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Sufi Muslims in US expect no apology for cemetery

A Sufi Muslim community about 240 kilometres north of New York City is getting back to normal after being thrust into the spotlight when officials objected to its tiny graveyard at the height of controversy last year over a planned mosque near Ground Zero.

NEW YORK // A Sufi Muslim community about 240 kilometres north of New York City is getting back to normal after being thrust into the spotlight when officials objected to its tiny graveyard at the height of controversy last year over a planned mosque near Ground Zero.

There is no connection between Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Sufi imam behind the proposed mosque and community centre in New York City, and the group of about 30 Sufis who live in Sidney in upstate New York. But they were all embroiled in the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that reached its apex when the United States commemorated the ninth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Hans Hass, a spokesman for the Sufi community in Sidney, said he had requested, but did not expect to get, an apology from local officials who had wrongly accused the Sufi order of lacking the proper permits for its cemetery, where two bodies are buried.

Mr Hass, who is a US-born convert to the Sufi Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani order, said he had been heartened by the support his community had received from non-Muslim Americans.

"We got calls from all over the country and lots of people visiting us and wanting to learn more about Islam," he said. "But I'm not expecting to get an apology when these officials don't even admit they did anything wrong."

The controversy started when Robert McCarthy, a supervisor of the town of Sidney, which has a population of 6,000, called the Sufi cemetery illegal and suggested that bodies might even have to be exhumed. "You can't just bury grandma under the picnic table," he said.

The story was picked up in the national media and Mr McCarthy was branded the "worst person in the world" by Keith Olbermann, a liberal host on the MSNBC cable television channel.

Mr Hass and his fellow Sufis fought back at town hall meetings by explaining they had all the proper permits.

"We believe that it is no coincidence that this group was being asked to exhume the remains of its deceased members from the cemetery at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment has spread across the nation," said Aliya Latif, the civil-rights director for the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, which has launched a department devoted to addressing the rise of Islamophobic sentiment in US society.

Town officials dropped plans to bring a lawsuit against the Sufi order but they are considering a new law that would prevent burials on private land. Mr Hass sarcastically suggested the law be called: "You can't bury grandma in the backyard under the picnic table law."

He was sanguine about the longer-term prospects for American Muslims, saying their problems were similar to those faced by other immigrant groups that eventually assimilated into US society.

"When a whole segment of American society watches Fox News, they are going to think this way about Muslims," he said. "They don't even know anything about Islam and see it as the other, the enemy."

He noted that among the expressions of support from individual Americans there were none from fellow American Muslims. But he did not believe this meant the divisions that separate Sunni, Shiite, Sufi and other Muslims from each other elsewhere in the world would take hold in the US.

"Anyone who considers them to be Muslim can't be hostile to someone else who calls them a Muslim. No matter what the sect or clan, we're still Muslim and I don't expect that to be a problem in America," he said. "Things are not as tribal as it is in other countries."

 

sdevi@thenational.ae

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