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US Muslims investigated over carpark prayer

Nevada police deny over-reacting after someone reported the group at a petrol station as "a bunch of guys doing weird moves".

LOS ANGELES // Mohammed is still coming to terms with the fact that praying in a petrol station car park in the United States can lead to questioning by police officers and even a visit by agents from the US government's top criminal investigative agency.

Mohammed did not want his real name disclosed out of concern that his brush with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) could jeopardise his career as an economics teacher and consultant. But he wants his story told. Mohammed was one of seven men apparently deemed suspicious by the FBI after they prayed near a petrol station in the western US state of Nevada in December. Last month, FBI agents paid early morning visits to the California homes of five of the seven men to question them further. Mohammed did not receive a visit from agents, although he then had to tell his parents about the Nevada incident in case the FBI decided to call on them at home as well.

None of the seven has been charged with any crime. Indeed, Mohammed believes that if any wrong has been committed, it is against him and his friends. "An apology from the police or FBI would be an acknowledgement they were wrong and that would be good," said Mohammed, 27, who was born in Pakistan and emigrated with his family when he was eight. "But at the end of the day, we don't want anything like this happening to the next group of guys with beards who stop to pray."

Mohammedsaid he was aware that law enforcement agencies were on high alert because of recent attacks and terrorist plots against US targets. Several weeks before he and his friends were questioned on December 20 in Nevada, a Muslim American army major shot dead 13 people on a base in Texas. Five days later on Christmas, a Muslim Nigerian citizen attempted to detonate explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Nevertheless, Mohammed would like to see far more awareness of the customs that guide the lives of the vast majority of Muslim Americans, who are peace-abiding citizens. The seven men, who met in college, are between 21 and 29 and live in the Los Angeles area. Their families are from Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and South Asia. In December, they went on a weekend hiking trip to Zion National Park in Utah. One of them was about to move to the East Coast and this was their last chance to have some fun together. They were dressed in hiking gear.

On their way back to Los Angeles, they stopped at a Mexican fast-food restaurant in Henderson County, Nevada, then went to get petrol. They stopped in a nearby car park, parked their rented van correctly and conducted their evening prayers outside their vehicle. They prayed on the pavement without prayer rugs. As they were getting back in their vehicle, two police cars drove up. Two police officers told the men to sit on the kerb and to make no sudden movements.

"One of the police officers had a gun drawn. It was pointing downwards, but still he had a gun out," Mohammed said. "After about five to 10 minutes of questioning, when we explained that all we had done was pray, I started filming on my cell phone." In the recording, one of the police officers is heard explaining they received a call from a member of the public about a "bunch of guys doing weird moves".

"You know you are praying, other's don't," a police officer told the men. "We don't know if you are saying 'I hope I kill a cop today'." A third policeman arrived and told the seven men he had been investigating a robbery in a store down the street. "We told them they should be investigating the robbery, not sitting us down in the street just for praying," Mohammed said. The questioning went on for an hour. Eventually, the men resumed their journey.

"There was dead silence in the car when we started driving again," Mohammed said. "It was so humiliating. But we weren't just some Joe Shmoes [regular people]. When we got back, we told Cair [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] about what happened, and they are helping now to make sure this doesn't happen again." Cair, the largest Muslim civil-liberties advocacy organisation in the United States, filed a complaint, saying the men did not engage in suspicious-enough behaviour to justify such lengthy questioning.

The Henderson police department said it had not been able to substantiate the allegation of officer wrongdoing, said Ameena Qazi, the deputy executive director and staff attorney at Cair's office in Los Angeles. Ms Qazi said she and the seven men were considering litigation, particularly in light of last month's questioning of five of the seven men by the FBI. Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, would not comment on the agents' line of questioning, saying none of the men were accused of wrongdoing.

"The men were interviewed by FBI agents in Los Angeles to clarify routine reports of suspicious activity," she said. "The men who were interviewed were co-operative with agents. The men were not arrested, but were interviewed without incident." Mohammed said he hoped to continue educating Americans about Muslims and was involved in the "Why Islam?" project, a campaign by the Islamic Circle of North America that included posters and a hotline giving information about the religion.

"Sad as it is to say, it's our fault as Muslims too for not making more effort to be proactive and educate people around us about who we are," he said. "But that's still no excuse for the police not having the right training or knowledge." @Email:sdevi@thenational.ae

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