Beliefnet
Reprinted with permission of the Dallas Morning News.

Since September 11, some American Muslims say an anti-Muslim backlash has put them at risk of losing their children. Why? Because since then, more than a dozen Muslim parents nationwide have been sued for custody of their children by non-Muslim ex-spouses and grandparents who don't want the children reared by the Muslim parent, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group.

That compares with two such lawsuits reported in the year leading up to the terrorist attacks. Most of the cases are scattered across the South and Midwest. At least five are in Texas, the most in any state.

The latest case, according to CAIR, was filed last fall in Fort Worth. Bill Burton is seeking custody of his 9-year-old daughter from his former wife, Norma Saadi, five years after she married Kamel Saadi. Mrs. Saadi said she is letting her daughter choose her faith and her daughter is a Christian.

According to Saadi, Burton believes she is trying to alienate their daughter from him. "She's lying ... if she thinks Islam is a reason for a custody case," said Constance Langston, Burton's attorney. "She has tried everything to keep a father from exercising his court-ordered visitation."

Non-custodial plaintiffs and their attorneys in the Texas cases said their lawsuits hinge less on religion and more on a history of bad decisions that they fear endanger the children's health and welfare.

But Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Texas chapter, said many family judges are the product of an evangelical Christian movement dominating the state's school board and family courtrooms in recent elections. "All those people who compared Muhammad to terrorists are the same people who dominate the political agenda and whose policy is being reflected," Harrell said. "They happen to be in the position to perpetuate the bigotry."

For Michelle Anderson of Round Rock, Texas, becoming a Muslim was a carefully weighed decision. She admired the faith for its strong moral values. Her court deposition and a social work review contend that Anderson's conversion and marriage to a Moroccan Muslim led her ex-husband, Doug Anderson of Wimberley, Texas, to challenge custody of their 9-year-old son three days after the September 11 attacks. Mr. Anderson's attorney, Mark Cusack, says religion has nothing to do with the case. He says his client is disturbed by the "blind-faith marriage" because it fits a pattern of poor decisions.

But Susan Sanders, a social worker appointed to investigate both homes, said the case does turn on religion and determined that the boy should live with his father. "Ms. Anderson's conversion to Islam and her subsequent arranged marriage to a foreigner are very basic issues in this case and are certainly unusual from the point of view of prevalent American culture," Sanders wrote in a social study submitted for evidence.

Ms. Anderson's marriage followed Muslim custom. To help find a groom, members of her Austin mosque put her in contact with Abdellah Douli of Casablanca. Through a series of conference calls and e-mails, she got to know him and his family. In August 2001, two weeks after they met face to face, the couple married in Morocco.

Mr. Anderson said he wants to give his son a "normal, stable home." Ms. Anderson said she wants to instill values that she says are preached by Islam, such as acceptance, kindness, patience, love of God and tolerance.

Islam similarly appealed to Jessica Johnson-Shankle of Austin. She became a Muslim two weeks after being introduced to the faith. "I wanted something stable, something closer to God," she said. "It's a way of life. It keeps you from trouble and from sin."

Her father and stepmother, Danny and Sheena Johnson of Luling, Texas, were stunned. They worried not only for their daughter but also for their 3-year-old grandson. When Ms. Johnson was 20, she left her son to live with his grandparents for a month. When she returned to retrieve him, her father and stepmother filed for custody to keep him. A judge ruled that she Johnson could visit her son every other week.

She has since married George "Abdulhakeem" Shankle, who became a Muslim 10 years earlier. They pray at an Austin mosque about three times a week, taking her son when he's with them. At night, his mother reads to him stories of the prophets.

In Dallas, grandparents are suing a former daughter-in-law. Melada Alamleh became a Muslim in 1998 while she entrusted the care of her three children - ages 7, 6 and 4 at the time - to her former in-laws, Steve and Irene Orosco. "I really liked [Islam]," said Alamleh. "I started to change my ways." But when Alamleh began taking her children to pray at a mosque, her former mother-in-law, a devout Jehovah's Witness, objected.

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