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TOM BEARDEN: The call to prayer for the Lackawanna, New York mosque echoes through this working class neighborhood five times each day. It’s nothing new. Muslim families, most from Yemen, have been living in this town on the shores of Lake Erie since the 1930s. They came here to work in the steel mills that were the foundation of the area’s economy. The community continued to grow, even when most of those jobs evaporated in the mid 80s. Yemenites now number nearly 2,000 in a city of 19,000 people.
The town has never recovered from the closure of the steel mills, the median household income in the neighborhood is $23,000. And now time seems tougher for the Yemenite community since six young men from Lackawanna were arrested earlier this month, accused of attending an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan a few months before the September 11 attacks. People were shocked by the arrests. They view themselves as being as American as anybody else. Signs of their patriotism adorn many porch fronts. They also have a passion for soccer. It’s an enthusiasm they brought from Yemen, and they usually win when competing with area teens.
SPOKESMAN: Come on.
TOM BEARDEN: Abdul Noman is the high school coach and president of the Yemen soccer club. His nephew is one of the accused. He doesn’t believe the men went to the training camp, despite reports that one has confessed to doing so.
ABDUL NOMAN: I was really very very sad and very surprised, and I disagree with the charges against all the six suspects because, including one of them was my nephew. I cannot agree with what they’re saying.
TOM BEARDEN: Tell me about your nephew.
ABDUL NOMAN: He’s an all American boy, was born and raised in the city of Lackawanna, he’s the father of one child. He met his sweetheart when he was in grade 9 and he married her after he finished high school. And he played soccer all his life since he was seven.
TOM BEARDEN: Noman and others have mortgaged their houses to provide bail money for the suspects. He is utterly convinced of their innocence.
ABDUL NOMAN: The six suspects, they will be innocent, that’s my answer to your question.
TOM BEARDEN: And if they’re not?
ABDUL NOMAN: Believe me, they’re innocent. They are innocent. They’re not interested in any politics at all. Politics is not in their mind. They are hard working families, they want to raise their kids here in the United States, they want to have the American dream.
TOM BEARDEN: But even Noman is puzzled about some aspects of the case, like why the six young men went to Pakistan for religious training.
ABDUL NOMAN: There’s a lot of Islamic schools over there, that’s why he went. I wasn’t sure why. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure why. The day or two days before he left for Pakistan, he stopped by and told me that uncle I’m going to Pakistan to study the Islamic education because, like you see in the city of Lackawanna, there’s no schools to teach the Islamic education. So I told him, "God with you, and I wish you the best trip."
He was supposed to stay about maybe six months. But he came back after three months. When he came back, he came to visit me within two days. I said, "how was it?" He said, "uncle, there is no other place like the United States of America." I said, "why?" He said, "I slept on dirty mattress, I ate filthy food. There is no place like the United States of America. We’re lucky we live in the United States." He said we should appreciate that.
TOM BEARDEN: Mohammad Albanna is an unofficial spokesman for Lackawanna Yemeni community. He says while his neighbors were surprised by the arrests, they have fundamental faith in the fundamental fairness of the American justice system.
MOHAMMAD ALBANNA: We believe that there’s a tremendous fair-minded individuals that will listen to the case, listen to the proof and make a judgment based what’s in front of him rather than on what they read or saw on TV.
TOM BEARDEN: Have you experienced any backlash from the wider community?
MOHAMMAD ALBANNA: No, not at all. We have been fortunate in western New York we are thankful to our leadership, but we are more thankful to the community because I think they understand what we’re going through, and they understand that this is a mere accusation and they are waiting to hear the truth and then make that judgment based on that.
TOM BEARDEN: But some are concerned about what could happen to individual freedoms. Dr. Khalid Qazi is a physician and President of the American Muslim Council.
DR. KHALID QAZI: There is a very strong feeling in legal circles that some of the legislation that has come out of Washington recently may seriously compromise the rights of some minorities or Americans in the country. The profiling that is being done is a strong problem that needs to be looked at. We obviously need to work with our political leadership and the administration to see how we can best balance the security issues and the rights of citizens.
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Qazi, who met with President Bush after the September 11 attacks, says the Muslim community feels unfairly targeted.
DR. KHALID QAZI: I think there is a strong feeling in the Muslim community that if there is a Muslim individual who might be accused of carrying out any activity, then the whole community is under the focus and the microscope, rather than just that individual. You can take several examples in the Christian community as well as in Jewish community where anti- social activities have taken place against Muslim individuals, but that has not– and rightly so-has not incriminated the Christian community or the Jewish community at large because it shouldn’t be. I think we have to realize that if we are going to deride our community and nation into fragments and segments, then our enemies have won.
TOM BEARDEN: Hassan Muhsen is a retired steelworker who has lived in Lackawanna for 38 years. Musen says some news organizations have unfairly portrayed his town, making too much of things like the fact that the women wear scarves to cover their heads, that most people in the neighborhood still communicate in Arabic, and that nearly every house has a satellite dish in order to watch al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel.
HASSAN MUHSEN: I’m disappointed, for example in today’s headline where they tried to portray our community as isolated from the rest of the community, and they gave an example of a community like the Amish, or the Hassadish in New York, and we’re not like. This we’re blending in. Of course we keep some of our culture. But generally speaking we are part of the community, as a whole. We are no different.
TOM BEARDEN: And you feel welcome here?
HASSAN MUHSEN: Yes, I do. And we don’t want to be treated as different. I mean, we want to be treated like everybody else.
TOM BEARDEN: And that extends to guilt much proven. The people we talked to were unanimous in believing that if a crime against the U.S. has been perpetrated, the men should be punished.