The message Imam Mohamed Melhem delivered during the Friday afternoon prayer service at the Central Mosque of Charleston emphasized the unity of Islam and its universal message of peace.
But in the wake of the recent arrests of two Egyptian students driving through Goose Creek, he also expressed the collective frustration of local Muslims, many of whom think the public reaction to the arrests has been exaggerated and unfair.
“The media went crazy,” Melhem said. “Most Muslims are good citizens and good contributors to society.”
And nothing much is yet known about the two students, he said, so why the rush to judgment?
“We believe in the system and the court of law and believe it will be fair,” he said.
At the mosque, Mehmet Bilgen, a radiologist, said Islam has become the latest monolithic “enemy” of the United States. It used to be communism and fascism and drug kingpins in Central and South America. Now, it’s a religion that most Americans don’t really understand, Bilgen said.
Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed, both in their 20s, each were charged with possession of an explosive device after authorities said they found pipe bombs in Megahed’s car during a traffic stop on Aug. 4. The two men, students at the University of South Florida, told authorities the items found in the car were fireworks. The FBI, which performed the initial search of the vehicle, has not indicated whether the material seized constituted a pipe bomb or other explosive device.
Numerous reactions to the story have been posted on Charleston.net, many of which express concern and assume guilt, and some of which are overtly hostile. “I BELIEVE in racial profiling,” one person wrote. “It does NOT matter how small the ‘home-made bombs’ were that were discovered in the trunk of that car, but that they WERE discovered!” another wrote. “Personally, I prefer to throw these boys into the lake and let the gators take care of ’em. Let their Allah save them then,” wrote a third.
Central Mosque President Alan Is’mail Ali said Muslims are most concerned with taking care of their families and looking out for one another, but those priorities are not newsworthy. Only Islamic extremism gets the headlines, and that contributes to misunderstanding, Ali said. Americans tend to generalize about Muslims, and that causes Muslims to believe that the war against terrorism is really a war against Islam, he said.
“Anyone who claims (to be) a Muslim and then recklessly and intentionally hurts or even kills, either non-Muslims or even Muslims, in the name of Islam, is a spineless degenerate!” Ali said.
Melhem said that he has received phone calls from people asking if the two Egyptian students were affiliated with the Central Mosque. He wondered why people should assume this as they have been living in Florida.
“Muslims are good and do the right thing,” he said. “If we see anything suspicious, we are part of the community, we help.” But when Muslims feel threatened by a system they perceive to be prejudiced, they are less likely to cooperate with that system, Melhem said.
Anti-Muslim incidents were up 25 percent nationally in 2006, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The rise was attributed to post-9/11 fear of Muslims and violence overseas.
Chaudhry Sadiq, director of the South Carolina chapter of CAIR, said that jumping to conclusions about the two Egyptian students only compromises the values of the U.S. and puts Muslim communities on the defensive.
Media reports of the Goose Creek episode have been highly exaggerated, Sadiq said. “All the time, resources and energy could have been applied to peacemaking.”