After the loss of 8 relatives on 911 she discovers Islam


Her mother named her Elizabeth after the queen of England. More than four decades later, she took another name: Safia Al-Kasaby, reflecting her new identity as a Muslima.

Safia, 43, is an unlikely candidate for conversion. She claims Jewish and Puerto Rican ancestry. She is a former sergeant first class in the Air Force National Guard. And she lost eight relatives - one uncle and seven cousins - in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Back then, Safia did not imagine the faith professed by the hijackers would one day become her own.

"It didn't really matter who did it," says the Tampa woman now, reflecting on the 2001 attacks. "I just never hated Islam. I never hated Muslims. For me to be angry about what happened to the twin towers would be like me hating all the Germans that killed the Jews."

Safia embraced Islam last year, coming to the faith at a time when it is seemingly maligned anew with each new report of terror plots, wars in far away lands and dead American soldiers.

Like other Muslims, Safia feels the tension all around her: curious stares because she wears the hijab or head scarf and store clerks who ask for extra identification.

Just last month , officials at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo turned down an initial request from Safia's Egyptian fianc for a temporary visa. Safia was certain bigotry played a role.

Her new faith also has widened the chasm among her Christian family. Her mother, three sisters and one of her daughters question her choice. 

Safia presses on.

"For her to accept Islam, making that decision especially in this day and time, it says you're ready to step up and deal with the challenges of this journey," said Pat "Aliyah" Cruse, a fellow Muslima and 11-year convert. 

Muslim Demographics in the USA

Some demographers consider Islam to be the fastest-growing religion in the world. Of the 1.3-billion Muslims worldwide, 4.7-million live in the United States, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

One of the world's oldest religions, Islam has been in the United States for generations. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, thrust the religion and its adherents into the spotlight. Before the attacks, American Muslims largely kept to themselves. Now, many feel the public expects them to answer for the actions of those who commit heinous acts in the name of their faith.

Across the country, some Muslims complain of stereotyping, racial profiling and discrimination. Others pine for the days when Islam was rarely mentioned in headlines. Most dare not complain openly, religious and civic leaders say, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or sympathetic to extremists.

"There's a certain sense of indignation to being treated the way they've been treated," said Imam Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. "There's a kind of rage. The challenge is to make that a healthy rage."

Many American Muslims say extremists misrepresent their faith. But convincing the public to separate Islam from terrorism at times seems an insurmountable hurdle.

Opinion polls back up what American Muslims say they feel every day: Masses of the U.S. populace view them negatively. In a USA Today/Gallup poll released in August , 39 percent of Americans said they feel prejudiced toward Muslims. Nearly one quarter of Americans polled said they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor. 

Another 39 percent want Muslims to carry special identification at all times and undergo enhanced security checks when boarding airplanes.

Anti-Muslim sentiment also has popped up in the Tampa Bay area, home to an estimated 45,000 Muslims. In 2002, federal agents arrested a Seminole podiatrist, Dr. Robert Goldstein, on charges of plotting to blow up a mosque.

Fearing for their wives' safety after Sept. 11, husbands of immigrant Muslim women pulled them out of leadership roles in Islamic women's groups. Fathers encouraged daughters to remove their hijabs in public to avoid harassment. Muslim women complained of verbal abuse in retail stores. One woman's hijab was ripped from her head by a customer in her husband's store.

Children get few passes. Last spring , athletic officials benched Temple Terrace's Briana Canty when she refused to remove her head scarf in an amateur youth basketball league tournament. Rather than recognize Islamic holidays, the Hillsborough County School Board voted to rescind all religious holidays, a move it later reversed.

This is the new reality for American Muslims. Advances are often eclipsed by setbacks.

Quoting Charles Dickens, Ihsan Bagby, a leading Muslim demographer and associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, said this is the best and worst of times for Muslims in America.

"This frustration, this pressure will ultimately produce positive results as Muslims continue to strive to become full members of this society," Bagby said. "Overall, everybody will look back at this period, they'll see this possibly as a turning point in the history of Islam in America."

Challenges for American Muslims

Despite challenges for Muslims, Islam continues to grow, buoyed by births and new converts such as Safia.

