Islamic leader seeks to dispel misconceptions
More than 15 years ago, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, Salma Ahmad of Cedar Mill spent hours explaining Islam to police agencies and law enforcement to Muslims.
Her work — including a six-week stint at an FBI Citizens' Academy — earned her a Director's Community Leadership Award in 2009 from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
Today, in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's second order temporarily banning travel from six Muslim-majority nations — and heightened fears among U.S. Muslims about deportation and discrimination — Ahmad is still at it as president of the Islamic Society of Greater Portland, based in Beaverton.
"My situation is different because I came as a professional immigrant," she said Monday, March 13, in a talk to the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.
Ahmad acknowledged that fear of Islam persists, but those who invoke religion to justify violence — whether acts of terror in the United States or acts of war in the Middle East — are not really Muslims. She said none of Islam's five "pillars" supports violence or killing.
"This is purely political," Ahmad said.
"I cannot make excuses for them because they use my religion — and they are hijacking it. They carry their own agendas, irrespective of their religion, and we suffer.
"Their understanding is wrong. We do not even recognize them as Muslim. What they are doing has nothing to do with religion."
She singled out Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks — U.S. forces killed him in 2011 in a raid in Pakistan — and the Islamic State, whose victims are largely Muslims.
Among the forum attendees was Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett, who has worked with Ahmad to promote mutual understanding.
Washington County is home to six of the region's 11 mosques where Muslims can worship. One is in Portland, one in Corvallis, and three in Vancouver, Wash.
50 years in USA
Ahmad, 73, came to the United States a half century ago from the Philippines, which was under U.S. rule until 1946. Her given name is Josefina. She has lived in Portland since 1974 with her husband, Masud, a cardiologist who came from Pakistan. They met in 1968 when they were in Chicago, where she was a nurse at Cook County Hospital.
They have three grown children, all born in the United States, all graduates of Sunset High School, and all completed college.
"Immigrants are very conscientious about the way they raise their children. They teach them the values of America when they come here," Ahmad said.
"We tell all our children to be good, do they best they can, and do something for this country and contribute."
The latest executive order by Trump, which he signed March 6, temporarily bars travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Like a Jan. 27 order, it is being challenged in federal court. Unlike the earlier order, Iraq — which is fighting Islamic State forces with U.S. help — is dropped from the list.
Ahmad said, however, that the order sends the wrong message to those — particularly from war-torn Syria — fleeing conflict.
"The main core of the United States is the value of humanity. So what has happened now?" she said. "The Muslim community is afraid that the refugees cannot come (to the U.S.) when they are escaping persecution."
Issues small and large
She said she spends time dispelling misconceptions about Islam, such as women being banned from driving — that is the case in Saudi Arabia, but not anywhere else — and women having to wear headscarves and cover their faces.
She said she introduced herself to students at a class at Clackamas High School this way:
"I am an American, I am a Muslim, but I am not a terrorist.
"I am a professional, I own my own business, I raised my children, and we built a house. I did it, my husband gave me the money and I did it all."
To reach Clackamas High School by the class time of 7 a.m., she said, she had to drive herself.
She likened the current military crackdown on 1 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (Burma) to what happened two decades ago, when Serbia took part in "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia with its mixed religions.
The 1995 killings of 8,000 Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica, plus the Bosnian Serb shelling of Sarajevo, finally led to U.S. air strikes ordered by President Bill Clinton — and eventually a negotiated peace that has continued to this day.
Despite the current tensions raised by Trump's executive orders, Ahmad said she places her faith in the documents that make America great — the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
"I tell the community to be hopeful, resilient and courageous, because we still have the Bill of Rights," she said.
"Our fathers worked so hard to write them for us and all our generations to protect us. This is what I am hoping for.
"Our real obligation is to let people know that Islam is not the way some among us perceive it."