No harassment here, long-time Muslim says

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 20, 2001

Wali Aziz prays the Maghrib prayer, his fourth prayer of the day, at the Islamic Center Wednesday.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN.)

[9/20/01]Five times a day, every day, Wali Aziz joins millions of Muslims around the world, who, together, turn toward Ka’ba, the grand mosque in Mecca, and offer praise to Allah.

But to see him on the streets of Vicksburg save a small white cap, or kufi, that covers his head and a long, graying beard on his face Aziz would blend into the crowd. A Waterways Experiment Station tag hangs from his belt and identifies him as a federal employee; his quiet demeanor reflects the inner peace he seeks through religion.

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Despite the recent spate of hate crimes against Muslims and others throughout the country, he and other members of the local Islamic community have not been targeted or harassed.

“Vicksburg has always been a unique place. This is my home,” he said. “We have our racial differences which shouldn’t be but we have good people here.”

Aziz does not wear a turban (a characteristic of Sikhs, a completely different religion from Islam), nor does he condone the oppression of women, expecting them to be covered from head to toe in a black cotton burqa, as do fundamentalists in some Arab states. He was born in Vicksburg, and discovered Islam when he was stationed in Germany during military service in the 1960s. “I picked up a Koran then. That was the turning point in my life,” he said.

The religion that has guided him for the past 30 years is being twisted, he said, by radicals who use it to kill in the name of Allah as well as by non-believers who brand all its followers as terrorists following the New York and Pentagon attacks. He understands neither.

“This has nothing to do with Islam,” he said, explaining in his soft voice how Muslim extremists have manipulated his faith. “We are not terrorists. This is not Islam.

“A Muslim is a person who practices Islam. Islam means peace. A Muslim is a person who submits to peace,” he said in an interview at the Vicksburg Islamic Center, converted from an old home on Crawford Street. There, as the center’s imam, Aziz leads a congregation of about 15 local families in prayer and teachings.

Islam is practiced by an estimated 1.3 billion people around the world, making it the second-most popular religion following Christianity, even in the United States. By contrast, Judaism ranks around 14th, with 14 million followers.

The Koran, sometimes spelled Qur’an, is Islam’s holy book, in which God was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, through an angel beginning in 571 A.D. The tenets of Islam are derived from the Koran, and sometimes manipulated. “The religion Islam is from Abraham. All three religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam all come from Abraham. We have the same prophets. Judaism starts with Moses, Christianity with Jesus and we are with Mohammad. The Koran speaks to all three of these. It is no different,” he said. They also practice similar principles of prayer, tolerance and following the teachings of God.

Yet the Muslim group that rules Afghanistan, the central Asian country harboring suspected terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden, maintains that under Islam, women are not allowed to work, leave their homes unescorted, or attend school. Edicts issued by the Taliban, the ruling sect that gained control after the 1992 collapse of a former Soviet-backed regime, forbid music, televisions, books and any other Western influences they claim are contrary to Islam.

“I can’t tell you what is going on with the Taliban. I don’t know. But it is not Islam as I understand it. There is no force in Islam,” Aziz said.

The claims that Osama bin Laden has declared a holy war, or jihad, against America, doesn’t jibe either. “Pure Islam doesn’t teach that, just like Christianity doesn’t,” he said.

But as the recent terrorists attacks on the United States are immoral, so would be destruction of a nation because of the practices of a few, he said. “We had a great loss,” he said, in regard to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “But when we strike them, they hurt, too. And the same bitterness here, they will have.”

To him, the true jihad, or struggle, is from within, not with another country or culture because of a difference in beliefs.

He says Islam has a different mission, one that he has labored to bring to Vicksburg for the past 10 years through the center he founded.

“I want Islam to be what it’s really supposed to be the worship of God.”