With recent polls showing that some North Carolinians support plans such as creating a database of Muslim residents or shutting down mosques, Triangle Muslims have varied feelings on how they are perceived in the community.
Some say Islamophobia is an issue that continues to grow. Others say they have never felt any problems.
Imran Aukhil, spokesman for the Islamic Association of Raleigh – which includes a mosque and an Islamic school – said the mosque “has received unpleasant notes, some of which could be perceived as threats.”
“The public’s fear has increased substantially in the last six months or so,” he said. “And obviously part of that is tied to the political debates. But I would say that there has been a slow, rising tide in the last decade.”
But Shakil Ahmed, president or emir of the Cary mosque, said that mosque has mainly received supportive messages in the weeks since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments about the religion – including a call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“Never have I felt prejudice or racial feelings from anybody,” said Ahmed, a business executive who has lived in the U.S. since 1966 and founded the Islamic Association of Cary in 2004. “In the Muslim world, you can’t go a day or two without hearing a racial slur. I grew up in Pakistan. The ethnic tensions there are bad. The U.S. is 10 times better than any country I’ve ever been to.”
Still others, such as Nikki Rana, say the lack of in-your-face insults or discrimination still doesn’t excuse the sideways glances and vitriolic posts on social media, where it’s easier to be hateful than in person.
Rana is a convert to Islam. It was the religion of her husband, Ahmad Rana, who grew up in Pakistan. He’s a doctor in Harnett County, and she’s a teacher. They live in Southwest Wake County.
She grew up Baptist in Louisiana, she said, “in a very Southern, very racist household.” Most of her family reacted poorly when she converted nine years ago. But when their eldest child died recently, she said, that tragedy and the funeral helped her family finally begin to accept her faith.
“My dad and my family got to see that Islam isn’t what Donald Trump says it is,” she said. “They got to meet real Muslims.”
One thing the 43-year-old convert hasn’t lost from her rural upbringing is a love of the Second Amendment, even despite the stares she said she gets wearing her headscarf at the gun range. That’s because she’s also a big believer in the First Amendment.
I’ve got white skin, a Southern drawl. But then I put the hijab on, and just because of my religion, they want to send me somewhere.
Nikki Rana, Wake County resident and convert to Islam
“I could walk around without a hijab on my head, and no one would say a word to me,” Rana said. “I’ve got white skin, a Southern drawl. But then I put the hijab on, and just because of my religion, they want to send me somewhere. But my biggest thing is, I’ve got freedom of religion.”
Many in the Triangle’s Muslim community said they have a hard time believing polls such as the one released Dec. 8 by the liberal-leaning Raleigh firm Public Policy Polling. It found that among likely Republican voters in North Carolina, nearly half – 48 percent – support creating a database of Muslim Americans.
An additional 35 percent supported shutting down mosques, and 32 percent thought Islam should be illegal.
Trump is the most popular GOP candidate in the state. Among his supporters, the firm found 67 percent supported tracking Muslims, 51 percent believe mosques should be shut down, and 44 percent believe it should be illegal to practice Islam.
“Trump’s Islamophobia is a central feature of his appeal to his supporters,” the polling firm wrote.
But his supporters say it’s not that simple. Walter Phillips, the editor and publisher of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City, has written half a dozen editorials praising Trump in recent months.
“I have gotten only positive feedback,” he said in an interview. “Carteret County is a very conservative county.
“I don’t think (Trump) is a racist. He’s out for the security of America. We don’t have a leader right now who supports that.”
There are seven cities in North Carolina where refugees from anywhere, including the Middle East, could be resettled. Those include two near Phillips’ readers, Wilmington and New Bern. The others are Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and High Point.
The refugees who have come have wanted to assimilate. But the Muslims who come want to keep their religion. ... It’s a cultural clash. And it would certainly be that in the South.
Walter Phillips, editor and publisher of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City
Phillips said he fears refugees could receive government benefits or compete for already scarce jobs in the area, or that they might not assimilate.
“The refugees who have come have wanted to assimilate,” Phillips said. “But the Muslims who come want to keep their religion. ... It’s a cultural clash. And it would certainly be that in the South.”
One recent afternoon, Moroccan immigrant Abdulrahim Ermaidr was at Raleigh’s Mecca Market. He manages a neighboring electronics business and often comes in to grab food.
He said cable news focuses disproportionately on Islamic extremism, making it seem pervasive when it’s actually quite rare.
“I put myself in your shoes, and I’ll get scared of Muslims – and I’m a Muslim myself,” he said. “Most American people are scared of Islam because the media make them scared, and I cannot blame them.”
The Muslim community in North Carolina has turned out a few terror supporters, though none ever actually launched an attack.
But of the four Americans known to have been killed by CIA drone strikes, two were from North Carolina. Charlotte blogger Samir Khan, who edited a magazine for al-Qaida, was killed in Yemen in 2011. Jude Kenan Mohammed was killed in a 2011 bombing in Pakistan, five years after dropping out of Fuquay-Varina High School. He had escaped prosecution in a terror ring broken up in 2009 in southern Wake County, led by Daniel Patrick Boyd. Boyd and five others are now in prison.
A Cary resident, Basit Javed Sheikh, was accused in 2013 of attempting to join an extremist group fighting in the Syrian civil war. He has not been convicted, however, and a judge recently committed him to a mental hospital.
Almost any time a major terror attack perpetrated by Islamic extremists dominates the world news, a local Muslim man quickly organizes a vigil at the Cary mosque. Faisal Khan of Morrisville put on the vigils after attacks near and far – for San Bernardino, Calif., for Paris and for Peshawar, Pakistan.
As an American and a Muslim, I do what I can do to give back to humanity.
Faisal Khan of Morrisville
Khan is a devout Muslim. He also quotes figures such as John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Douglas MacArthur with ease, to show that being a Muslim and being an American aren’t mutually exlusive.
He said it’s draining for Muslim Americans to be asked to apologize for the actions of violent extremists. So he organizes the vigils to help show solidarity with the victims and to denounce terrorism.
“As an American and a Muslim, I do what I can do to give back to humanity,” he said.
The vigils are always interfaith events, with Christians and others praying among the mostly Muslim crowds. Khan said he would also like to reach out to religious leaders, such as Charlotte evangelist Franklin Graham, who have sided with Trump.
Khan has taken on his activism as a full-time pursuit, quitting his administrative job at Duke University to dedicate more time to outreach.
“This is my purpose in my life,” Khan said. “People do different things. This is mine. We have to come up with a constructive dialogue.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran