NEWBURGH, Ind. (AP) — As Bushra Saqib and her husband watched news reports about the mass killing in San Bernardino, California, they looked at each other with dread and said the same thing: “I hope it wasn’t a Muslim.”
Although Wednesday’s rampage was almost 2,000 miles from this Ohio River town of about 3,300 near the Kentucky and Illinois borders, revelations that it was carried out by a Muslim couple felt like a blow to the years-long effort by the local Muslim community to dispel misconceptions that Islam condones violence.
“You get tired and overwhelmed defending your faith all the time; you feel like everybody’s looking at you,” said Saqib, who runs her husband’s medical office in the small Illinois town of Carmi, about an hour west of Newburgh. “But you cannot feel defeated.”
Muslim families in this southern Indiana hamlet are among those feeling more vulnerable as anti-Islamic sentiment heats up across the country in the aftermath of recent extremist attacks.
Here, they have found mostly peaceful coexistence at the edge of the nation’s Bible Belt, forming friendly relations with the larger community by working hard to build trust. They began arriving about 30 years ago to take jobs as doctors, business owners, engineers and professors in the area around Evansville, Indiana’s third largest city, many settling in this bedroom community known for antique shops, restaurants and nice houses lining manicured streets.
They host an annual food festival and give tours of the new Islamic center, which opened five years ago and serves about 120 families in the region. They help build Habitat for Humanity houses and volunteer at homeless shelters. They’ve forged friendships with Christian and Jewish congregations.
Still, they worry. Leaders have hired off-duty sheriff’s deputies to safeguard their mosque during Friday prayers.
It’s the same way they felt after 9/11, when someone rammed a pickup truck into their old Islamic center, shattering several windows.
Instead of hunkering down after that incident, they reached out. And they plan to keep doing so.
“Once they eat with you, they have a different idea of you,” said Saqib, noting the annual food festival draws thousands and has raised more than $30,000 for a regional food bank.
Locals say it’s difficult to stereotype or distrust people you actually know.
“Islamophobia exists, there’s not any doubt about it,” said 70-year-old Navy veteran Gary Slankard, part of the lunch-time crowd at the American Legion post, where there’s a silhouette cut-out of a soldier kneeling by a cross. “You hear it every day, but it doesn’t ever seem to be in reference to our neighborhoods.”
His friend 81-year-old L.B. “Dixie” Dugan agreed, noting that a local Muslim physician saved him from a life-threatening staph infection last year.
“I don’t care what religion he was. I’m alive,” he said.
And Muslims say that, overall, they feel safe in Newburgh — which holds the distinction of being the first town north of the Mason-Dixon line to be captured by Confederate forces during the Civil War.
Even so, they can’t help but notice the stares they get while shopping in Walmart or Target or the occasional comments on social media.
The Rev. Kevin Fleming, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in nearby Evansville, said he is criticized occasionally by other Christians for his friendship with Muslims, who “to their way of thinking are beyond the kingdom of God, which is preposterous.” If anyone had tried to picket the Islamic center after the recent attack in Paris, he said, his congregation was ready to “get between whoever was going to be protesting against them and keep them safe.”
Although nothing has happened here, Muslims say they must do more to reach out — including to Muslim youth who might be vulnerable to groups that misrepresent the Quran.
This summer, the Islamic Society’s imam, Omar Atia, made several videos with a non-Muslim friend to combat Islamic State propaganda. The videos have drawn national attention.
“It’s just mind-boggling when I read about San Bernardino,” said Atia, who said he will call on Muslim leaders around the U.S. to be more proactive about “ridiculous, out-of-context, criminal interpretations” of the Quran.
That’s a smart approach, said Richard Maass, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Evansville who specializes in international security and terrorism.
“The more interaction that we have with other groups, the more we understand … they are not like these people trying to attack us,” he said.
Muslims in Newburgh said they are proof that outreach works.
Amjad Manna, who came to the U.S. from Syria and owns a popular restaurant in nearby Evansville, said 80 percent of customers are non-Muslims.
“We have a lot of friends who come to us and ask, ‘Are you OK? Do you need anything? If something happens, let us know,'” Manna said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Webber reported from Chicago.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.