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For several years, it was the practice of the Muslims who worked at Whole Foods in SoHo, a large health food store on Prince Street that has since closed its doors, to retire to a corner of the basement at prayer time. There, they kept dishes of water for a quick ritual washing and knelt facing east on cloth mats while they recited their prayers. The entire process took less than 10 minutes. About the same as a coffee or cigarette break.
There are an estimated 200,000 Muslims in New York City, according to the city's planning department, a number that has swelled as immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia have poured into the city, bringing with them customs unfamiliar to many employers.
"There is a period of adjustment as companies get used to increased religious diversity in their workforce," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "There are some growing pains from that."
According to a lawsuit filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Whole Foods in Soho, located in the midst of one of the city's most fashionable and tolerant neighborhoods, suffered extreme growing pains as the number of its Muslim employees increased.
Nipu Tazul, 34, a Bangladeshi immigrant, was one of the first Muslims hired when he began working as a cashier in 1989. Tazul did well and was promoted, first to head cashier, then to department manager, and finally, in 1996, to assistant manager.
By the fall of 1998, some 15 of the store's 45 workers were Muslims. They were from Syria, Russia, Egypt, and West Africa. They shelved produce, prepared juices, worked the cash registers, and swept the floor. The women stood out because they wore religious head scarves, an expression of modesty among Islamic women.
That October, however, store owner Charles Rosenblum, and a new manager, Keri Manley, began to express misgivings about the number of Muslims employed, according to Tazul and other former employees.
Tazul was told to order two women not to wear their head scarves during working hours. Tazul said Manley also told him to fire six Muslim men, saying "there were too many Muslim employees."
Tazul refused. "I said I cannot do it. It would hurt me too much," Tazul said. Manley carried out the firings herself and instructed the women not to wear their head coverings. A few weeks later, Tazul was fired as well.
Thus began, according to affidavits submitted as part of the discrimination complaint filed by former workers, a reign of religious intolerance at Whole Foods in Soho.
Sheik Ahmed had worked for two years preparing fruit juices and keeping the store's soda cooler filled when, on October 28, 1998, he was suddenly fired. "I was told, 'You fucking Muslim, go home,' " he said in an affidavit.
Amad Eldin Abdou, who worked in stock and cleaning, said he was initially told to quit praying during working hours. "I was specifically told, 'Never to pray over here, even on break time,' " Abdou said in his complaint. In early November, Abdou was also fired. It was "because I am a Muslim," said Abdou.
Rifat Sharmin, a cashier for six years at the store, said that after the firings the prayer mats they had used in the basement disappeared. She said she became "scared to wear a scarf or pray." In her affidavit, Sharmin said she overheard Manley say in a telephone conversation that she wanted "to get rid of" the store's Muslims and hire more whites.
Another cashier, Elora Rahman, said that she and other Muslims endured small slights that eventually became larger ones. Non-Muslim workers were given a free lunch, she said; Muslims had to pay a dollar a day. On cold days at the open-air shop, supervisors turned on heaters mounted above the cash registers operated by white workers but refused to switch on those near Muslim cashiers.
"We were specifically told to wear our overcoats and that if we turned on the heaters we would be fired," stated cashier Shaokat Ahmed.
Hoshneara Begum, also a cashier, said that in addition to the prayer mats, containers of water that she had used for her ritual pre-prayer washings also vanished. "Whole Foods in Soho is a place of business, not a place for prayer," Begum quoted Manley as telling her.
In early 1999, the situation at the store grew more intense. Federal investigators asked Whole Foods in Soho to respond to discrimination allegations made by the fired workers. Begum and other Muslim workers employed at the store said that Rosenblum and Manley asked them to sign statements denying that there had been discrimination at the store.
About 25 workers signed affidavits backing managements' denials, but several refused, saying they were being asked to lie. Rifat Sharmin decided to quit rather than sign. Elora Rahman also quit after she said she was threatened with firing if she aided the workers with their discrimination complaints. Begum said that in February 1999, she was handed a $50 bonus without explanation, and later ordered to give what she described as "a false statement denying that any employment discrimination had taken place in the past." Begum returned the bonus. A few days later, Begum said Rosenblum offered her and four other cashiers raises of a dollar an hour. Rosenblum added that he "needed my help to defend against employment discrimination claims by former Muslim employees," said Begum. The cashier still balked, and said she was soon forced to quit when Manley refused to give her time off for a family emergency.
Meanwhile, Tazul said he was told to drop his suit. An Islamic priest was dispatched by store managers to pressure him, and suspicious characters followed him in his neighborhood, he said in an interview.
Whole Foods in Soho closed its doors last year, and Rosenblum and Manley couldn't be reached for comment. According to the EEOC's report, the employers insisted the workers were fired for cause and denied any discrimination. An attorney for Whole Foods failed to return calls.
Relatively few complaints of religious discrimination are filed with the federal EEOC, although the number has risen in recent years. And only a handful of discrimination cases are brought to trial. After investigating, the EEOC upheld the workers' complaints and attempted conciliation. When that failed, the agency filed suit. The lawsuit is now pending before federal District Judge Constance Baker Motley in Manhattan.
"We don't bring a lot of religious discrimination cases," said Michael O'Brien, an EEOC attorney. O'Brien said Whole Foods' discrimination was compounded by retaliation when managers fired Tazul and forced out employees who refused to sign affidavits denying discrimination.
The Muslim workers have also retained private attorneys to represent them in a companion action, seeking millions of dollars in damages and back pay. One of them, Preston Leschins, is an observant Jew. "These people were initially strange and foreign to me, but they're wonderful, down-to-earth people trying to earn a living for their families," he said. "This employer made his living off their backs, and this is how he repaid them."