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E.C. doctor's life changed since Sept. 11 — as a citizen and a Muslim

December 15, 2001|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

You only have to listen for a brief moment to Dr. Hussein El Newihi speak to gauge his utter sadness and despair at the events of Sept. 11.

A gentle and soft-spoken man, El Newihi is an Egyptian, a doctor, an American citizen, a husband, a father — and a Muslim.

Wednesday night as El Newihi and his wife, Hala, welcomed fellow Muslim friends into their El Centro home as part of the observance of Ramadan, he spoke of his experiences as a Muslim in America, both pre- and post-Sept. 11.

"The American dream can be given to anybody who proves himself in this country. The United States was forged from a melting pot of people of all races, religions and ideas and they have all managed for so many years to live peacefully with one another," he said.

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With calm and deliberate hand gestures, and only raising his voice slightly to emphasize a point, El Newihi spoke of his experience as a medical student when he came to the U.S. in 1982.

"My teachers were Jewish doctors and Christian doctors and they never, never discriminated against me. These same teachers never questioned my identity as a person who came from the Middle East," he said.

El Newihi paused for a moment to settle his 6-year-old son, Adam, beside him on the sofa before starting to describe how he felt life had changed for Muslims in America since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"The United States that I experienced for so many years is not the same United States we're living in now," he said.

Leaning forward, El Newihi described a personal experience in the weeks following Sept. 11.

"I was waiting outside a restaurant in San Diego and I had my little girl, Nora, in my arms, and two men accosted me and started asking if I believed in God. I told them that of course I believed in God."

The doctor said he felt threatened "to some degree" by that experience.

"You don't expect in the United States to be asked this question," he said.

He said he was sure he had been singled out by the men only because of his Middle Eastern features.

El Newihi added that although the past three months have been a time of stress and uneasiness for Americans of Middle Eastern origin, he and his family have not been threatened by words or actions here in the Imperial Valley.

Sitting across from him, Dr. Mahomed Suliman of El Centro broke into the conversation to emphasize the feelings of local Muslims about the terrorist attacks.

"We absolutely condemn the acts of Osama bin Laden and his people. There is absolutely nobody in our community who has ever thought that this was a right thing, that America deserved it," Suliman said.

Suliman went on to describe how at the khutba (lecture) held for Imperial Valley Muslims directly before Friday prayers on the first Friday after the attacks, the first words the lecturer uttered were, "This is not Islam."

Originally from a small town near Johannesburg in South Africa, Suliman studied medicine in Ireland before coming to the U.S. in 1977.

"There was no future, no freedom of speech in South Africa under the system of apartheid. I certainly know 100 percent that if I did not leave when I did, I would have been in trouble with the South African government. Even when we were outside the country, we were being watched," Suliman said with a tight smile.

Returning to the subject of the terrorist attacks, Suliman said, "No religion can remotely condone what happened Sept. 11. The killing of innocent people, even when war is declared, is wrong in Islam."

Suliman expressed his concern that many people in the western world believe the Taliban and bin Laden's interpretation of Islam is widespread in the Islamic world.

"Ninety-nine percent of the Muslim world does not go by that kind of interpretation," Suliman said.

He added he thinks there was a misconception, perpetuated in the national press, that the words "infidel" and "non-believer" are used in the Koran to mean Christians.

"The Koran is very clear that these terms simply mean people who do not believe in God," Suliman said.

Sighing, El Newihi expressed the hope "people in the U.S. will resist the temptation to become ensnared within the mind set that leads to xenophobia toward foreigners."

"As Americans we need to show the example of one country that can unite all of its citizens in peaceful co-existence … this would be the shining light for the rest of the world," he added.

Sipping tea and eating homemade baklava to break the fasting regime that is part of Ramadan between sunrise and sunset, El Newihi described how a television news report he watched recently symbolized for him an important aspect of Muslims in America.

"It was heartwarming for me to see on CNN, at the non-denominational funeral service for a Northern Alliance soldier killed by friendly fire, that the prayers were led by a Muslim American, a U.S. Marine fighting in Afghanistan.

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