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Activist imam puts politics into sermons

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2005

The voice of the new imam at one of the largest mosques on the East Coast rang loud from the pulpit during Friday services: "The call to reform Islam is an alien call."

People who do not understand Islam are the ones seeking to change it, said Shaker Elsayed, the new spiritual leader at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church.

"Ignorance comes from outside circles who know nothing about us," Mr. Elsayed said during noon services to more than 500 men and women, with women worshipping in a separate room. It was one of three services Dar al-Hijrah holds every Friday.

Mr. Elsayed, who assumed duties as imam of the mosque June 1, is well known in the Muslim community for his political activism.

He has served as secretary general of the Muslim American Society, an advocacy group that some accuse of promoting a fundamentalist strain of Islam.

He also has served as an unofficial spokesman for the family of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who is accused of joining al Qaeda while studying overseas and plotting to assassinate President Bush. Mr. Abu Ali grew up in Falls Church and worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah.

Mr. Elsayed has accused the Justice Department of unfairly targeting Mr. Abu Ali and other young Muslims for prosecution.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, Mr. Elsayed's sermons take a political tone.

"Islam forbids you to give allegiance to those who kick you off your homeland, and to those who support those who kick you off your homeland," he told worshippers. "We do have license to respond with all force necessary to answer our attackers."

Mr. Elsayed explained after the sermon that opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East is different than viewing the American people as the enemy.

Asked his views on militant groups such as Hamas, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization, Mr. Elsayed compared Hamas to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress -- organizations that resorted to violent resistance only after decades of injustice.

"Everybody jumps on Hamas," Mr. Elsayed said. "When did Hamas first emerge? 1990 or so? Look at how long Israel has occupied [Palestinian lands]. How long did it take to say enough is enough?"

Still, he said support for Hamas' objectives does not mean he always supports the group's tactics, which have included suicide bombings.

"Islam calls for the minimum effective response to aggression," Mr. Elsayed said.

M.A. Muqtedar Khan, an expert on Islam and a political scientist at Adrian College in Michigan, said Dar al-Hijrah is not a typical American mosque and Mr. Elsayed is not a typical American imam.

"Shaker Elsayed is more like a political figure than a religious figure," said Mr. Khan, who worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah for several years while attending graduate school at Georgetown University. "Dar al-Hijrah is a very Arab-centric mosque, very much centered on Arab politics."

The mosque, he said, is more typical of what one might find in the Arab world, with the rhetoric toned down a little bit for fear of drawing excessive attention in a post-September 11 world.

"Dar al-Hijrah has always been in the hands of the conservatives" since its founding in 1983, Mr. Khan said.

While the leadership is conservative, Mr. Khan said, the congregation itself might not hold the same beliefs. For many people, the mosque is simply a convenient place to attend required prayer services.

Dar al-Hijrah's outreach director, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, said imams have free rein to preach on anything they see as relevant, and it makes sense to discuss politics at a time when world events have a major impact on the Muslim community.

"It has to address the issues facing our community or else our faith will be irrelevant," Mr. Abdul-Malik said. "That includes politics, education, health care ... the whole panoply of human issues."

Mr. Elsayed was born in Egypt but is a U.S. citizen fluent in Arabic and English, and he has written his own English translation of the Koran.

Mr. Abdul-Malik also disputed the claims of critics that Dar al-Hijrah is a bastion of fundamentalism, or that it promotes Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia that some believe promulgates extremism.

In fact, he said, some area Muslims dissatisfied with Dar al-Hijrah's ideological stance formed the Dar al-Arqam mosque just a few miles away.

Dar al-Arqam was home to many of the young Muslim men convicted of forming a "Virginia jihad" that used paintball games as a form of paramilitary training for holy war around the globe.

Prosecutors convicted a former lecturer at Dar al-Arqam, Ali al-Timimi, of inducing others to levy war against the United States, saying he was the paintball group's spiritual leader and a leading U.S. proponent of Wahhabist ideology.