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Muslim reflects on response

When Bassam Chabaan fielded a call one recent Friday morning - his Sabbath day - about a countywide interfaith hurricane recovery meeting that same afternoon, he rearranged his worship schedule to attend.

BY SUSAN KIM | ORLANDO, Fla. | November 16, 2004

When Bassam Chabaan fielded a call one recent Friday morning - his Sabbath day - about a countywide interfaith hurricane recovery meeting that same afternoon, he rearranged his worship schedule to attend.

He was the only Muslim person there and, to his surprise, he walked away as interim co-chair of the newly formed Operation Love, a long-term recovery committee. "I did not expect to be nominated but I think they wanted diversity," he explained.

Does Chabaan - assistant director for the Islamic Society of Central Florida's Center for Peace - ever feel like he's invited at the last minute to meet some other organization's nod toward multiculturalism?

Sometimes, he admitted, but whatever the reason he was included at the table, he's now in this with both feet - and he'll interrupt his Sabbath if that's what it takes.

He says never done this before and he figures now is a good time to start. "It's our opportunity to contribute to the hurricane recovery," he said. "We're still rookies and we're so impressed by the coordination and organization of all these churches."

Chabaan's own reason for becoming involved isn't motivated by political correctness - it's spurred by his beliefs, he said. "This is what our faith teaches."

But he struggles with the reasons other people think he's involved. "It we don't get involved, people see us as isolated, and sometimes if we do get involved, people think we just want publicity. We're so frustrated. How do we work with that? I would like to tell people - just because it's not on TV doesn't mean it's not happening."

Before hurricane season, the Center for Peace worked with the American Red Cross to become a certified storm shelter. When the storms hit, the center became a temporary home to more than 100 kids from Brevard County, said Chabaan.

And, when the children stayed for several days, he watched, in the midst of disaster, a bridge of understanding being built between young people across faith lines. "Some of the girls wanted to know why some Muslim women wear veils," said Chabaan.

After the hurricane passed, some young people came back to attend a service.

And, in some ways, Chabaan isn't the rookie claims to be. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forever changed the way Muslims would relate to their community, he said. The compound where the Center For Peace is located - which also includes a mosque and a school - is now under heavy security.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, the center established three committees - one for security, one for community outreach, and a third for media relations.

The "backlash" of hatred against Muslims in the wake of Sept. 11 is very real and is still unfolding, he said. "We need to defend ourselves."

Before the attacks, he said, most mosques had isolated themselves within their communities. "We built mosques and we isolated ourselves around the mosques. And that's what led to the backlash."

But now Muslims are actively reaching out to other faiths, he said. "One of the most humbling things that ever took place after 9/11 was when churches reached out and said, 'if your women want to go to the grocery store, we'll go with them,' It was the most humbling thing."

Like other faith communities and people everywhere, he said, Muslims in Orlando were stunned at the deaths of so many innocent people. "We were so shocked and so angry those maniacs hijacked our faith."

Being angry is understandable, he said, but people need to know that the Muslim faith isn't about violence. For the past few years, the Center for Peace has been teaching people about the Muslim faith. "We offered cultural sensitivity training for 100 Orange County police lieutenants," he said, "and for chaplains from Florida hospitals, and military personnel. We gave a presentation about Islam but what we want to say is - we are Americans just like you."

As he deals with the backlash of hatred, he has also seen tolerance grow this hurricane season. An example, he said: "Well, relations - at least the way they're portrayed by the national press - between Southern Baptists and Muslims have never been what you'd call good," he said.

But at a Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster meeting, he was surprised to be approached by a Southern Baptist disaster responder. "Before meeting him, I would hear what the Southern Baptists would say against Muslims. I had never met a Southern Baptist. But he started speaking. And he said, 'I just want to tell you I know the Muslims and the Southern Baptists don't have the best relationship. But I believe we're both here to do what God taught us to do. Let our work together be the example.' "

Chabaan was stunned, he said, and now he believes that hurricane recovery could help end the cycle of hatred, especially if it brings together families and young people across faith lines to help solve even bigger challenges. "Terrorism is a worldwide problem. So is domestic violence. So is AIDS. These problems are everybody's problem, and we need to solve these huge problems using the simplest element of community.

"We might disagree," he said, "but we agree to love one another."

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