Raised by her grandparents in Puerto Rico, Safia grew up in a home of melded cultures and faiths. Her grandfather was a Jew, who fled Germany during the Holocaust. Her grandmother was Catholic. Safia ultimately chose Judaism, a faith she believed was her birthright.

But Judaism eventually let her down, Safia said. In 1997, nearly destitute, she approached a North Tampa synagogue for help. Officials at the shul wanted to know if she was a member. She was not. They asked her if she was really Jewish.

"They said just because I had a relative along the line didn't make me Jewish," said Safia. "That was the first wall. That I wasn't pure."

Battling rejection, Safia left the synagogue. For eight years, she did not participate in organized religion.

She found Islam in 2005 on the third day of a Moroccan vacation.

"I just felt like God was there," she said, recalling her visit to a mosque during the call for prayer. "I said, 'This is it. I believe there is only one God. His name is Allah, and his messenger is Mohammed.'"

At first, Safia's family didn't take her seriously. And some colleagues at her banking job looked askance at her new Moroccan-inspired Islamic attire. Safia quickly toned it down, wearing scarves only around her neck. She dared not pray at work.

Mostly, Safia kept her new faith at home, learning about her religion on Web sites and Islamic chat rooms.

Safia went to the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area in June and asked for the imam. She wanted to renew her shahadah, the formal declaration of the Islamic Creed. Safia also was out of work. The imam gave her a job managing the society's office. The group also stocked her refrigerator and paid her rent and electricity bill.

At last, Safia said, she had found a spiritual family. It helps blunt the sting of the rejection from her biological one.

Safia's eldest daughter, Sylvia, wants little to do with her. A Baptist and young military widow, Sylvia berated Safia when she showed up at her husband's funeral wearing a hijab and carrying a Koran.

At home in Town 'N Country, Safia raises two daughters. Ten-year-old Natalia says her mother's religion is cool.

Ada, 18, appreciates Safia's transformation and doesn't put up with people who make fun of Islam or stereotype Muslims.

"I say, 'Wait a minute. My mom's a Muslim,'" Ada said. "She's not a terrorist."

Safia hopes the world will see her as an example of what Islam really is. Still early in her conversion, she is a Muslima in transition.

She studies the Koran and prays five times a day. She also wears makeup and has French-manicured acrylic nails. Sometimes she covers and sometimes - when she fears heckling or worse - she does not.

There are victories: Her fianc received his visa and the two married Friday.

She looks forward to the day when her religion is not an issue.

"I don't want to have whispers behind me, whispers in front of me," she said. "I want to be able to blend in, keep my faith and blend in."

 

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3405.

2006 All Rights Reserved St. Petersburg Times


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  15 Comments   Comment

  1. Gold Rahman from Nigeria

    It is a beautiful things happening to islam especialy from a land we here considered to be enemy of islam ,the lady should prayer well against intimidation and ostracization may guide her and see her through,ma sallam.Gold Rahman.

  2. Fahtimah Farmer from U.S.A

    Asalamu Alakum Sis Safia!I pray that God bless you for your acceptance of Islam even though the death of you family members was carried out by muslims.I am so happy that you did not automaticly hate Muslims just because of what happend.I will try to relate to me your story.I did not loose any family members in New York,as none of my family lives there.But every day I face the steriotypes of American socioty.I am 11 years old,and I too took my shahada one year ago,I was 10 years old.My brother, who was at the time 12,took his shahada when I did.And my mom did one day after my brother and I.

    My brother and I are Native Americans from the tribe of Cherokee.I ware a hijab every day, everywhere.And my brother wears a kufi.When people see me,they think I'm from Moracco,or Pakistan,espiacially when they here me reciting the Qur'an to myself. I say, "No,I am from America."They seem quite taken back.I tell them I'm Native American,and they seem even more taken back, as if they thought Native Americans can't be Muslims too.Sometimes I tell them, "Don't you know, Muslims come from every country in the World,even countries that no longer exist, such as Cherokee?

