Local Muslims are entering the holy month of Ramadan with a mixture of hope and apprehension. The 300 or so Muslims in Colorado Springs will share a month of fasting and prayer with more than 1 billion Muslims around the world beginning Saturday.
American Muslims have been torn since the Sept. 11 attacks, trying to defend their culture and religion, yet at the same time abhorring the war in Afghanistan that has rocked an already devastated country.
Those strains will be tested even more in the coming month as the United States government vows to continue bombing despite calls from the Muslim world to suspend operations during Ramadan, one of the most important Islamic celebrations that will be marked this year from Nov. 17 to Dec. 15.
"People wish the war would be stopped. It's not really mentioned a lot. With the turn of events, it might all be over soon," says Jihad Elsabeh, president of the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs. "Ramadan is very special for us. It brings people closer together."
Calm returns to surface
Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, local Muslims reported being targeted and are still trying to return to normal. Callers left angry messages at Colorado Springs' only mosque, threatening to burn it down. The Colorado Springs Police Department initially told them there was nothing they could do to help. A woman of Middle Eastern ancestry reported she was verbally abused and chased through a parking lot of a local store by an enraged man.
Muslim leaders say the Islamic Society hasn't received additional threatening calls, but has hired an off-duty Colorado Springs police officer to guard the mosque each Friday during their prayer sessions. Since then, the mosque held two open houses and drew more than 300 curious residents, and support from the mayor and several Council members. Officials say they plan to hold another open house after Ramadan and admit that if there's a silver lining to world events, it's that the average American is more informed about Islamic religion and the Muslim community.
"We haven't had any such threats in the past few weeks," said Arshad Yousufi, former president of the Islamic Society. "The original threats against the mosque, we've been able to deal with that."
While the overt threats seem to have dissolved, Muslims are fearful things quickly could turn sour again if events go badly in Afghanistan or if there is another major terrorist attack.
"There's still a lot of tension and it will remain until this is settled. There's an apprehension if things go badly for America," said Yousufi, a Pakistani who has lived in the United States and England for more than 20 years. "There's not a lot you can do. We can only talk to people who want to listen."
'As if we are terrorists'
Simmering under the surface is a more troubling issue for local Muslims. They charge some TV news and radio talk shows with fanning the flames of division and misunderstanding.
"The media is doing things that leave the impression that what the suicide bombers did wasn't forbidden in Islam, which couldn't be further from the truth," said Yousufi. "That's a nasty message. That's what's bothering us these days."
Many local Muslims are frustrated by news reports that they say only tell half the story. Yousufi points to the anti-American protests in Pakistan -- which have been composed of only a few thousand people from a nation of 150 million -- as an example of unfair coverage.
While friends, co-workers and others close to them are supportive, some local Muslims say they can sense the cold shoulder and the stares when they are in public.
"September 11 has changed my life because I share the same religion as the terrorists. Does that mean I am a bad person? No," said Sultan Syed, a Pakistani who's been in the United States since 1989 and whose son was born here. "Now people look at us as if we are terrorists."
Syed said his worries about the future are compounded because he recently lost his job as an engineer after his firm closed the Colorado Springs office. He's fretting that companies will be afraid to hire him because he is Muslim.
"I am worried because I left my country because I wasn't free. Now they are talking about taking away my freedoms here," Syed said.
Month of mercy
Earlier this month, people filed in, one by one, into a non-descript brick building on the city's West Side for a Friday prayer session. Nothing sets the building apart by its simple exterior, but inside, the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs has created the only mosque in southern Colorado.
The room fills with a rainbow of nations. Worshippers from Asia, Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the United States drop to their knees on a simple carpeted floor. Some are dressed in traditional clothes, others in business suits and a few in hip-hop street wear.
Inside the mosque, shoes are taken off and left at the door. Women and children pray in a separate room.
The 40-minute service opens with an azaan, a call to prayer. More than 70 men and boys are listening to the sermon, called khutba, this week delivered by Elsabeh, who switches between English and Arabic during the sermon. The prayer service ends with a formal group prayer called salat.
"Ramadan is the month of mercy. A month to get to know God better," says Elsabeh, originally from Lebanon.
During Ramadan, Muslims will gather at the mosque for nightly prayer sessions and evening meals. They will refrain from eating and drinking -- not even water -- from sunrise to sunset to invoke a closer relationship with God and to create understanding for those less well off.
Elsabeh mixes lessons from the Koran with a sprinkling of politics.
"Pray for this country to understand what Allah is really about," he concluded. "Muslims should stand up for the truth. Killing innocent people in Afghanistan is forbidden. There is no excuse."