A Howard County police officer in uniform and stocking feet was fielding questions from a large audience last week when, like all good public speakers, he asked the folks in back whether they could hear.
Then Sgt. Paul Steppe stopped himself short and turned in mild panic to the imam on his right. Was he allowed to do that, to speak directly to the people in that part of the room, all of them Muslim women with scarves over their heads?
Hours later, some of those same women gathered at a Laurel mosque to ponder another awkward question, one that until the past few days, they'd thought the Quran had settled more than 1,000 years ago: How should a good Muslim woman dress?
The terrorism that shattered lives and landscapes in this country is also breaching the cultural divide between American Muslims and their Christian and Jewish neighbors - for better and worse.
With Muslims fearing violence and harassment, police find themselves trying to protect a population they don't know very well. Officers are getting crash courses in Islam, boning up on the most basic religious and cultural traditions.
At the same time, the threat of violence has convinced some Muslims that it's safer to look more like the rest of America. Some Muslim women have thought about going out in public without wearing the khimar, a head scarf that is tied inextricably to many Muslim women's identity, chastity and faith in Allah.
In Columbia, Zehra Qureshi, a Wilde Lake High School senior, has refused to yield to her parents' pleas to quit covering her hair, though she did agreed to trade her long abaya robe for pants - so it's easier to run if she has to. "They feel it's for my safety," said Qureshi, 17, who received an anti-Muslim e-mail after the terrorist attacks. "All of a sudden somebody did something stupid and now we can't practice our religion."
So it is that some Muslims find themselves swept into a mainstream they want desperately to avoid while at the same time some Americans who were unfamiliar with Islam are getting a closer look at the faith.
Muslims may be thinking twice about displaying signs outside their mosques or even leaving the house. Yet the tragedy has also led to open discussions of religion at work and in social situations where the topic is usually taboo.
From police officers having to get to know a group that overnight became one of America's most vulnerable populations to the millions who watched an imam participate in Friday's televised prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, Muslims are looking a little more familiar.
And they should. Five million to 8 million Muslims live in the United States, 70,000 of them in Maryland, which has the 10th highest Muslim population in the nation, according to the Web site www.islam101. com. Islam is the nation's fastest-growing religion, according to Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, a magazine published by the American Educational Trust, a nonprofit foundation created by retired foreign service officers. Yet Muslims remain a mystery to many Americans, largely because their numbers were small until U.S. immigration laws were relaxed in 1965, Washington Report said.
"The kind of confusion that exists out there, the lack of understanding, is only because Islam is so new to this land," said Rehan A. Dawer of Columbia, a member of Dar Al-Taqwa, a Muslim congregation that meets in Columbia. "It has been an obvious presence for only 50 years."
The most visible sign of that presence is the khimar, the scarf that's meant to protect women but also makes them targets.
The khimar is no simple fashion accessory, no optional symbol like the cross a Christian might wear one day and leave in her jewelry box the next. The Quran requires women to wear it. By covering a woman's hair and chest, the scarf is meant to veil her beauty and thereby protect her chastity.
Starting at puberty, Muslim women are supposed to wear it in public and in their homes if they are in the presence of a man who is not a close relative. They consider wearing the scarf an honor, a symbol of their modesty and devotion. But it is not an easy thing to do in America, even in the best of times.
And the past week has certainly been bleak for American Muslims, whose leaders have condemned the terrorist attacks as contrary to their religious beliefs.
Muslims, Arab-Americans and people confused with them because of their style of dress have faced harassment and violence since the attacks, in which Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire and radical Muslim, is a prime suspect.
About 300 people marched on a suburban Chicago mosque last week, waving flags and chanting "USA! USA!" In Palos Heights, Ill., the Associated Press reported, a man was accused of using the blunt end of a machete to attack a Moroccan gas station attendant, and in Huntington, N.Y., police said, a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in a shopping mall parking lot.
Such incidents have prompted some Muslim fathers to ask their wives and daughters to stop wearing their khimars.
"Wearing a khimar is a jihad," said Hera Hashmi, 15, using the Arabic word for struggle that is widely mistranslated as holy war. "It just became harder."
When terrorists struck Tuesday and Muslims came under immediate suspicion, Hashmi's father, Syed Hashmi, worried that another daughter might not make it safely to their Columbia home from the University of Baltimore, where she is a freshman.
So Syed Hashmi, a pharmacist, made a painful plea to 18-year-old Neda, one he'd never dreamed he'd make, one that left him feeling like a hypocrite, a traitor to all he has believed since his childhood in Pakistan and India: Why not take off your khimar for the trip home?
"This will be against the religion," he recalled thinking to himself, torn by principle and paternal love. "I felt very bad. And when she refused, I was very proud of her."
In Islam, the so-called "rule of necessity" allows the faithful to violate certain religious rules in life-threatening situations, said Imam Darryl Wainwright of Masjid Ul-Haqq, a West Baltimore mosque.
A Muslim stranded on a desert island could eat pork in good conscience, for example, if the alternative is to die of starvation, he said.
Likewise, a woman could shed her khimar if it put her in mortal danger, Wainwright said. He does not think the situation is that grave, at least in the Baltimore area, where there have been only a few reports of harassment. But he said the potential is there.
"That's the danger of this attack," Wainwright said. "It has begun to cause a type of separation in America. Those Muslims who didn't and certainly would not support any type of measures like this are still going to be victims, even it means to alter a [style of] dress that represents an integral part of their beliefs."
At a gathering in a Laurel mosque Friday night, Hera Hashmi and a group of other young Muslim women talked about whether they should bare their heads. They were all opposed. "I just don't think I could do that," the Wilde Lake High School sophomore said. "It's like those dreams you have of going to school naked."
Her mother, Abida Hashmi, 39, can't part with her scarf either. "It's like part of your body," she said.
But the mother of four is so worried about being attacked that she has quit going out in public - a decision that's saddled her husband with the task of family grocery shopping for the first time in his 47 years. "He came home with random boxes of cereal and chips and all this stuff that we really don't eat," Hera Hashmi said, enjoying a small joke in the midst of a difficult circumstance.
Cultural strain of a different sort was on display Friday when Howard County police got a public lesson in Islamic dos and don'ts.
Police met with about 150 members of Dar Al-Taqwa at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center to educate them about how to deal with possible hate crimes. The officials got a schooling from the moment they walked in the door, ready to pump the hands of men and women in a friendly hello. Muslim women are not supposed to touch any man who is not a close relative.
"I'm the first to admit I've had to get an education, something as simple as extending my hand to a female for a handshake," Chief Wayne Livesay told the group.
There were a few good-natured chuckles later when one of the officials suggested that the worshippers raise their profile by attending community events in T-shirts bearing the name of their "temple." Muslims pray in a mosque.
Howard County police, like departments across the country, receive cultural diversity training. But police officers could not remember learning anything about Muslims, a group they said they haven't interacted with much.
Police at the meeting learned another Muslim rule likely to complicate their job. Muslim women can't be alone with a man who is not a close relative. That means a woman at home alone could not allow a male officer inside or even speak with him at the door, except in a life-or-death situation.
To avoid that kind of problem, Steppe suggested to the women in the back of the assembly that if they want to report a crime they may request a female officer. But before he did that he asked the imam's permission.
Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady said it was OK for Steppe to speak directly to the women because they were in a public place.
"You certainly don't want to offend people in their own place of worship," Steppe said afterward. "It's better to ask."