Special Reports

Sniper suspect's Muslim identity hasn't effected blame, locals say

After the arrest of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, Tacoma-area Muslim leaders were hounded by the same question: Did you know him?

Repeatedly, they replied "no" to the media.

Muhammad is a member of the Nation of Islam and took on the name of Islam's prophet. But despite that, these leaders say, the public isn't looking at Muslims with suspicion or blaming their faith because of the sniper shootings.

"No one complained to me I have been treated really badly because of John Muhammad," Imam Saif Alkhawlani said after Friday afternoon prayers at the Islamic Center of Tacoma. Alkhawlani said no one at the mosque knew Muhammad.

Now that the shock and media scrutiny is subsiding over Muhammad's arrest, local Muslims look forward to a pleasant time: fasting for the month of Ramadan, which is scheduled to start Wednesday.

During Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink anything from the break of dawn to sunset as commanded in the Quran.

"We're going to go on with a peaceful Ramadan," said Rasheedah Shahdid, who attends Mas'alah Muslim Center on Tacoma's Hilltop. "Our hearts go out to the (snipers') victims."

Unlike some Muslims, Shahdid said the impact of Muhammad's arrest lingers.

Because the former Tacoman changed his name to that of Islam's prophet, "Everyone looks at all the Muslims as being bad Muslims," said Shahdid, who owns and operates a clothing store next to her mosque.

Amir Abdul-Matin, an imam at Mas'alah Muslim Center, stressed that Islam forbids any aggressive act. "I think this person was just deranged and carried out a sick act," Abdul-Matin said. "It has nothing to do with the religion. The religion speaks against any act like that."

Abdul-Matin said the only people who have asked him about Muhammad are reporters. He questioned why reporters focus so much on Muhammad's religion. "(Oklahoma City bomber) Timothy McVeigh said he was a Christian," Abdul-Matin said, but reporters didn't repeatedly question his church or its leaders.

Alkhawlani said the public is intelligent enough not to blame a religion for one person's actions. Imam Mohamad Joban agreed. "It's not like what happened on Sept. 11," said Joban, the state's senior Muslim official and spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Olympia. "America has learned a lot about Islam."

Muhammad was stationed at Fort Lewis in 1994. But Muslim Chaplain James Yee didn't know of him, according to Joban, who talked with Yee. Yee could not be reached for comment.

Muslims in the area were surprised by news of the ex-Tacoman's arrest, Joban said.

"He didn't come to our communities," Joban said. "We know that's why he never had any contact with us."

Charlie Green, Muhammad's former brother-in-law who lived with the family from 1998 to 2001, said Muhammad was a devout Nation of Islam member and spent hours trying - unsuccessfully - to convert him. Once, he said, he accompanied Muhammad to a Nation of Islam meeting in Seattle and was troubled to see a white couple was refused admittance to the mosque.

"What was up with that?" Green said he asked Muhammad on the way back to Tacoma. "They wouldn't let that white couple in."

"'There's no room for white people in the Nation of Islam,'" Green said Muhammad told him.

Green also said Muhammad spent hours grilling his children on the rules of the Quran, which he insisted they memorize.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan also said that Muhammad attended a Nation of Islam study group in Seattle and joined the Nation of Islam in 1997.

Muhammad has not had contact with the religious group since 1999 and was in bad standing with the Nation of Islam because of a child custody dispute with his second wife, also a member of the group, Farrakhan said in the Nation of Islam newspaper The Final Call.

If Muhammad is found guilty, Farrakhan said, "He would not be considered at all a member of the Nation of Islam."

Staff writer Rob Carson contributed to this report.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647