- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Washington metropolitan area has one of the largest and most diverse Muslim communities in the country, with an estimated 300,000 adherents from nearly every Islamic-influenced ethnic group in the world.

“You can find the whole Muslim world here in Washington,” says Zahid H. Bukhari, director of the American Muslim Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

“There’s the misconception that all Muslims are Arabs, or that all Arabs are Muslims,” says Imam Mohamed Magid, the Sudanese-born executive director of the 900-member All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque, which is attended predominantly by South Asians from Pakistan and India, and has several Bosnian and Russian members.

About 37,500 people of Arab ancestry or ethnicity reside in the metropolitan area, according to statistics from the 2000 U.S. census. But about 64,500 metropolitan residents have ethnic or ancestral ties to India and about 10,500 to Pakistan — two non-Arab countries with sizable Muslim populations.

The U.S. Census Bureau does not track religious affiliation, but does track ethnicity and national ancestry.

Thousands of Washington-area Muslims have roots in Africa (Egypt, Morocco, Sudan); Europe (Albania, Bosnia, Serbia); the Middle East (Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia); and South and Southeast Asia (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines), according to census figures.

Irme Hafeez, 39, and her husband, Syed, 40, moved to Montgomery County from Pakistan in 1987. More than 9,500 local residents hail from Pakistan, whose population is 97 percent Muslim, according to U.S. census figures.

“This is our home now. … We are going to be staying here, so we need to go out and share [Islam] with everybody else. The whole gist of Islam is to help people who are less prosperous than you,” Mrs. Hafeez says.

She has focused on helping her Muslim community become more active in service projects such as the second annual food drive organized by the Montgomery County Muslim Council on Sept. 19. The Muslim group collected about 10,000 pounds of food and donated it to the Manna Food Center, which distributes food to the needy.

“It’s a tough time for our community here, so we want to reach out,” says Khalid Chaudhry, 53, of Potomac, a satellite-communications company vice president who emigrated from Pakistan in 1979.

“By doing something like this, we just show that we are normal people. We need to get more in the mainstream politically and in the community. This is our home, after all,” he said.

Mr. Chaudhry and his brother,Hamid Chaudhry, 51, filled a midsized moving truck with food they collected from their neighborhood.

Hamid’s 14-year-old son, Kasim, and Khalid’s son, Umar, 22, who came from Manhattan for the food drive, pitched in and helped.

Community involvement is a key element of Muslim life, according to a 2001 survey by the polling firm Zogby International. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the “Project MAPS: Muslims in the American Public Square” survey polled 1,731 persons who identified themselves as Muslims to assess their attitudes on several issues.

Ninety-six percent said that Muslims should be involved in American civic and community-development groups to improve the nation.

In addition, 91 percent said Muslims should be involved in the U.S. media and the educational system to change the image of Islam.

You’re with them’

Jameel W. Aalim-Johnson, chief of staff for Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, says few Americans would think of an Arab immigrant or Arab-American as a terrorist. But he added: “They might feel, ‘You’re on their side. You’re with them.’ ”

Mr. Aalim-Johnson, 40, a former Baptist who grew up in the Bronx and converted to Islam in 1988, says suspicion of sympathy for violent extremism is applied to Arab Muslims more than to African-American Muslims, but that all Muslims are subjected to it.

“You can’t blame others for not understanding you until you educate them yourself,” says Umair Khan, 23, a recent Cornell University graduate who has worked on Capitol Hill and helped found the group Muslims for Kerry to assist Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s presidential bid.

Mr. Aalim-Johnson says about 17 of Capitol Hill’s 14,000 staffers are Muslims. When he arrived on the Hill six years ago, there were about 10.

According to the Zogby survey, about 34 percent of American Muslims work in professional or technical fields, or serve as managers. About 8 percent are students.

In addition, about half of all U.S. Muslims earn $50,000 or more a year, according to the Zogby statistics. And about 74 percent immigrated to the United States before the 1990s, which saw a rise in anti-American sentiment in some Arab and Islamic countries.

The exact number of Muslims in America is unknown, and estimates range from 1.5 million to 6 million in a U.S. population of 294 million. There are an estimated 1.4 billion Muslims around the world — roughly 20 percent of the world’s population.

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A place to pray

The English-language Northern Virginia weekly paper Muslim Link lists 45 mosques in the Washington area. The majority follow the Sunni tradition of Islam, which is practiced among 80 percent of the world’s Muslims. It recognizes one God — Allah — and Muhammad as his prophet, the authority of the Koran, and the religion’s first four leaders — or caliphs — as legitimate rulers. The Shia tradition recognizes only the fourth caliph — Ali — as the legitimate successor to Muhammad.

Mosques, which are headed by imams, do not always function like churches or synagogues. Muslims may be involved with activities at one particular mosque, but during the week, they may pray at several different mosques, often because other mosques are closer to their jobs than to their homes.

According to the Zogby survey, about one-third of American Muslims pray at least once a day and nearly half pray five times a day, one of the pillars of Islam.

“We have a very big problem in the Muslim world. The problem is ignorance. We don’t know Islam,” says Muhammad Al-Hanooti, a Palestinian-born imam and a leading American-Islamic scholar who consults for groups such as the Muslim American Society, a national group based in Falls Church.

“Unfortunately, you can hardly find a Muslim who spends hours studying the Koran,” Mr. Al-Hanooti says.

The Sunni tradition stresses the role of Islam and the Koran in shaping public policy, and 93 percent of Muslims say they should participate in the political process, according to the Zogby poll.

About 40 percent are Democrats, 23 percent Republican and 27 percent independents. Seventy-nine percent are registered to vote, and 85 percent say they are very likely to vote.

Post-9/11 debate

The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked among Muslims a debate about the tenets and future of Islam that has deepened and broadened in the wake of recent Muslim-linked terrorist assaults in Spain, Iraq, Chechnya and Beslan, Russia. In Beslan, more than half of the 330-plus people killed in a mass hostage-taking at a school last month were children.

“Terrorism is a sin,” says Hanif Khalaki, 36, an engineer and father of two from Gaithersburg who was born in India and brought to the United States by his parents when he was 3.

Many Muslims interviewed by The Washington Times referred to specific verses in the Koran that prohibit the killing of women, children and nonaggressors, and a verse that says killing one innocent person is like killing all of humanity.

But it is very difficult for Muslims to discuss terrorism at all, Mr. Khalaki says.

“I think Muslims are confused. When you ask them, ‘What do you think about terrorism?’ they’re not thinking about terrorism. They’re thinking about, ‘Man, the world is trying to crush us,’ ” he says. “They’re thinking, ‘You want me, you want us, to apologize for something we didn’t do. … It takes them awhile to get down to the real issue, which is that terrorism is wrong. In your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Terrorism is a crime,’ and in their mind, they’re thinking of political reality, of the general global fiasco that is happening today.”

Kamal Nawash, founder and president of the D.C.-based Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, has criticized Muslim leaders in the United States and abroad for not aggressively opposing terrorism. His nonprofit group seeks to eliminate support for Islamic extremism and terrorism, and advance secularism in the Muslim world by supporting Islamic-reformation efforts.

“The Muslim leadership has not done nearly enough to combat extremism and terrorism,” Mr. Nawash says. “We [Muslims] have to take the lead in the war of ideas to combat terrorism.”

“It’s not enough just to say, ‘These other people are deviants, and they are misinterpreting Islam. It’s not us,’ ” says Mr. Nawash, 34, a Lebanese who immigrated to the United States at age 9 and has become a naturalized citizen. “Maybe the accusation that we have a problem with terrorism is true. At a minimum, maybe it’s true that we are not doing enough.”

Mr. Aalim-Johnson says “terrorists have hijacked the religion.”

“We have to go and teach people about what the religion is, what it looks like. Most of us, as Muslims, are more annoyed [by terrorists] than you are,” he said. “You wish you could go and shake these people and say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Where did you get this from?’ ”

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