Leaders of the Toledo-area Muslim community, stung by the second federal investigation in 48 hours alleging links between some of their own and terrorism, struggled yesterday to balance faith in the U.S. justice system with fears of a possible backlash based on prejudice and stereotypes.
On Sunday, the Treasury Department froze the assets of and padlocked the West Toledo offices of the Muslim charity KindHearts while it probes alleged links between the charity and Hamas terrorists in the Mideast.
Yesterday, three local Muslims were indicted on federal terrorism charges alleging that they plotted "holy war" against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq.
Representatives of three local mosques and a Muslim organization held a press conference last night at the Clarion Westgate Hotel in West Toledo to appeal for justice, denounce terrorism, and ask Toledoans not to leap to judgment.
There are about 6,000 Muslims in the Toledo community and some have roots going back 100 years, said Dr. S. Zaheer Hasan, a spokesman for the Islamic
Center of Greater Toledo. Many area Muslims have served in the U.S. military, he added, and the Muslim community has been vigilantly working with law-enforcement officials to keep an eye out for possible terrorists.
"First, we want justice to prevail and we believe in the justice system of our country," Dr. Hasan said in an interview with The Blade. "But we are concerned that it is putting Toledo Muslims on the map of the world and there is nothing good about it."
He emphasized that the three men charged yesterday had no ties to the Perrysburg Township mosque, one of the largest between New York and Chicago.
Ziad Hummos, president of the Masjid Saad, a West Toledo mosque, said the three indicted Toledoans had been seen occasionally at that mosque but were not members or frequent attendees.
"Hopefully, if they're guilty, they will pay the price. And if they're innocent, they will not be punished. If I knew they were going to harm this country, I'd be the first one to turn them in," Mr. Hummos said. "I would not hesitate. This is my country and the country of my children. We want all the people of the United States to be living in peace and harmony."
Jihad Smaili, a board member of the KindHearts charity, said he does not know any of the three Toledoans who were indicted yesterday.
"These men have absolutely nothing to do with KindHearts," said Mr. Smaili, a Toledo native and Cleveland attorney. "If the government has any evidence that they are connected in any way, please bring the evidence now, or stop picking on the charity that you destroyed two days ago."
Last year, when KindHearts was included in a list of two dozen U.S. Muslim charities being investigated by a Senate panel, donations dropped 25 percent even though no allegations or charges were ever brought forth, Mr. Smaili said.
Dr. Hasan voiced concern that local Muslims might become fearful of giving money to any Islamic group, even his mosque.
"Why would anybody want their name attached to institutions that are being targeted?" he asked. "It has taken 60-plus years to build the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, and it could fall apart if people will not want to give anything."
Dr. Mahjabeen Islam, co-founder and board member of the United Muslims Association of Toledo, said she fears that persecution of American Muslims is on the rise. She said she would not be surprised if some U.S. Muslims end up in internment camps like Japanese-Americans during World War II.
"It's worse than 9/11," said the Toledo physician. "I think this is just the beginning. The you-know-what has just hit the fan, and American Muslims, primarily, will pay the price, followed by the European Muslims."
But Mohammed Alo, former president of the University of Toledo Muslim Student Association who is editor of the Web site www.toledomuslim.com, said "the Toledo Muslim community is pretty resilient and well educated, for the most part. I think they should be able to weather the storm."
The question, he said, is how non-Muslims will react to the developments. He said he has confidence in local residents.
"Even after 9/11, the Toledo community was very supportive of Muslims. I don't think we'll have too much of a fallout," Mr. Alo said.
Officials for the city of Toledo and the University of Toledo yesterday called on the public to resist blaming terrorism on any religious or ethnic groups.
"After an announcement like this - particularly one that hits so close to home - sometimes there is a tendency to make false assumptions or unfairly group people based on culture, race, or other superficial identifiers," UT President Dan Johnson said in an e-mail yesterday to the campus community. "The University of Toledo is a diverse community and while this announcement is unnerving, it must not detract from our strength or unity."
One of the three suspects in yesterday's indictment, Wassim Mazloum, has been attending the University of Toledo since Jan. 16, 2001, and is majoring in computer science and engineering, university records show.
Records show that another suspect, Mohammad Zaki Amawi, attended UT from Jan. 16, 2001, to May 4, 2001, and had an undecided major.
Mr. Johnson cautioned people not to unfairly judge or group people based on culture or race because of the indictments.
"It is important to remember that those who use violence solely to terrorize make no such distinctions when they attack innocents," Mr. Johnson wrote in a letter to the UT community.
Gerald Heuring, director of UT's computer science and engineering undergraduate program, said he has spoken with Mr. Mazloum regarding his studies on a number of occasions but couldn't recall discussing anything unusual. He said he could not comment on Mr. Mazloum's indictment because he was unfamiliar with the allegations.
Other UT faculty members who said they had heard about the indictment, but did not personally know the students, said their initial feeling of surprise was replaced with one of disbelief and regret that Toledo-area residents could be involved in terrorist activity.
"You don't expect anything like that in Toledo," said Afzal Upal, an electrical engineering and computer science assistant professor.
John Shousher, an Oregon businessman and Arab-American leader, said the vast majority of Muslim-Americans condemn terrorism "1,000 percent."
Blade staff writers Erika Ray and Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.