Balancing the Books

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bomb threat was bad enough, in the call-the-FBI category of scariness.

Switching on the message machine at his Council on Islamic Education, Shabbir Mansuri learned that his office, which shares a building with preschools in a quiet residential section of Fountain Valley, was to be blown up.

But what got under Mansuri's skin in a more lasting way, in those tense 24 hours after a federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City in 1995, was not the handful of overtly insulting calls from people erroneously blaming Muslims for the tragedy. It was his conversation with a Santa Ana woman.

"She called and said, 'Do you take Jesus as your savior?' I said, 'I'm afraid no. I don't,' " said Mansuri, 51, a native of India. "Then she said, 'Well, you should pack up and leave.'

"She was telling me that Muslims are enemies of Christians. It was the first time in 25 years of living in the United States that I didn't feel welcome."

Mansuri, by nature and profession a diplomatic man, is quick to add that, when the suspects in the Oklahoma bombing were revealed to be U.S. Army veterans, something happened that renewed his faith in Americans.

"Would you believe that 48 hours later I received more phone calls of apology? 'We apologize to you for making remarks,' they said. Or, 'We apologize on behalf of those who may have made [those] remarks.' At least a dozen calls."

To Mansuri's way of thinking, the conciliatory phone calls reflected a distinct American virtue: the free flow of information. These callers had heard that Muslims were not to blame, and they acted on their knowledge.

Information drives Mansuri and his Islamic education center, a 6-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to promoting informed treatment of Muslims in the media and in school textbooks.

The council's mission is to provide textbook publishers with access to experts on Islam, who review textbook manuscripts, lead teacher workshops and prepare study guides.

Mansuri deals daily with misinformation about Islam: that it is anti-West; that it rejects the philosophy of Jesus; that it is mostly practiced by Arabs. A 1993 Los Angeles Times poll found that three in 10 Americans believe that the religion itself poses a threat to U.S. security.

Contrary to stereotypes, most Muslims are not Arab and do not live in the Middle East, Mansuri says. The largest concentration of Muslims is in Indonesia, and 5 million live in the U.S., including about 100,000 in Orange County, according to local Islamic leaders.

Distortions about the beliefs of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims arise mostly through misunderstanding but sometimes from bias, says Khalid Y. Blankinship, an associate professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia and one of the council's 16 affiliated scholars.

"We believe that a tolerant America people will arise out of [the elimination of stereotyping]; we're not interested in pushing [a Muslim] agenda," Blankinship says. "And Brother Shabbir is the appropriate person for the task--he's personable, diplomatic, soft-spoken and warm-hearted."

When Mansuri, who lives in Fountain Valley with his wife and three daughters, is not organizing a junior high school student speakers bureau or holding workshops for state educators and publishers, he is often in Sacramento meeting with education officials or working on anti-bias committees.

It is work that suits the earnest Mansuri, who says his last vacation was five years ago.

The second of five boys, Mansuri had a studious nature that caught the attention and fired the imagination of his father.

"I clearly remember the first time my father took me to first grade," Mansuri says. "He told the teacher, 'You need to pay extra attention to this son of mine, because someday he's going to go to the United States.' "

Abdul Rehman Mansuri, a strong-willed real estate developer in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state, forced his son to forsake tea in favor of coffee--the supposed beverage of Americans. Mansuri was also told to read American novels to practice his English.

"I kept asking my father, 'Why would I want to go to the U.S.?' " Mansuri says. "He gave me two reasons, which became the pillars for my mode of thinking. One is the freedom. The second is: You have access to information. That has driven me."

And the young Mansuri had no friends, because his father made him study with elders while his peers played outside. He says his first friend, whom he met while at M.G. Science College in India at age 20, was more than twice his age.

But if education was forced down his throat, it was swallowed with little protest. Mansuri spent decades reading at least seven hours daily. He speaks Urdu, Hindi, English, his home-state language of Gujarati, and some Persian and Arabic.

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What does he read for pleasure? Mansuri says, "Reading is pleasure," although his focus--educational theory--might sound dull to most.

His younger brother Yusuf A. Mansuri, who lives in Downey, recalls Mansuri as a bookworm. "He was always in the books, not much socializing. My dad always taught us to go with whatever you want to accomplish, and he felt Shabbir would accomplish more."

Shabbir Mansuri says he couldn't escape education even if he wanted to. His mother taught the Koran and home economics out of their home for 40 years.

While a 22-year-old chemistry major in India, Shabbir Mansuri analyzed the 1969 Los Angeles mayoral race for a school project. His conclusion from 10,000 miles away--that Tom Bradley would lose to incumbent Sam Yorty but would win four years later--proved correct.

Four days before leaving for Los Angeles in 1969, Mansuri married Rashida Mansuri, who was earning a master's degree in botany. She joined him here 18 months later.

His lifelong immersion in things American made the United States feel like home as soon as he arrived amid a Southern California downpour. He remembers the exact time, 10 p.m. on Jan. 26, as well as his celebratory first American food: a 3 Musketeers bar at Los Angeles International Airport.

Before leaving India, Mansuri got a peculiar request from his father: that he immediately buy a cemetery plot in the United States, which he did.

"He said that then, I'll know where I'm to be buried, and I'll know where I belong. Don't think about India, he said, think about where you are. As a Muslim, you'll be accountable to God Almighty on the day of judgment as to what you did, with the sustenance he gave you, about your surroundings.

"We as Muslims consider ourselves part of ummah, the community. I consider myself part of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. But the accountability is what have I done for my neighbors. The smallest circle, your community, is where accountability begins."

