2016-06-30
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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.

"They always wanted me to go back to their religion," Alamleh said.

After September 11, the Oroscos called Islam a "terrorist religion" and pleaded with her not to take their grandchildren to the mosque. In October 2001, she married Emad Alamleh from the Palestinian Territories. Two months later, the couple announced plans to move with the children to Houston. By that time, according to court depositions, the three children had lived at the grandparents' home for 3 ½ years.

When Alamleh went to the Oroscos' home to pick up her children, a constable served her with a custody lawsuit and restraining order. "Our position has not been anything about this lady's faith," said the Oroscos' attorney, Larry Martin. "The grandparents are doing a good job as the 'de facto' parents. We don't need to disrupt something that's working pretty well."

But Alamleh's attorney, Khalid Hamideh, said religion plays a central role in nearly all custody cases in which the parents belong to different faiths, including this one. "None of us has our eyes closed," said Hamideh, who is Muslim and represents several Muslim clients. "It's the anti-Islamic, anti-Middle Eastern, anti-foreign biases amongst us in everyday life. It's nothing we can ignore, even in our custody battles."

When Sami Kabbani and Teresa Lauderdale were married in an outdoor civil ceremony in 1987, a Catholic priest presided and wore a cassock emblazoned with the letter M. The priest said the symbol stood for both Mary and Muhammad and signified the union of two faiths.

Kabbani filed for divorce in April 2001. Even before the split, Lauderdale expressed fears that her husband would kidnap their children and take them to his native Syria. Last fall, she told Kabbani that she had hidden their 4-year-old daughter's passport. He told her the document didn't matter, that he could take their daughter to Syria if he chose to. Shortly after divorce papers were filed, Lauderdale moved unexpectedly to Virginia. Kabbani insisted that she return to Texas. For eight months, he traveled to Virginia regularly to see his two daughters - now ages 5 and 1 - without supervision and including overnight stays in a hotel.

Lauderdale filed for an emergency hearing to stop the visitation. A Harris County judge ruled in her favor last August. Until each child turns 18, Kabbani can see them only on certain days between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the presence of an armed guard.

Suing for custody on religious grounds is unconstitutional, said Tom Oldham, a law professor at the University of Houston. "You'd have to show either that the child is somehow being harmed or learning something that the court feels is objectively harmful."

To prove that, Lauderdale recorded her daughter saying that, according to Daddy, God would give her wings to fly if she did good deeds. An expert witness in international child kidnapping called to testify on Lauderdale's behalf said the parable represented a murder-suicide threat.

"In the Kabbani case, the ruling was not based on the evidence but was based on fear, innuendo, speculation and a prediction of the future," said Kabbani's attorney, Jolene Wilson-Glah.

Rep. Nick Lampson, (D-TX), chairman and founder of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, said family courts are encouraged to be vigilant because countries such as Syria are not members of The Hague Convention on International Abduction. Since January 2000, six children from three families were reported missing as a result of international abductions to Syria, said Nancy Hammer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Judges are urged to find a way for children to have a relationship with both parents while also protecting them, Lampson said. But some legal experts say that courts are ill-equipped to adjudicate such issues. Stephen M. Crampton, chief counsel for the Christian-affiliated American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy, said both parents have equal rights to raise the child in a religious environment. "The court can't play Solomon," he said.

The only case among the four in Texas approaching peaceful resolution is the one in Austin involving Johnson-Shankle. In August, the court required the opposing couples to attend counseling together. They did, and conversations have since moved toward a compromise.

"My dad has learned to respect my religion," said Johnson-Shankle.

Meanwhile, Kabbani feels unjustly convicted for a crime he said he did not commit, and he feels punished by God for not being a devout Muslim. He said he usually prays once a day instead of five times and that he smokes, drinks alcohol and rarely makes it through Ramadan without prematurely breaking the fast.

"It's getting to a point where I'm asking myself, 'Why is this happening to me? Is it because I'm too soft on my faith?' " he said. "I have a deep faith inside. I'm not giving anything in return. Maybe I should start."

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