By Julie A. Varughese in the Norwich Bulletin:
NORWICH — Sami Ahmed, who left Pakistan for the United States in 1983, began a Friday night Muslim prayer meeting at his house in Greeneville five years ago. At the time, three or four people attended the meetings. Now, between 30 and 40 Muslims meet weekly at his house.
“It seems like it is growing,” Ahmed said of the practice of Islam in the region. Ahmed, who owns Sunshine Farms convenience store on Central Avenue, said Islam is the faith of his upbringing in Pakistan.
Indeed, Islam, the fastest-growing religion in the United States, is having its own, small growth spurt in Eastern Connecticut, fueled partly by foreign-born residents who have moved here for jobs at the regions’ two casinos and who continue to practice the faith of their native lands.
A lecture being held Thursday night at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson is intended to educate residents about Islam, which gained a reputation as a religion of extremists, misogynists and terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Because of that, Muslims in the United States have faced discrimination and violent attacks against them.
But that hasn’t stopped non-Muslims in the region and the nation from converting to the 1,400-year-old religion, which traces its roots to Christianity and Judaism.
Between 250 and 500 Muslims live in Norwich, New London and Groton, according to local estimates. The Islamic Center of New London in Groton has about 100 members.
Hamza Collins, director of civil rights for the Council for American-Islamic Relations chapter in New London and an African-American who converted to Islam, said the increase in the Muslim population is due to a combination of conversions and migrations.
He said many white women, Hispanics and African-Americans have converted to Islam in recent years. But he said no numbers are kept on the phenomenon.
Muslims believe Islam, which means submission to God, was revealed to humanity by the Prophet Muhammad.
From Baptist to Muslim
Jabril Cain of Montville, formerly a Baptist, converted to Islam in January 2006.
“I’ve been a Christian for all my life and it was something that didn’t quite make sense to me,” he said.
Cain also said his conversion has sparked a few negative reactions, but he tries to combat them with education.
“There’s a lot of ignorance. That’s what I run into,” Cain said. “Islam … it’s all part of the same cloth (as Judaism and Christianity). We regard Jesus as importantly as Christianity does.”
“The perception is wrong about Islam … that (Muslims) have to carry guns and kill people. We’re asking people to understand each other, so we can live in peace,” he said.
Muneer Fareed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, which is based in Indiana, said, anecdotally, there are more Muslim immigrants than converts in the United States.
He said no statistics are available because the U.S. Census does not gather information on religious affiliations.
Maybe they ought to start.
Monty Santiago, a Groton resident who converted to Islam 10 years ago, said he chose Islam to fill a void in his life. He said his Puerto Rican relatives thought he had gone crazy at first.
“You don’t see too many Puerto Rican Muslims,” Santiago joked. “If it makes me happy, it makes them happy.”
Muhammed Khokhar, a Quaker Hill resident who immigrated from Pakistan two years ago, said he sometimes encounters racism, but tries to be patient with the perpetrators, whom he calls “illiterate people.”
“Illiterate people,” which is to say those who might have the read Quran, Sahih Bukhari, or the Sira.