Detained For Praying at Football Game
- Muslim Giants fan wants Americans to learn
By RICK MALWITZ
Home News Tribune
As a 27-year-old man born and bred in New Jersey, Sami Shaban of
Piscataway figures he's been to every mall in the state. And, as
devoted follower of Islam, "I've prayed in every one of those malls."
For Shaban, prayer sometimes means finding a secluded space at the
mall and bowing toward Mecca, following a pattern of prayer he
established as a child, praying at five points in the day no matter
where he might be.
Through thousands of his prayers nothing would compare to what
happened Sept. 19, when he and four other Muslims were ushered from
their seats at Giants Stadium and questioned by the FBI, wanting to
know why they had prayed in a secluded area at the stadium before
"It is very disappointing that this happened in the United States,"
He wears his beard deliberately long to illustrate that a devout
Muslim can look as he does and be a peaceful and law-abiding
citizen, who also happens to be a devoted Giants fan.
It is not uncommon to get hard stares and hear negative comments
elsewhere, he said, citing airports in Egypt and Israel as places
where he has had bad experiences.
Following those experiences, he said yesterday, "I always tell
people, "This would never happen in America.' I can't say that now."
"We responded to a suspicious activity," said FBI Spokesman Steven
Siegel. "There are billboards out there, "If you see something
suspicious, call this number.' Someone was suspicious."
Suspicion was aroused, said Siegel, based on the location of the
five men praying, near an air duct that draws air to indoor areas of
The game took place during a time of heightened alert, eight days
after the anniversary of the 9/11 attack and with former President
Bush in attendance.
When Giants Stadium is filled, said George Zoffinger, president and
CEO of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, "There is not
a more concentrated gathering of people, for a four-hour period, in
the metropolitan area.
"That evening former President Bush was here and our concern was
even more paramount. Our personnel and law-enforcement agencies
acted appropriately in light of the environment and circumstances
present," he said.
The story drew national attention this week, when two of the five
men attended a press conference in New York, hosted by the Council
on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
"This is a teachable moment," said Wissam Nasr, executive director
of CAIR's New York City office. "When you see Muslims praying, it's
not a terrorist act. It's not a prelude to terror."
In places where Shaban has gone to school and to work, he said, he
and his fellow Muslims have been accommodated. At Rutgers
University, where he graduated in 2003 with a degree in economics, a
room was set aside at the Paul Robeson Cultural Center for midday
Between five and 30 Muslims routinely use the room, said Dion Lewis,
the center's assistant director.
"It is not a stretch to say, from my experience, Rutgers is one of
the most accommodating places in this country," said David Fricke of
Highland Park, a Muslim chaplain at Rutgers.
Shaban said similar accommodations have been made to allow Muslims
to pray at an AT&T facility where he works and at the Seton Hall
University Law School in Newark, which he attends.
After the Sept. 19 incident Shaban explained to law professor
Bernard Freamon what happened, and Freamon contacted the American
Civil Liberties Union. After Shaban heard last week that the ACLU
would not pursue the matter he contacted CAIR, which arranged the
Shaban said his main interest is not filing a lawsuit or seeking
financial damages but educating people about the ways of Muslims.
One of the five pillars of the Islamic faith is to pray five times a
day, beginning before sunset and ending after dark. It was time for
the fourth prayer of the day when the five men left a line of
persons going to their seats at Giants Stadium to pray not knowing
they were near an air duct, said Shaban.
According to Siegel, the concern about the air ducts is because of
their potential to play a role in a biological or chemical attack.
Shaban said he had no knowledge of air ducts, though if they posed a
threat and were unguarded, "Maybe I should have been worried about
my safety at the game," he said. The area has since been cordoned
Bush was at the Sept. 19 game to draw attention to fundraising for
Hurricane Katrina relief. The game had been scheduled for New
Orleans, but the venue was changed because of flood damage there.
It was a rare game for which tickets were available to the general
public, and it attracted Shaban's attention for two reasons. Some
proceeds would go to hurricane relief.
"I would be helping Americans," he said.
Also, he would get to see the Giants play in person for the first
time since his seventh birthday, when his mother secured tickets for
him and some friends.
He fell in love with the Giants in the 1980s and was an especially
big fan of Mark Bavaro and Phil Simms. When he was in middle school
in Mahwah he played a game against a team that included young Chris
Simms, the Giants' quarterback's son.
"Phil Simms was at the game," said Shaban, thrilled at the memory.
Following their prayer, the five men went to their seats. Before the
end of the first half, Shaban recalled, there was a commotion
several sections away that distracted the crowd and drew security
officials. When that commotion settled down, he said, he and his
friends were approached by four men wearing yellow security jackets.
"They said "Step out, we have some questions.' I then saw three
state police and realized this was no joke," he said.
More yellow-jacketed security officials arrived and the five Muslims
were ushered to a room on the opposite side of the stadium. More
than a dozen uniformed personnel ushered the five away, drawing
hoots from the crowd.
"Clearly we looked like criminals," Shaban said.
Once in the isolated room they were asked questions including where
they worshiped and whether they knew the "blind sheik" Sheikh Omar
Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade
Following the questioning they were allowed to return to watch the
game, accompanied by security officials who sat in adjacent seats.
Shaban also noticed a man several rows ahead, dressed like a fan,
who turned around several times to take his picture.
At the end of the game the security officials insisted on walking
the men to their car. Shaban suspected they did so to take down the
license plate number of his car. A week after the game an FBI agent
visited one of the men, according to Shaban.
However, before escorting the five out of the stadium, security
officials allowed them to use the room where they had been
interrogated for the final prayer of the day.
Fricke, the Muslim chaplain at Rutgers, said he has attended events
at Giants Stadium, and, when necessary, has prayed on a concourse.
He said if he goes to public venues with a group of Muslims they
often separate so as not to draw attention to the group.
"We are aware that it is an odd thing," Fricke said about the
practice of Muslims bowing and praying in public with their
foreheads on the ground.
Fricke said he had no ill will to the person who alerted stadium
authorities, calling it "blameless ignorance. It's an unfortunate
sign of the times."
Noting that Shaban intentionally wears a long beard and Mostafa
Khalifa, who appeared at the CAIR press conference this week, wears
an even longer beard, "These guys, by their own admission, fit the
stereotype," said Fricke.
Fricke also noted the irony of a football fan thinking it odd that
five men were praying together, when, he said, "There are practicing
Muslims playing in the National Football League. They were playing
rmalwitz @ thnt.com
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