Originally published Thursday, September 13, 2001

PORTLAND – Muslims in Portland received an outpouring of community support Wednesday – a day when many feared they would be targeted for harassment, violence or worse.

Community leaders made a public plea Wednesday to guard against potential acts of prejudice, hatred and violence toward Maine’s Muslim population in the wake of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Nearly 500 people gathered on the steps of City Hall Wednesday for an interfaith show of sympathy for the victims and support for Maine’s 2,000 Muslims, who braced for a backlash after federal authorities said the prime suspect in the attacks is Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden, who has been given asylum by Taliban rulers in Afghanistan.

Many Muslim children stayed home from school Wednesday, and several acts of harassment against Muslim residents were reported. Fear among local Muslims intensified after Maine authorities confirmed that some of the terrorists may have boarded a plane at Portland International Jetport on their journey of destruction.

City leaders and clergy set a tone of respect and understanding at the City Hall vigil.

“I ask everyone to use this horrible tragedy to bring our community together, ” said Ethan Strimling, director of Portland West, a local social service agency. “I ask everyone to use this horrible tragedy to recognize the prejudice within your hearts and wash it away . . . I ask everyone to use this tragedy as a stepping stone, not to accusing your neighbor, but to getting to know them better.”

Tom Ewell, director of the Maine Council of Churches, said, “We stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, as Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Ba’hai and adherents of other religious traditions. In this time of crisis we are joined simply by our common humanity in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of yesterday’s attack.”

Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El delivered a Hebrew prayer that she then translated into English: “May the God who brings peace to the heavens above bring peace to all of us.”

Several Muslims attended the vigil. Mohammad Muti, president of the Afghan Association of Maine, was the only Muslim who spoke publicly at the gathering. His words drew cheers from the crowd.

“I am here (to show) support and to condemn the acts of terrorism in New York and Washington, ” Muti said. “We believe in the same God. Our language and our color doesn’t matter.”

After Muti spoke, Constance Mailman of Westbrook stepped out of the audience and scaled the steps to hand Muti a small bundle of dried wheat.

“It’s a symbol of peace, ” Mailman said afterward as she choked back tears. “I am a Catholic. We believe in forgiveness instead of retaliation. And I believe in world peace.”

Portland Mayor Cheryl Leeman urged people to embrace Muslim residents at this difficult time. “They are a highly important part of our community, ” she said. “If we don’t embrace them, we are no better than the terrorists.”

Several local Muslims have already reported receiving threats:

A city parking attendant said he was threatened Tuesday by someone on Woodmont Street. “Leave here or I will kill you now, ” the man told Yasin Ahmady, who called police. The man then denied the threat. Ahmady did not press charges.

One resident told a reporter that a group of Afghani children was threatened Wednesday morning by another group of kids. The incident was not reported to police, however.

Administrators at St. Elizabeth’s Child Development Center on High Street, a Catholic Charities Maine program, said they offered to let parents pick up their kids early on Tuesday after Catholic Charities received threatening phone calls directed at the agency’s refugee and resettlement program. Most parents picked up their children early.

Other Muslims at the vigil included Reza Jalali, who came to the United States in 1985 to escape political and religious persecution in Iran.

“This country has very generously provided me with a chance to rebuild my life as a refugee and to live freely, ” Jalali said. “What pains this nation pains me. I am American first and Muslim second.”

Nasir Shir, 31, came to the United States 16 years ago when his family escaped political and religious persecution in Afghanistan.

Shir explained that not all Muslims share the same beliefs or interpret their religion in the same way. In Shir’s view, the suicide pilots who flew commercial passenger jets into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon violated fundamental tenets of jihad, or religious warfare, which ultimately respects innocent human life.

Shir, who runs a computer lab at the University of Southern Maine, said Tuesday’s events made him fearful for his family’s safety.

“I’ve lived here for 16 years and yesterday was the first time I locked my door at night, ” Shir said. He said he is particularly worried that his wife and mother may become targets of retaliation because they wear traditional clothing.

Shir said the oldest of his two children went to preschool as usual Wednesday, but many Muslim students stayed home from Portland public schools.

“Their parents are afraid they will be victimized by some people who might take advantage of the situation to act out hatred, ” said Ahmed Hassan, a parent-community specialist in Portland schools who is Muslim and who came here from Somalia.

Mike Johnson, principal of Portland High School, said he was not aware of any harassment of Muslim students at the school on Wednesday.

Abdi Majid, a Somalian man who attended the vigil, said many Muslims in Maine are afraid to leave their homes. But he said they have also received support from their neighbors and friends.

“Some people (have called) saying I hope you feel OK, ” he said. “They are supportive.”

Ahmady, the parking attendant who was threatened, said he has received more than a dozen phone calls from friends and neighbors expressing concern for him and offering to let his family stay with them.

Like other Portland-area Muslims, Mansour Al-Alwi, who moved to this country from Libya 25 years ago, said he was as shocked by Tuesday’s events as everyone else.

“We all cried for what happened. It was not a human act, ” he said. “This is our country, this is our home. We share the sorrow with everybody. . . . The people who were killed, they are our brothers and sisters.

“Whoever attacked us from abroad, whether he was Jewish or Arab or Muslim, they attacked your home and my home, ” he said. “And your home and my home are one.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 282-8229 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

David Connerty-Marin can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

dconnerty-marin@pressherald.com