By Robert L. Kaiser
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
November 21, 2001
Amarillo, with its growing Islamic community, was a litmus test of tolerance following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
AMARILLO, Texas — During the long prayer Saturday after Iftar–the traditional dinner that breaks fasts for Muslims observing Ramadan– a boy kneeling in the little, brick mosque on Quail Street made a silent wish.
“I wished that my family would be OK, that nothing bad would happen again to America and that the whole world will be in peace,” 11-year- old Sonny Teodosie said later.
Elsewhere in Amarillo as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, the rodeo crowned a new steer-roping champion and the Kiwanis Club sponsored a Bible-reading marathon.
Such is life in this city of 220,000, a Bible Belt town in cowboy boots that is doing its best to make way for a swiftly growing Islamic community.
While the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 in New York and near Washington have tested American tolerance around the country, this conservative, mostly white Texas town whose Islamic Center is doubling in size with new construction has provided a litmus test like few others.
Amarillo’s changing demographic landscape and proximity to Oklahoma City, site of the 1995 bombing, could have made it ripe for a volatile reaction, but it has passed the test, many here say.
“There were quite a few incidents in Dallas, Chicago, California, but nothing to speak of in Amarillo,” said Dr. Nazre Mawla, a cancer surgeon and head of the Islamic Center of Amarillo. “So that was a relief.”
Anger voiced at bin Laden
Many Muslims in Amarillo speak cautiously about Sept. 11 so as not to incite a backlash. Others speak in hard voices, their anger at Osama bin Laden flashing in their eyes as they speak of how he has appropriated their religion for all the wrong reasons.
“I think it’s terrible,” said Mawla, who was scrubbing for surgery when the first plane hit. “I think they hijacked the religion.”
Amarillo is more than 71 percent white, with Hispanics making up almost 20 percent of the population, blacks 6 percent and Asians less than 2 percent. But, with a few exceptions, Mawla said, the city has adjusted well to its burgeoning Islamic community, which in 20 years has grown from about four families to roughly 100–at a time when the population of the city as a whole grew slowly.
Many Muslims who move to Amarillo are physicians attracted to the city as a regional medical hub serving several states. Amarillo is home to Northwest Texas Medical Center, which is a part of Texas Tech University. Largely because of the sprawling medical center, the health-care industry is second only to retailing as an employer here; more than 9,300 people work in the medical field.
Mawla is one of them. Twenty years ago, as he finished his medical training in Boston and planned a move to Texas, some of his peers and professors were incredulous that he would start a practice in Amarillo.
“They couldn’t believe I came to the middle of what they call cowboy country,” Mawla said.
Suhail Shoukath, 22, a college student at West Texas A&M University who moved to Amarillo from Chicago five years ago, said he was apprehensive about coming.
“I thought I would be a big outcast,” he said. “But actually people here are pretty accepting.”
Mawla said of Amarillo: “It has become a little more cosmopolitan because there have been a lot of immigrants settling here.”
The Islamic Center was so full Saturday night that sweat glistened on brows; dozens had assembled to pray, talk and eat Indian food, many of them happy with recent news out of Afghanistan that the war against those who would hijack their religion was making progress. There were students and computer technicians, software designers and surgeons; after praying Mawla had to rush off to perform emergency surgery.
“The only thing I had to prove when I came to Amarillo was that I was a good doctor,” said Dr. Ali Jaffar, 40, an immigrant and cardiologist who moved to Amarillo from Chicago five years ago.
`Glad I’m in Amarillo’
“I’m glad I’m in Amarillo, and I’m proud to be an American.”
Muslims from at least two dozen countries have converged on Amarillo, Mawla said. “It’s quite a mix.”
When the center was built in 1994, the Islamic community almost immediately outgrew it, said Mawla, a native of Bangladesh. “There were so many Muslims in the area I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “The newspaper did a story about the center, and they started flocking here.”
Muslims in Amarillo have reacted with fear and anger to the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath. The attacks claimed a relative of one Muslim doctor, a woman who worked on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center in New York.
Jaffar, who wore an American flag pin on his lapel, said: “If they caught bin Laden tomorrow and said, `Would you be the executioner?’ I will. Do you know how much he has set us back?”
The mood at the mosque Saturday was upbeat. Children laughed, ran across the prayer rugs and played as men in jeans smiled and chatted with one another on one side of the divided room and women in shawls did the same on the other side.
There was Shahid Hussain, a Pakistan native who had moved to Amarillo from St. Louis a month ago to take a job as a mechanical engineer. And there was Indian native Ather Kazi, 33, who had moved to Amarillo from Nashville a year ago to take a job designing computer software.
“When I came here I never expected to see such a big Muslim community,” Kazi said.
For many the prevailing perception of Amarillo is that of a cow town, said Mussyal, a 38-year-old of Turkish descent.
Mussyal, an Amarillo police officer with a Texas drawl who once worked at the Iowa Beef Processing plant, converted to Islam 10 years ago in deference to a deathbed wish of his grandfather. He is the embodiment of this city’s racial, ethnic and religious mix.
When his family migrated to America from eastern Turkey to escape political turmoil in the late 1800s, they gave up Islam for their own safety and peace of mind, Mussyal said.
“In central Texas if you weren’t a white Anglo Christian, you weren’t a very safe person,” he said.
Through it all, however, Mussyal’s grandfather clung to the old ways. And after he died, Mussyal–a member of the U.S. Air Force from 1981 to 1992–honored him by dropping the first name “Robert” and becoming a Muslim.
After the terrorist attacks, the Islamic Center asked Mussyal, whose police beat includes the area of the mosque, to provide security at the building.
Muslims in Amarillo recalled that after the Oklahoma City bombing, many in Amarillo seemed quick to blame Middle Eastern terrorists and to take out their anger on local Muslims, Mussyal said.
“We had little vandalisms,” he said. “People would drive by [the mosque] and yell `Go home’ or shout obscenities.”
But, said Hussain: “The people here, they know who is the bad guys and who is the good guys.”
Since Sept. 11 the reaction has been sedate, Mussyal said. Callers have phoned in threats to the mosque and some of the doctors’ offices. Mostly the Islamic Center has received calls of support from other churches, and those who pray at the mosque say they have had no problems at work or school.
“They know I’m a Muslim, but they are my friends anyway,” Sonny Teodosie said.
Sonny, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina who attends a public middle school in Amarillo, once went on a field trip to the rodeo.
The terrorist attacks made him “really sad,” Sonny said.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was really shocked. I couldn’t talk. My mom was really mad. All those poor people died for nothing, and she just got mad. Our religion means peace, it doesn’t mean hate.”