    I face a lot more ridicule from people than my brother does because, he favors{looks like} my mother's side wich is Afican American,and I favor my father's side wich is Native American.It is quite interesting to see the reactions on their{the non muslims} face,but I handle it with patiance.I have a friend who's Egytian born in America,my age,and she always wares a big hijab.Her mom tells me, sometimes, people get a little hot under the collar when they see a young girl waring a hijab.She used to attract so much unwanted attention,that sometimes, she would ware a veil, even as young as seven.

  3. afiq amran from Malaysia

    ALLAH BLESS YOU!

    Thanks for your devotion to Islam. If only the world have more people like you who are willing to open up and stand for what is truly right.

    ALLAH BLESS YOU again!

    The Ummah will always be there for you.

    Take care sister.

  4. Abdali from CANADA

    Greetings,

    Thanks for bringing this article to islamicity readers.

    I also wanted to convey this to sr.Safia that,

    She is a lucky muslima - because allah(Swt) guided her to the right path - and that her reward is double than any other muslim - as per a hadith of our beloved prophet(pbuh) - where a believer from among the previous nations if he/she believes in the last prophet - the reward is doubled, inshaallah!

    And allah(almighty) knows best!

    http://www.islamicity.com/articles/Articles.asp?ref=IV0610-3134

    Regards

    Abdali

    Toronto, Canada

  5. disgruntled from islam

    can we please started referring to those muslims in the US as MUSLIM - Americans and not as American-Muslim as the author eluded too. Lets be proud of being Muslims first above all else. Secondly, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans-Native American, Mexican Americans--notice the trend...be proud of your Muslim identity, not so much the American--what do you have to prove and to whom

  6. Jeff Russell from USA

    The only problem I have with the content of this article is the following statement:

    "Back then, Safia did not imagine the faith professed by the hijackers would one day become her own."

    There has been no proof or evidence provided to the public or to anyone for that matter by the 9-11 commission that the hijackers had any specific proclaimed faith. It is merely the "official version" of the story and yet to be proven. I have a serious doubt in this propagated version. Unfortunately, like any other distorted documentation of history books, this event would also be documented and accepted by people who don't think and jump up the bandwagon. Ma'Aaz'Allah, how people twist and distort the truth that even the true sympathetic to the victim tend to lose the critical thinking and unknowingly get puppeted into the hands of the plotters.

    The above statement would be accurate if it read as follows:

    Back then, Safia did not imagine the faith professed by the so-called hijackers would one day become her own.

    Anyhow, Allah says in the Qur'an:

    Al-A'raf (The Heights) [7:99]

    Afaaminoo makra Allahi fala yamanu makra Allahi illa alqawmu alkhasiroona

    7:99 Did they then feel secure against the plan of Allah.- but no one can feel secure from the Plan of Allah, except those (doomed) to ruin!

  7. Mohamed Faizy Ahmed from India

    Assalamualaikumrahmathullahbarakathhu

    Dear Sister Safia,

    May allah subhanawathaala give you courage and determination to encounter these difficulties. We'll pray for teh well being of all your family inshah allh one day they also will realize the path of Islam.Never be dejected on oyur islamic beliefs as this life is just short and shall be rewarded by Allah in the eternal life if you follow the right islamic beliefs and etiquettes.

    Jazhakmullahkhair.

  8. Babandi A. Gumel from U.K

    For those who respond to their Lord is bliss...

    Is then one who knows what is revealed unto thee from your Lord is the Truth like one who is blind? But only men of understanding take heed.

    Those who fulfil the Covenant of Allah and fail not(in their resolve).Such as unite which Allah has commanded to be joined and fear their Lord and fear the terrible reckoning,those who patiently persevere seeking the pleasure of their Lord,establish regular prayers and spend of that which We bestow upon them secretely and openly and repel evil with good for such there is final attainment of (Heveanly) Home Gardens of Perpetual Bliss along with all who do right of their fathers,helpmates and their offspring.The Angels shall enter unto them from every Gate (with salutation)"Peace be Upon You because you persevered in patience how excellent is the final Abode" Quran:Chapter The Thunder".So Sister Safia continue to be steadfast as expected do not worry. May Allah give you and all other Muslim brothers and sisters especially the new Muslims to be steadfast until we meet our Creator Allah (S.W.T) Amen.So do not worry life of this World is very very short compared with the Life Hereafter which is forever with no end to it.Imam Ghazali gave example if you fill the whole space between the heaven and earth with mustard seeds and a bird comes and picks one seed only and goes away and does not come back until after one thousand years a time will come In sha Allah when this mustard seed will finish but the Lifehereafteris forever will never finish.So this is the analogy for us to take heed.May Allah keep all of us steadfast until we meet Him (our Creator) especially in this Month of Ramadan the Prophet reminded us that a fasting person will have two joys one at the time of breaking his fast IFTAR and the other when you meet Allah which means after death.

