The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon ruptured the sense of belonging many Muslims in Portland felt before Sept. 11, 2001.
Almost immediately, the country where many had sought refuge from persecution and privation viewed them with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.
Over the past 10 years, leaders in the community, which has perhaps doubled in size over that span to more than 5,000, have urged members to engage the broader community to integrate and reach out as a way to fight ignorance and prejudice, and to resist the temptation to respond with bitterness.
“If you just live by yourself or be isolated then your neighbor sees you as someone who is just different, but if there is interaction with other people, that’s a positive image,” said Abdirahman Osman, a Somali Muslim who is president of the Somali Community Resource Center.
Faith groups, government agencies and others also have made overtures to improve understanding and relations with local Muslims.
Conflicts have diminished but tension persists in some quarters. The day Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader and architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, was killed by U.S. forces, somebody painted graffiti on theMaine Muslims Community Center on Anderson Street saying: “Osama today, Islam tomorow (sic)” and “Go Home.”
The vandalism was broadly decried by city leaders. Just as local Muslims said the Sept. 11 attacks were contrary to Islam, so too did local officials insist that the hateful writings did not represent the wider community.
Portland has had a small Muslim community for many years, comprised of native-born Americans and immigrants from south Asia and Africa. It grew noticeably following the civil war in Somalia in 1991. By Sept. 11, 2001, Somalis represented the largest group of Muslims in the city, numbering about 2,000.
There were perhaps 5,000 Muslims overall in Maine and they drew little attention, said Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs for the University of Southern Maine.
That obscurity dissolved with the terrorist attacks.
“All of a sudden we became the enemy. We became the outsiders,” said Jalali, a Muslim whose family was of Kurdish origin in Iran. “Many of us who came to Maine as refugees, we left that life behind — people questioning your loyalty to the state, being separated and taken out of lines at the airport.”
“We had left that in our past lives and one day all those ghosts came back,” he said. “You lose that sense of belonging and not because you’ve done something.”
They felt ostracized when attending their children’s soccer games. There were notes on the windshield urging him to leave the country. Some members of the Muslim community adopted western names for their children.
Some Muslims, especially women with head coverings who are easily identified as members of the faith, endured what Osman describes as “hard looks.”
Some in the city did reach out. Jalali was asked to speak to business groups and border patrol agents who wanted to learn about Islam. He also would speak with Muslims, especially recent arrivals, about how to interact with authorities. And he urged them to set a good example.
“Whether we like it or not, we represent this religion of 1.4 billion people,” he said. “I am taking better care of our lawn where we live. I want our house to look beautiful. I want to paint it,” he said.
“They’re not going to say ‘that Muslim. They live like pigs.’ I have to be a model citizen.”
Mohamud Barre, a Somali who came to the United States in 1995, was working in the Oxford Street shelter in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks when a homeless man grabbed his identification badge that bore his first name, identified him as Muslim and told him to go home.
To avoid conflict, Barre used his last name on his badge instead.
The experience demonstrated that many people in Portland know little about the peaceful underpinnings of Islam and make assumptions about its followers, said Barre, secretary of the Islamic Society of Maine.
He has tried to be as helpful as he can to counteract the false assumptions people may have about Muslims after Sept. 11.
Barre said he offers to help shovel walkways at Kennedy Park where he lives, and is known as someone who keeps a copy of the bus schedule and is quick with jumper cables if a car doesn’t start.
“Because of helping them, some of them they told me, Muslims are very helpful,” he said. “As soon as you work with other groups, American people, the bulk will like you if they know you by name. If they don’t understand my religion, just work with them, or talk to them.”
Barre said he is now comfortable using his first name without fear of conflict.
In the 10 years since the attacks, many of the Somali Muslims have become citizens and so feel more secure, more a part of America, Barre said. Some still fear that the inability to find a job may be based on discrimination, but the difficult economy is making it hard for many people, regardless of religion.
There are now more Muslims in Portland and in others parts of Maine than 10 years ago, and it is an extremely diverse demographic, said Jalali.
“Now I run into people from Lebanon, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Ghana and Nigeria, so many countries,” said Jalali, who is writing a book titled “God Speaks with Many Accents.”
“I finally met Muslim Cambodians in Maine,” he said.
Adilah Muhammad is an American-born Muslim who does strategic planning and runs a real estate investment company in the Lewiston-Auburn area. She said people seem more cautious toward her since Sept. 11, 2001, and she has come to expect that her head scarf will lead to being singled out for extra screening when she flies, which is often.
But the negative comments and looks she gets today may not be directly related to Sept. 11 or her religion.
“I think the impact (of Sept. 11) on me is not dramatically different than the impact on everyone else,” she said. “I don’t know if the interactions post-Sept. 11 come from just being confused, thinking I’m an immigrant or refugee in the Lewiston-Auburn area.”
Many Muslim immigrants who were teenagers when the attacks occurred now have graduated from high school and gone on to college.
“They are already in the mainstream,” Osman said.
Somali Muslims have run for the Legislature and Hamza Haadoow, chairman of the Somali Community Resource Center, is a mayoral candidate in Portland.
“When Sept. 11 happened, I had just lived in this country for a year,” Haadoow said. Afterward, many in the Muslim community felt they were regarded as an enemy. “So the only solution I thought was participate, they need to engage in the civic life.”
At the same time, he believes it is his duty as an American to report someone to authorities if he thought they posed a threat.
“I want to try to show we are not part of those initiatives at all,” he said, referring to the terrorist attacks that he believes are counter to his religion. “We don’t want anyone wanting to harm our neighbors, our country, our co-workers or our classmates.”
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: