Chicagoâ€”September 4, 2005â€”New Orleans has been flooded with poisonous water, and our television sets have been deluged with images of suffering and tragedy that seem out of place in our country’s coast-to-coast worldly paradise of plastics, strip malls, Starbucks, and convenience shopping.
The question echoes in our heartsâ€”what about the Muslims who live in New Orleans? There must be mosques and families thereâ€”what has happened to them?
Research into that question may lead you to the name Abdus Sattar Al-Dahir. An immigrant from Pakistan, Mr. Al-Dahir during his life built a family of a wife and four children, maintained a laundry business, focused strenuous effort to unite the various Muslim communities of New Orleans, and founded and managed a not-for-profit aid organization, Gulf Medical Relief Fund, Inc., which gave disaster assistance, most recently in Iraq. On a recent trip to Iraq, Mr. Al-Dahir fell ill; which illness stayed with him on his return to the United States, and resulted in his death soon after, only a few months ago.
But the good works of his life continue.
Holly Al-Dahir, his widow, continued the work of Gulf Medical in support of Iraqi people in need, and only recently turned her attention and the focus of her husband’s legacy to the rebuilding in Katrina’s wake of destruction. By a remarkable twist of fate, her organization is even correctly named for the work it now undertakes, to rebuild the stricken north of the Gulf of Mexico after Katrina’s devastation.
Holly Al-Dahir left New Orleans after the earliest warnings given by Mayor Ray Nagin, leaving early to avoid the gridlock that characterized the weekend exodus.
She came to ISNA to collect money for Katrina’s victims, and explained that in reality she is the only one with access to all of the Muslims of New Orleans, and the only one (by what fantastic and unforseeable good fortune!) with a ready-made institution for such rebuilding in her hands.
She says in a Gulf Medical fundraising flyer that: 10,000 Muslims have suffered catastrophic losses, 11 masajid exist in metro New Orleans, 2 Islamic schools need rebuilding and repair, that Gulf Medical Relief Fund, Inc. (IRS #72-1197274) is the only Louisiana-registered Muslim relief fund in the area, that Gulf Medical Relief Fund has successfully operated in New Orleans for 14 years, and that Gulf Medical staff personally “know the Muslims who need your help and can aid them directly.”
She lists the following mosques among those of New Orleans, and claims that there are tens of thousands of religiously-active Muslims in that city: The mosques are: Masjid at-Tawba, a mosque frequented largely by people of Palestinian origin; Masjid Abu Bakr, Ms. Al-Dahir’s own mosque, which she said was likely damaged on its roof (which roof was in the midst of repairs that made it vulnerable to high winds). This mosque is largely frequented by the Indo-Pakistani community, with some attendance by Arabs. The Slidell Masjid, founded by Lawrence Abdul Haqq, is under water. It is also largely attended by the Indo-Pakistani community.
Masjid Ar-Rahim, of Orleans Parish, is mainly African American by attendance and likely sustained damage. Its imam is Rafiq Noman, and it is on North Johnson Street. The Islamic Center on St. Claude, across the street from the Gulf Medical storage warehouse, probably sustained damage. The Magnolia Street Mosque, whose imam’s name is Abdur Rauf, was likely under water as of the time of our interview. Masjid Ya Sin is likely under water. Masjid Bilal likely sustained hurricane damageâ€”it is on the West Bank of the Mississippi and likely avoided flood damage. Nashied Salahuddin is the imam, and this mosque is primarily attended by African Americans.
There is also a Nation of Islam mosque in New Orleans, Masjid Muhammad, which likely was under water as of the time of TMO’s interview with Ms. Al-Dahir.
Ms. Al-Dahir emphasizes of the New Orleans mosques that they were “highly interactive” and that they have rotating iftars during Ramadan, which in fact makes New Orleans a better example of Islamic unity than most of the nation’s mosquesâ€”which unfortunately are divided along sectarian lines, and whose members are frequently full of the poisonous bias and chauvinism that breed unbelief and hatred in the hearts of our brothers and sisters..
