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One shared concern: economic slowdown

Few incidents of consequence, but tension for Muslims

JACKSON — Much of Mississippi has been largely spared the episodes of reprisals, threats and violence against American Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, according to many in state government, business groups and Muslim communities.

Although Gov. Ronnie Musgrove issued a statement on Sept. 20 calling for all Mississippians to respect the rights of area Muslims and Arab-Americans, director of communications John Sewell said the comments were not in response to any reports of violence or threats that the governor’s office was aware of.

“It’s important that we recognize that there are Americans that are Muslims. We need to respect their religion; that’s what this country is built on,” said Sewell.

Definitive figures on the number of Mississippi residents that count Middle Eastern or Central Asian countries as their native lands are hard to come by, said Liz Cleveland, deputy director of industry and trade for the Mississippi Development Authority.

Census figures do not specify country of origin when tabulating residents by racial background, said Cleveland.

The shape and size of the Middle Eastern business community in Mississippi is also undefined, according to many business organizations and industry trade groups contacted by the Mississippi Business Journal.

Cleveland noted that MDA records do not show any manufacturing facilities owned by business people from the Middle East; however, there were indications of a large concentration in hotel and restaurant concerns.

Skip Ledbetter of Biloxi, president of Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association, said his group counted Pakistanis, Indians and other Asian groups among its members.

Ledbetter indicated that he hoped if any of the group’s members had concerns about business difficulties in the wake of the recent attacks, they would be raised at the upcoming statewide annual convention.

“As an industry, we have all been affected and will be affected,” Ledbetter noted, citing the slowdown in business travel affecting all hospitality industries nationwide.

Jackson is home to the International Museum of Muslim Cultures. Museum director Okolo Rashid, a Mississippi native, is a member of the Masjid Mohammad mosque in Jackson and said that the Muslim community established the facility on East Pascagoula Street to take advantage of the crowds coming to the Majesty of Spain exhibit, which closed its doors after Labor Day.

“We knew when they ended their exhibit, we would have a slowdown,” Rashid said.

Yusuf Sadiq, operations manager for the museum, said that weekly ticket sales had fallen from a high of 200 a week before the closing of Majesty to 15-20 per week since Labor Day. Rashid noted that visitors to the museum and various community leaders have expressed continued support for the facility.

“Some people came because of the events to learn about us and our facility,” said Rashid, citing a father who brought his homeschooled son to tour and a Millsaps College student who wanted information for an anthropology course he was taking.

Although the current exhibit on Islamic Moorish Spain was planned to end Oct. 31, Rashid said that it would become a permanent feature of the museum with a new exhibit delayed until mid-2002.

Imam Mohammad Harisuddin of the Masjid Mohammad said that his congregation, which established and supports the museum, has a diverse membership including African-Americans, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Bengalis and Syrians.

Harisuddin estimated that Jackson has about 800 Muslims, with two mosques located in the area. Harisuddin, who owns a personal care home in Clinton, said that he had not had any effects on his business attributed to ill will against Muslims and had not heard any such concerns from his congregation.

“One of the things about the Jackson area, we have worked hard to establish relations with non-Muslims,” he said, citing the interfaith news conference held after the attacks with Rabbi Jim Egoff on the Beth Israel Temple along with area pastors and priests of various congregations.

An unexpected turn of events led Surinder Singh, former chairman of the Sikh Temple Gurdawara Sahib in Jackson, to appeal to the Jackson Police Department and the Jackson City Council for protection from people who do not understand that members of the Sikh religion, who wear turbans and full beards, have no connections to Islam or to the Middle East.

Singh noted he had been told of negative comments to Sikh community members and a possible bomb threat made to a business in another city.

Singh, who owns two Amoco gas stations/convenience stores in the area, said that all 40 stores owned by Sikhs have seen a dramatic slowdown in business after the initial rush on gas stations in the aftermath of the attacks. Singh said he kept his prices at $1.31 per gallon and had no incidents at his stores. After hearing Attorney General Mike Moore discussing the price hikes, Singh said he threatened to report his supplier for a 12-cent-per-gallon increase so he would not be forced to pass the price on to his customers.

Singh called the threats the work of “a few people — ignorant and do not know better.” Singh appealed for tolerance of other faiths in the coming days, saying, “In this time of crisis, all those opinions need to be set aside. As long as (people) understand who we are, they can make a decision on what they want to say.”

Jay Hambright, senior vice-president for economic development with the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, said that the sentiments he was seeing from the chamber’s members about the Sept. 11 events was summed up with an editorial cartoon that ran right after the attacks: one panel showed various Americans lined up under signs labeled “Democrat,” “Republican,” “Male,” “Female” and others, eyeing each other suspiciously. The next showed the same lineup with all the signs changed to “American.”

“That pretty much says it all,” said Hambright.

Skip Ledbetter was even more vehement in supporting his memberships’ civil rights. Ledbetter said that the Middle Eastern members of his group were so involved in the community and so well thought of that “people would take it personally if they were affected.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.


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