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Islamic Center president calls for unity


The Dome Arena, that round white button-looking building off East Henrietta Road that seats more than 4,000 people, was nearly filled to capacity by 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 4.

Muslims from all over the Rochester region gathered there to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. The lively ceremony marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer observed by Muslims worldwide. Long sheets of white cloth formed rows of stripes across the arena's floor where worshipers knelt in prayer. Muslims remove their shoes during prayers and dozens of them were placed neatly at the end of some rows.

Many of the men and women wore their traditional finery. The men and boys in thobes -- long flowing shirts that covered their legs -- filled more than half of the room, while women and girls wearing abaya dresses and hijabs occupied the back. The arena was so crowded that hundreds of people flowed outside to the sidewalks and grassy areas, many taking family photos and selfies.

There was also plenty of security, with nearly a dozen New York State Troopers stationed around the site. Security is a steady presence at the Islamic Center of Rochester, too.

"I wouldn't say Muslims live in total fear, but there's some level of fear," says Tabassam Javed, the Islamic Center's new president.

As the shock of the massacre at two New Zealand mosques spread this past March, it left a chilling effect on Muslim communities throughout the United States, including Rochester, Javed says. That's partly because the US, unlike New Zealand, has a history of extremism and violence, he says.

Javed had only been elected to the post several months before the killings. In a recent interview with CITY, he said one of his earliest official duties was speaking out against the violence with several local faith leaders to show solidarity with the people of New Zealand.

"I was amazed at the outpouring of concern in this community from people of all faiths," he said.

Javed, who is a retired psychologist, says that long before becoming president, he devoted much of his time to dispelling misunderstandings about Islam. He worked on cultivating positive relations between Rochester's Muslim communities and people of different faiths.

But the terrorist attacks in New Zealand reinforced the urgency of addressing anti-Muslim sentiment through outreach to all communities, Javed says. And he's made building acceptance and trust between the Muslim community and people from other religions one of his highest priorities as president of the Islamic Center.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, anti-Muslim sentiment in the US rose sharply, he says. It gradually faded over the three or four years that followed, he says, but it didn't disappear. It just wasn't as overt, he says.

Donald Trump's presidential campaign changed everything, Javed says. Trump's mix of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric reignited fear in the Muslim community, while also feeding misconceptions about Musilms and Islam, Javed says. As president, Trump has continued to pump out nationalistic messages, including his calls for a "Muslim ban" policy, which prohibits nationals from five Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

"The last three years have been very rough for Muslims," Javed says.

The White House is arguably one of the biggest bully pulpits in the world and Trump's pattern of using provocative language has helped to shape a negative image of Muslims, he says. Trump has stoked fear and anxiety toward Muslims, which appeals to White Nationalists, Javed says.

"There are some people who hear his message and, it's almost like somebody is calling upon them to act," he says.

But the atmosphere of fear and hate is misplaced because Islam stresses peace and concern for all humanity, Javed says. There are many similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, he says.

"They are sister faiths," Javed says. The Quran, for instance, references many of the same religious figures found in Christianity.

Javed often joins with Muhammad Shafiq, professor of religious studies at Nazareth College, on interfaith activities to help expose young people from different backgrounds to one another. Bringing high schoolers of different faiths together so they can meet Muslim adults and children helps them to see how much they share in common.

Bringing people together, sharing personal experiences, and inviting non-Muslims the Center to pray and meditate is the cornerstone of Javed's outreach.

"All of a sudden, all this anti-Muslim nonsense goes away and gets taken out of the equation," Javed says.

There are people who probably never knew that they had a Muslim co-worker or neighbor, someone they could have gotten to know over coffee or tea, Javed says.

Javed was born in Lahore, Pakistan, the country's second largest city, and immigrated to the US when he was a young man. The questions he's asked most often are who are Muslims and where are they?

"I tell them we are everywhere," he says. "It's a growing community." The Muslim population in the US grew from about 2.5 million in the early 1980's to about 6 million today.

There are about 25,000 Muslims here in the Rochester area, out of which the largest group is Turkish Muslims, Javed says. "There are eight mosques in Rochester, two of them serving the Turkish community. They arrived after World War II when Hickey Freeman was recruiting tailors to make suits."

The second wave of Muslim immigrants came from Pakistan in the 1970's, he says. Rochester's big three employers of that time -- Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, and Xerox -- needed chemists, engineers, and researchers, he says. Rochester also saw a large number of Lebanese immigrants during this time, he says.

The growth of the region's Muslim community fueled the demand for the Islamic Center, Javed says. The 8,000 square-foot building on Westfall Road includes a mosque, as well as Westfall Academy, a Pre-K-to-6th grade elementary school.

"On Friday prayers, we have up to 1,000 people go through the Islamic Center," Javed says. Muslims from as many as 30 different countries speaking almost as many languages participate in the Center's activities.

More recently, Muslim refugees from Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Afghanistan have been settling in Rochester, Javed says. Much of this wave is the result of regional wars and political oppression, he says.

US interventions in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan have sometimes been successful, but some have drawn the US into untenable positions, he says. Javed is worried that rising tensions with Iran could escalate into a major war.

"I'm concerned because it could have a spillover," he says. US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq should make it clear to the American public that launching clean surgical military operations and then extracting ourselves out of them is not plausible, he says. The world is too intertwined, he says.

The regional conflicts driving Muslim refugees out of their homelands have made Javed especially sensitive to immigrant communities and the hardships they face once they're in the US. They feel the need to overcompensate at work and in social settings, he says, but there is also what he calls "that big drive of inclusivity."

"They want to maintain their identity and yet be assimilated," Javed says. "They don't want a makeover."

Even Muslim parents who are not refugees frequently tell him that they want their children to be every bit as American as children that are born here. But that's also one of their biggest concerns.

"Our kids feel tremendous pressure in terms of wanting to act and behave like the majority," he says. But their parents don't want them to dilute their cultural identity or turn away from their faith, he says.

Javed says he struggled with similar concerns raising his own sons in Victor. He told them that they didn't need to recreate themselves to be like other American teens.

"I made it a point every single day, I told them that your difference is your attribute," Javed says. "Your identity is already there."