At USC, Mansuri continued his chemistry studies, having received a degree in India. "When I arrived at USC, I tried to talk to some students about the mayor's race, but they weren't interested," Mansuri says. "They said I knew more about it than they did and asked how long I'd been in the States. I said, 'Three days.' "

While taking classes, Mansuri worked as a teacher's assistant at Markham Junior High School in Watts. There, he shocked students by appearing at their doorsteps if they were absent more than two days.

"I told them, if you don't come to class, I come to your house. The parents were surprised, but the kids related, because I said I give a damn."

He also managed an apartment building in Central L.A., and, in efforts to lose his clipped accent, learned street slang and memorized the dialogue in the book "Bonnie and Clyde."

Blaming an entrepreneurial call, he left USC a few courses short of graduating. For the following 15 years, Mansuri was part owner of a few restaurants and apartment buildings while raising a family in Glendale. Although not a U.S. citizen--property complications in India, he says, have prevented it--he became active in Glendale city politics.

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In the late 1980s, after he suddenly lost the leases on his restaurants, Mansuri faced what he calls the Test: when a Muslim faces hardships. In his case, the hardships were financial; he sold his interest in the apartments and lived off his savings.

But he also needed to prepare for the next stage of his life, he says, and he began studying ethnic groups' relations to the U.S. educational system.

"In October of 1989, something happened that drastically changed my life," Mansuri says. "My daughter, who was doing her social studies homework, began giggling, and I went in to check on her. She said, 'Dad, I'm laughing because my book says we're doing something wrong. We need to get some sand in the house.'

"I picked up the book, and it said the Bedouin get down on their knees, slap their hands on the ground and rub their faces in the sand, then they call out to their god. This was the description of Muslim prayer. I was very furious."

He went to see the director of curriculum at the Glendale school district, who sympathized and told Mansuri that the state was adopting new kindergarten through eighth-grade textbook standards.

If Mansuri wanted to make a difference, here was his chance.

"By that time, I had developed a model of how ethnic groups should participate in politics, and [the way] is to contribute rather than confront," Mansuri says. "We need to give something to [the] system rather than demand something from it."

The textbook reviews performed by the Council on Islamic Education, according to Judith Glickman, editorial director at Macmillan-McGraw-Hill in New York, "have been invaluable in helping us to produce books that are accurate and unbiased."

His first Sacramento trip in 1988 resulted in 14 changes in the state standards, including the removal of two pictures of the prophet Muhammad from a seventh-grade Houghton Mifflin social studies text, "Across the Century." Muslims, Mansuri explains, prefer avoiding images of prophets and angels because nobody knows what they look like.

"The experience in Sacramento was the highlight of my life," he says. "Not only did [they] hear our concerns, the process effected changes. I decided then to form my organization. I said it would not be a special-interest or lobbying group; this is to be a resource."

Mansuri ran the council from his house for 18 months until 1991, when a group of Muslim business people in Orange County offered to fund its budget, which now averages $190,000 annually. Mansuri moved into office space in Tustin, then in Fountain Valley in 1993.

Mansuri says 1,200 teachers from California have taken in-service training at the center in the past six years, and education officials from nearly 20 countries have visited. Recently, the city of San Diego bought 500 copies of the center's 114-page teachers guide to Islam and Muslims.

The center's accomplishments, Mansuri insists, are not due merely to his efforts. (Mansuri, in fact, hesitated to be the subject of a profile, saying that Muslims do not normally like to call attention to themselves as individuals.)

"We've had visiting ministers of education from Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan and France, and I ask them a question. I explain how I work with textbook companies and give them access to professors, historians.

"Then I ask them, 'Could this be done in your countries?' All of them, including France, say no. They don't have the open American system."

Muslim scholars say it's the political climate, not Islam, that contributes to the second-class treatment of women in some Middle Eastern countries. Aggression, too, is driven by politics rather than faith, Mansuri says. "There isn't a single leader among the so-called Muslim countries that adheres to the principles of Islam. Almost all of [these leaders] are a nightmare to Muslims. None of them represent Islam."

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Each Friday with his family, Mansuri goes to the Islamic Center of Orange County in Garden Grove to pray at the masjid (a more precise term than the French "mosque," Mansuri says). He says prayers in Arabic five times daily: before sunrise, at noon, in the afternoon, at sunset and at bedtime.

His father, who has visited the United States twice, has never been concerned that Mansuri make a pile of money in America. What's important is his son's ability to effect positive change. This, Mansuri says, coincides with Islamic belief.

"Muslims believe that the land belongs to God Almighty. He has given us sustenance and the ability to think and has given us land and freedom and access. The question becomes: How did you react? What did you do with it?

"I don't really represent Muslim interests. I carry the concerns of students to the publishers. I say to publishers: Can we become partners? Can I bring something to the table? And the system says yes."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Shabbir Mansuri

Age: 51

Background: Born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Moved to Southern California in 1969; lives in Fountain Valley.

Family: Wife Rashida; daughters Samina, 23; Aasiya, 18; and Shabana, 15.

Interests: Reading, educating.

On his father's influence: "He had only a third-grade education, but he was my greatest teacher."

On the separation of church and state: "I was recently an observer at the public hearings of the Texas Textbook Committee. I don't know if the committee members were in agreement with what was being said [by members of the public] . . . but what came across was that Christianity should be the basis for writing texts. Very unlike how it is done in Sacramento, where it is understood that schools do not teach religion; they teach about religion. Texas was like a different country altogether."

On his Test: "For Muslims, this life becomes sort of a test for preparing ourselves for the afterlife. After I lost the businesses after 15 years . . . my belief kept me sane."

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