Bearing the blame

“I was called a terrorist, but I was the one being terrorized”

For six months after an Islamic terror group attacked Mumbai in 2008, Abdalla Houssein felt like a hostage on the other side of the world.

While he lived in Connecticut, Houssein said, he was terrorized for the sheer fact that his brown skin, traditional garb, accent, and turban matched the description of the terrorists that killed 164 people and wounded at least 300 that November.

“That’s when I learned my lesson of what being a hostage actually means. People would say ‘Abdalla you faggot,’ and knock on my door and say ‘come here we’ll kill you,” he said. “I was called a terrorist, but I was the one being terrorized.”

While sitting inside the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, Houssein seemed at home. He moved to Massachusetts in 2009 after the intolerance he faced in Connecticut became too much. Here, in the center where he spends most of his days, he said he’s finally found a peaceful and welcoming community.

According to ISBCC’s website, the mission of the center is “to teach and live Islam in America,” as well as “build a community of leaders rooted in the Islamic tradition, committed to American ideals and empowered to serve the common good.”

The ISBCC is a 70,000 square foot structure in Roxbury, a multi-cultural suburb of Boston. The center is not just an Islamic religious center, but rather meant to serve the entire community. Inside is a school, a café, and a multipurpose room for functions and events, such as interfaith, nonprofit, cultural, and educational organizations.

“This center is very nice, very peaceful, very happy, and very tolerant,” Houssein said, while wearing a grey pea coat and holding a Dunkin Donuts cup. “We’ve got all types of different beliefs that come here all the time. Everyday, people learn new lessons from here.”

As a first-generation American from an Indian family, I spent most of my childhood summers in Mumbai — a city with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. As a result, hijabs, turbans, and mosques were commonplace to me at a young age, unlike some of my peers who’s only exposure to Islam is through the media.

Despite what ISIS, the Taliban, and other terror groups demonstrate otherwise, I’ve always been cognizant of the fact that Islam is an incredibly peaceful religion. However, since I have never actually learned about Islam, I am also guilty of having some preconceived notions.

I have always thought of Islam as a very conservative and rigid religion, and assumed the mosque in Roxbury would be reflective of that. As soon as I walked inside, I covered my hair and immediately explained to someone at the desk who I was and why I was there.

However, I quickly learned that there was no need to explain why I was there — the ISBCC is open to everyone, regardless of skin color or religious affiliation. I could take pictures, freely walk around, and was continually welcomed with “Assalamu alaikum,” a universal Islamic greeting.

Zeinab Aly, an ISBCC volunteer, said the center is so open because the Islamic religion is open. She was insistent that I came to one of the center’s free classes and attended a prayer session on Friday, because she simply wanted me to learn more about her religion which she, like Houssein, also feels gets terribly misconstrued by the media.

As a retired security worker, Houssein’s life is devoted to Allah. His days revolve around prayer — once in the morning, twice in the afternoon, once after sunset, and once in the evening. And he spends the moments in between prayer carrying out Allah’s main ideal: be as good as you can to yourself, to your neighbors, to your children, and to all those around you.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Houssein why a religion that preaches so much peace and so much tolerance is continually used by terror groups as a vehicle and justification to carry out horrific acts.

After I asked that question, his voice grew increasingly passionate.

“There is no justification for using Islam. Those people just want to destroy,” Houssein said, hitting his finger on the table after each sentence. “They are crazy idiots. You cannot claim that you are Muslim and do work for Islam when you explode your own self and your own mother. They are doing exactly what Islam preaches NOT to do — evil.”

It is up to the media, he said, to bridge the disconnect between the negative perceptions of Islam and the reality.

According to Pew Research Center, Muslims are 23 percent of the world’s population, making Islam the world’s second-largest religion. While the religion is growing increasingly prominent in the United States, so is the anti-Muslim rhetoric.

After the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump called for the “complete shutdown” of all Muslims coming into the U.S. He said until the U.S. can “figure out what the hell is going on,” such steps must be taken. Although he was universally condemned by leaders around the world — from the leaders of an official religious organization in Egypt to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker — others supported him.

Seventy-five percent of Republicans that voted in South Carolina’s GOP Primary said they supported Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., according to a CBS News exit poll. Twenty-three percent of voters said they opposed the ban.

The anti-Muslim rhetoric in our country is based on sheer ignorance and a lack of education on what Islam actually stands for. These beliefs also have the unfortunate, and toxic ability to poke through in our foreign policy. After visiting the ISBCC and sitting down with Houssein and Aly, I became even more frustrated that people of such a peaceful religion face such blind ridicule and judgment. There is no reason they should bear the blame.

At 3:05 p.m. on the dot last Wednesday, Houssein, Aly, and dozens of other devoted Muslims gathered in a sprawling prayer area in the ISBCC. I, an obvious outsider, was allowed to sit in a chair next to them while they prayed. I received no judgment for deciding not to partake.

During the five-minute prayer, there was no preaching of destruction or suggestion of evil — rather, I just observed a beautiful sense of devotion and love for the God that brought them all there at that moment.