In one of his holy ahadith, Prophet Muhammad (s) said that “Love of one’s people is from faith.” On the other hand, he harshly rebuked one Companion who showed animosity toward Sayyidina Bilal (ra) because he was black, saying that this animosity was a vestige of unbelief.
No one will rebuke Muslims for having love for their own people and building mosques with them, but the full flowering of Islam will not be seen while we nurture ethnic hatred and division in our hearts. We all come from one father and one mother. And it is for this reason that we can find hope and a good example in the multi-culturalism of New Orleans mosques as described by Ms. Al-Dahir.
Ms. Al-Dahir stridently defended the people of her city, who have been criticized by extreme-right reactionary speakers for staying there despite evacuation orders. She explains that those people could not escape because of their extreme poverty. You might see, in the television footage of the tragedy, cars beside the houses of those who have remained in New Orleans, but those cars likely “don’t work.” Her defense of her city goes to the extreme in that she argues that those claimed to have shot at rescue helicopters were actually “just trying to attract attention.”
For Mayor Nagin, Ms. Al-Dahir gave the highest praise, saying that he “was excellent. [He] gave plenty of warning, the contra-flow worked.”
She explained, by way of background, that although outsiders sometimes harp on the poverty of the African American community in New Orleans, that actually their houses are historic landmarks that have stood for hundreds of years. In fact it is illegal to change them because of their historical value, and she emphasized this by mentioning a woman who had tried to have aluminum siding put on such a house, only to be forced to remove it by her angry neighbors and municipal authorities.
Ms. Al-Dahir explained that in fact the strongest part of the levee system, that facing Lake Ponchartrain, did not failâ€”that only the weaker canal drainage system to the lake had failed, and in fact this was the portion of the New Orleans levee system that was destined for repair before the reair money was siphoned to Iraq.
For President Bush she maintains real vitriol. She blames him for embroiling the United States in wars which sapped away the $141 million that had been destined for strengthening the levee system in 2001, and blames him for siphoning (away to Iraq) more than half of the $14 million that Senator Mary Landrieu obtained for levee repair only a few months ago, and says of the National Guard, “The National Guard is for protecting [this] country,” and they should not be thousands of miles away.
She even goes so far as to say that President Bush allowed the flooding of the area beside the 17th Street Canal “on purposeâ€”that parish is completely full of Democrats, while Louisiana is mostly Republican.” Such sentiments may be more an expression of the passions of this heavy moment rather than of sincere conviction, but they betray the deep fault-lines of distrust that lay between some of this nation’s population and their president.
She expressed regret that half of the National Guard is in Iraq, and that the other half has left much of its equipment in Iraq, and expressed dismay that President Bush is spending $1.5 billion every week over there.
After Katrina, Ms. Al-Dahir and her sons decided to attend the ISNA Convention in Chicago to collect money for Muslim Katrina victims. They humbly collected money in ISNA’s bazaar area, both for Iraq and for the stricken Muslim community of New Orleans. They expressed that in reality no other institution is as capable of giving aid to the Muslims of New Orleans than they are, and Ms. Al-Dahir said, “I wonder what those other organizations are doing with the money they are collecting.”
Holly Al-Dahir explained in a soft and intent voice how her late husband had collected all of the imams, one by one, of New Orleans, and united them by “literally dragging” them to meet together. Because of this unity, she says, “I know all of them! I’m friends with their wives!” She says this is why the Muslim community of New Orleans is so united and multicultural.
She praised and defended the African American community of New Orleans, saying that her husband for years had operated a laundry-cleaning business above the doors of which was a sign reading, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad (s) is the Messenger of Allah,” saying that countless African Americans had said shahada in that store.
New Orleans, she says, is “so important to the rest of the country,”: as our biggest port, and through which comes so much of the nation’s wealth & oil, crude and refined. –
If you wish to contact Holly Al-Dahir and offer your support, her company’s name and address are: Gulf Medical Relief Fund, Inc., 4521 Conlin St., Metairie, LA 70006. 504-455-5611.