muslim in the United States is not synonymous with a lifetime on the welfare rolls.

Ahmed teaches science at Deering High School. He came here 10 years ago from Somalia, got his master’s degree in education at the University of Southern Maine and is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Maine.

He and his wife, Zam Zam, a registered nurse at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital who earned her nursing degree at the University of New England, have four kids and own a condominium in Westbrook.

(How many Muslim bashers, you have to wonder, have a degree in anything?)

They’d have learned what 70-year-old Mohammad K. Adimi, whose four American-educated children include a cardiologist, an architect, a nurse and a civil engineer-turned medical student, has to say about terrorists masquerading as Muslims.

“They are wild animals. They have no brains,” said Adimi, who fled Afghanistan 28 years ago and feels blessed to now live in the central Maine town of Winslow. “They don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in God’s books, they don’t believe in what God said to his people.”

(Anyone out there care to disagree?)

Truth be told, Ahmed and other organizers of Friday’s Eid al Fitr thought long and hard before they decided to quietly invite the media to their service. The consensus in years past has been that it’s too soon, that the less attention Maine’s Muslims attract as they celebrate their faith, the better.

But this year, even amid the satanic sound bites and hell-in-a-handbasket headlines, Ahmed for one sensed something infinitely more significant taking root.

For starters, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to name but a few, told Jones in no uncertain terms that his message could not be more un-American.

And closer to home, Muslims of all ages, nationalities and, yes, occupations no longer hide behind their deadbolts and drawn curtains, but proudly gather in broad daylight to celebrate a day all Americans would do well to learn a little more about.

“It’s the start of an open dialogue,” Ahmed said. “It’s a point where Muslims now see more people in our sight than 30 people with the Rev. Jones. I want to focus on that, not just the burning of books. Look at the positive energy that came out of this!”

As he spoke, the call to prayers echoed through the open doors of the Expo and out onto Park Avenue. Portland police directed traffic around the bright orange cones near the marquee that read “Eid al Fitr 2010 — Welcome.”

Ahmed’s cell phone rang. It was his wife, with the kids, asking him to come and help park the minivan.

“We belong here. We are here,” Ahmed said, still smiling. “American Muslims are part of the community.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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