After Chattanooga, U.S. Muslims face hard questions on a somber holiday

A day after a gunman killed four Marines, people attend an interfaith prayer vigil at Olivet Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

They left floral dresses at home and dumped half-cooked desserts in the trash. They canceled the bouncy castle and cotton candy, opting instead for bare white plastic tables. On the happiest day on the Muslim calendar, they bowed their heads in solemn prayer.

The spirit of celebration around Eid al-Fitr, the highest holiday in the Muslim world, rang hollow to the men and women on the royal blue carpet in the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga, who clutched tissues and sobbed as they faced the plain prayer room’s arched windows.

Inside, they fell to their knees in worship. Outside, a day after authorities said four Marines were killed at the hands of a young Muslim man, the worshipers faced a retinue of questions not unlike the ones they asked one another and ones they asked themselves.

“Where are the pieces and how are we going to pick them up?” Imam Abdul Baasit told those gathered. The gunman’s name, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, wasn’t mentioned, but his presence hung over the room like the soft spotlights glowing overhead.

“You don’t just sit there and learn Islam off the Internet,” Baasit said, in a reference to Abdulazeez. “He prayed, he fasted. Where did he end up? He ended up in hellfire.”


Across the country, Muslims faced the same questions as they marked the holiday.

In Phoenix, thousands packed into an overflowing civic center where the imam praised the worshipers’ righteousness and begged them to maintain it after Ramadan.

“We’re going to talk about this thing, this man?” Yunus Ahmed, 44, said after the prayers there. “No. This is a happy day.”

His 16-year-old son, Ahmed, stood nearby and grinned shyly. “He won’t talk about it, but he’s upset.”

In Southern California, 20,000 people packed into the Anaheim Convention Center, where Los Angeles homemaker Mimi Ahmed said her coreligionists are used to being misunderstood.

“Many people on the outside do not understand why we believe what we do. I think everyone should follow their hearts, and this what I choose — to be Muslim and to celebrate our humanity, especially in this season,” Ahmed said. “We try to show that humanity in small and big ways, and that’s why you see this huge crowd, with every prayer as a prayer worth sharing.”

Some were bitter that, once again, the Muslim community was made to answer for the actions of a man who shared their faith before violating one of its central tenets: “And do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct.”

Authorities said Friday that the gunman identified as Abdulazeez used a handgun and two long guns in his attack on the two military centers in Chattanooga on Thursday morning. At one of the sites, the gunman killed the four Marines and wounded a police officer and two other people before being shot to death himself.

Fareed Nabi, 25, hadn’t heard about the shooting yet on Friday morning. He woke an hour before prayer in Phoenix, an extraordinarily late start for such a big day.

He rushed the ritual washing of each part of his body separately, popped a blue earring into each ear and grabbed the nearest, cleanest clothes he had.

Arriving in a tuxedo T-shirt and jeans with streaks of auburn in his black hair, Nabi didn’t much match the beige suits and flowing robes of his fellow worshipers at the Glendale Civic Center west of Phoenix.

But like the others in the mosque, he resented the implication that such a broad, diverse community could be reduced to a few offhand descriptions of Muslims — that he and others could be held communally responsible for an act they saw as horrific.

“It’s not ‘the Muslims,’” Nabi said. “We’re celebrating, and with people who are really different from maybe everyday Americans. Look around here. You see every kind of person.”

The worshipers came clad in tightly wound hijabs and loose-flowing robes, Ivory Coast women in neon gowns and Pakistani men in beige suits.

They arrived in celebration, crowding six deep into the civic center on the last day of Ramadan to celebrate the end of fasting and of Shawwal, the 10th month of the Muslim calendar.

The crowd was so immense that some men had to pray on the sidewalk under a merciless Arizona sun.

“There is no end for the believer’s good deed but death,” said Imam Mahmoud Sulaiman from a wooden lectern, his rat-a-tat Arabic cadence met by men on their knees, palms crossed before them. “Be as righteous after Ramadan as you were during it.”

In Anaheim, where tens of thousands thronged the Convention Center, Ali Shaikh said she had never seen so many people of her faith in one place. She traveled from Houston to see family — and what a big gathering of Muslims looks like.

“We’re from a big state,” Shaikh said. “But today, we see a big, generous spirit, all who believe in the importance of this day.”

The shooting wasn’t at the forefront of Muslims’ minds in Phoenix and Anaheim. But in Chattanooga, it was inescapable.

“It’s not just as a Muslim,” said Bassam Issa, 41, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga. “As a human being, as a Chattanoogan, as an American, the feeling is shock and disbelief.... As Americans, as fellow citizens, we shall overcome this terrible tragedy together.”

Issa said he had not known Abdulazeez well, but heard from the gunman’s father that Abdulazeez had traveled abroad, gotten a job in Nashville and was visiting his parents in Chattanooga for Ramadan.

The news of the shooting cast a pall on what is normally a three-day celebration. Asmahan Issa, 60, was in her kitchen brushing butter on phyllo dough — a first step in preparing baklava for Friday’s celebration — when her sister called and told her to watch the news.

Her heart sank. She stopped cooking. “I just abandoned them, dumped them out,” Issa said of the honeyed, layered pastry. “We don’t have that feeling anymore.”

Noor Azhar, 16, had her finest garments picked out for Eid: a special shalwar kameez, pink with embroidered flowers, that she and her mother had ordered and her father had picked up in Pakistan.

But Azhar left her pantaloons and body shirt hanging in her closet, her bracelets lined up on her table. Instead, she came to the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga in everyday jeans and a head scarf.

“With all this tragedy, it’s not a celebration anymore,” she said. “We never expected anything like this to happen here.”

“Islam stands for the good of humanity,” the imam, Baasit, cried from a wooden pulpit lined with leather-bound copies of the Koran. “It does not condone hurting other people. No. The injury is deep.

“Brothers and sisters, this has to be taken seriously by all of us. As a community, enough. Enough!”

Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Chattanooga, Times staff writer Duara from Phoenix.