Chicago Tribune: `Prank’ gets teen lesson in tolerance

Displacing a Muslim woman’s scarf leads to sensitivity training
David Huffman told police it was just a prank gone wrong: On April 22, at a McDonald’s in Tinley Park, he tapped a Muslim woman on the head, nearly pulling off her headscarf.

The woman, a young mother with her children, didn’t see it as harmless. She was scared and embarrassed; her faith had been attacked. She told police, and they called it battery.

But in a surprising twist, a Cook County circuit judge did not fine or jail Huffman, who pleaded guilty. He was instead ordered to undergo sensitivity training at the downtown Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.

During the past three months, Huffman, 18, has spent 40 hours listening to and talking with Muslims across Chicagoland. He has completed required tasks that seemed ripped from reality television: watching Muslim youths play basketball, attending a 9/11 event and visiting area mosques, which Huffman called “synagogues” at the beginning of his training.

But what exactly did David Huffman learn?

Day 1

When Huffman first arrived Aug. 4 at the Muslim civil rights organization’s office, his hands were shaking from nervousness, and he appeared as though he’d rather have been anywhere else. He was late, for starters. He arrived with his shoes untied and a patchy stubble, looking more like he had just stumbled out of bed than spent the better part of an hour commuting from Tinley Park.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Huffman said of the April incident, soon after arriving. “I want to forget it.”

He eventually told his version of the events. He said he knew he was wrong, but he was confused why the woman had become so upset.

“I understood immediately after I did it. But even after I apologized, she was still so angry,” he said. “I didn’t understand that.”

Explaining that to him would be the responsibility of Veronica Zapata, the organization’s sensitivity training coordinator. That day, she led Huffman around the corner to the Downtown Islamic Center on South State Street, where she showed him the empty mosque.

“Religion is a waste of time,” Huffman said without apparent malice, as his fingers traced ceramic tiles that spell out the 99 names of God in Islam. He checked his mobile phone text messages with his other hand.

Zapata, 32, a Mexican-American Muslim convert, winced at the comment, but she later said she was optimistic about the next several weeks.

“I don’t know how reflective he’s going to be. I feel the resistance,” she said. “I think he has good potential.”

`I got in trouble’

Huffman’s April arrest came less than two months before he was to graduate from Tinley Park’s Andrew High School, where he struggled to stay out of trouble, he said.

“I’m a legend in my high school,” he said with a self-conscious swagger.

Still, his brushes with authority have not soured him on applying to a police force when he graduates from community college. It’s a calling Huffman said he feels because he wants to help people and because he’s a good communicator.

Those communication skills were initially absent as he spent a Friday evening with numerous youths at the Muslim Youth Center in Bridgeview. Huffman was timid around the teens, which could have come from the fact that three young men asked why he was there soon after his arrival, and they left little doubt that they already knew the answer.

“I got in trouble with some Muslims,” Huffman said, as the teenagers waited for a longer answer. “I tapped a woman on the head, and they gave me 40 hours.”

Conversation turned to sports and video games until everyone broke for evening prayers.

Luqman Rashad, the center’s energetic director, led prayers that evening on the basketball court, where Huffman watched intently, taking off his baseball hat as if the national anthem had begun.

Rashad filled his sermon with several topics, telling the 30 or so boys that one must always struggle to do right. And he said Muslim women have it hard in America because the hijab, or head scarf, alerts others to their religion. “It’s important to understand the struggles our sisters are going through,” he said.

Huffman looked away.

Minutes later, he was sitting at a conference table with three Muslim teenagers who all wear hijabs.

“It’s not just a scarf; it’s who you are,” said Amneh Noubani, 19, who like one of the younger women said she started wearing her hijab at the suggestion of her parents and to honor God.

The young women explained that the hijab is part of Islam’s call for modest dress, although Muslims disagree exactly what modest is. The hijab has become a lightning rod as the religion has increased its presence in western countries, where the hijab is sometimes seen as oppressive, and protests have surrounded it from Florida to France.

The group asked Huffman if he had any questions or comments.

He said he had none.

Ramadan lessons

By the beginning of October, after other activities around town, Huffman was back at the Council on American-Islamic Relations‘ office, where he worked hard to complete a PowerPoint presentation he was required to give to the organization’s volunteers at the end of his 40 hours. The month of Ramadan had begun, and the office was full of people fasting from dawn to sunset. Huffman surrounded his computer with a spread of cookies, pasta salad and soda.

He told all who would listen that he was going to be a millionaire one day by inventing a cell phone with a parachute that deploys when dropped. He spoke loud and often, and seemed unaware that his chosen topics, such as the proliferation of bikinis on the social networking Web site MySpace, were doing little to endear him to the office.

But he was learning something.

“What time does fasting end today?” Zapata asked another Muslim sitting nearby.

“6:15 p.m., I think,” Huffman responded out of nowhere.

They both smiled.

Not because he was right–he wasn’t. But at less than 10 minutes off, he was pretty close.

PowerPoint praise

At their final meeting Oct. 13, Zapata and Huffman playfully teased each other like siblings.

In Huffman’s PowerPoint slides, he described Zapata as “probably one of the nicest” people he’s ever met. “She made [it possible] for me to understand the religion.”

He smiled at her in the darkened room.

“I really did learn a lot from this experience. It made me [realize] some things that I might not have noticed without this training,” he said. “And I am going to take this experience with me through my entire life.”

Of course, he was supposed to say all of this, but Huffman seemed serious and earnest. And he took the time to reach out to those in the office, whether they had ignored him previously or not.

“I hope you guys take away from this that I am a really nice guy and I care about other people” he said. “People make mistakes; don’t let it judge the person for the rest of their life.”

The group applauded, and several people patted Huffman on the back, telling him he should return as a volunteer, although next time without the threat of jail time.

Ahmed Rehab, CAIR’s executive director, later said he was so impressed with Huffman’s development.

“The great thing about Dave’s progress is that he didn’t come in full of hate,” Rehab said. “He, like so many people in the general population, had simply come to his opinions because he never knew a Muslim.”

For the first time since his initial day at the council, Huffman again visited the Downtown Islamic Center, walking with two young Muslim men from the office, who did not talk to him the whole way there. There was a crowd at the mosque this time, since it was during Ramadan, which ended Sunday, according to the Islamic Society of North America.

Once inside, one of the men told Huffman he could wait in the hallway, which Huffman did, returning to stare at the tiles listing the names of God in Islam: The All Forgiving. The Hidden. The Majestic.

As the imam preached peace and togetherness, Huffman was feet away but not listening, in a different world altogether. The faithful packed the mosque that day; Huffman checked text messages.

He did however go into the stairwell to check those messages, which, based on the previous weeks, may be a small step of improvement.


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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