  9. Mairaj Ali from US

    Welcome Sister, may Allah make your faith even more stronger and soften your family's heart towards you and Islam. Our prayers are with you.

  10. Muhammad from USA

    May God grant you and all in your family the patience to endure the loss of so many of your family members. May all your family members who lost their lives in the senseless act of violence on 911 rest in peace. May you be an example of hope and inspiration for humanity.

  11. khan from USA

    WELCOME TO ISLAM :Religion of peace, Religion of one God, Religion of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad(all messengers from the the same and one God-ALLAH.) It is a very beautiful religion with no doubt whatsoever and with all great prophets. It is open and very clear.

    It is a religion of one God -Allah and with one original and Universal book Quran with no editions or revisions. It is a religion that is a complete GUIDE to our lives and to the Governments and give rights to all living creatures(muslims or non-muslims) on the earth including plants.

    Quran: The word of ALLAH(God)was revealed on Prophet Muhammad and the Quran has everything about the astronomy, Medicine(eg.Embyrology), Laws, Physics(eg.relativity),Chemistry,Geology(rocks,oceans) so on. And Quran is in its original form which has not been edited, nor revised, nor it has versions for different sects of Muslims(as in other religions.)

    Our beloved Prophet Muhammad was the excellent person and no one can come close to him in his personality and His actions. Even non-Muslim authors and leaders have praised Him in their writings.

    May Allah guide us to be on the right path of Islam thru His Final book 'QURAN' and His beloved messenger Muhammad's (pbuh) teachings and Hadiths. Aameen.

  12. Ashfak Shaikh from Canada

    Sister Safia,

    As-Salamo-Alyekum

    Welcome to the path of salvation. Do not worry about the starring eyes and raised eyebrows. My wife has to go through all of this. Just keep in mind; whatever you are doing is for the sake of Allah and he will Insha-Allah make things better for you in this life and hereafter. May Allah (S.W.T.) give you courage to face the chanllenges and difficulties. Ameen

  13. swdr from usa

    Allahu Akbar.Truth is beautiful.Welcome to the Truth.Live to thank the Creator and Do Good as He ordained. All messengers had hardships. There is no exception, we all have to strive for justice, as temptation lurks close behind making wordly affairs attractive. Go above these dark clouds and see the sun shine. Ignore the scoffers as they are the losers. They will not benefit from Islam.From the religion that recognizes All of Allah swt's prophets.Congratulations sister!

  14. wasi siddiqui from Canada

    Islam and its Identity

    Whether it is London bombing or 9/11 tragedy

    It is mass killing of human being and Catastrophe

    Islam and muslims always faces biggest criticism

    As always so-called Al-Qaida claims responsibility

    Islam is the name of peace and harmony

    It never believes in this kind of killing strategy

    Just look at the life of Prophet Mohammad( pbuh)

    Who spread Islam with love and great human dignity

    Prophet Mohammad was a true practical life of Islam

    His every teaching represents Islam's ideology

    He even forgive those who tried to kill him

    He provided help for those who used to hate him

    Islam doesn't spread by hate or killings

    Islam believes in only peace philosophy

    Islam does not discriminate against any religion

    Whether it is Siknism, hinduism or christainity

    Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world

    It is living and will live with its true identity

    Copy right (2006) Wasi siddiqui

  15. Irena binti Idris from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

    To Shafia

    Asalamualaikum and may Allah bless you and your whole family. Don't be afraid or sad because Allah is nearer to you than the vein on your neck. Ask Allah's help everytime you need help. Inshallah, Allah will be there for you.

    Take care dearest sister.

    Love

    Irena and family

    Kuala lumpur

    Malaysia