- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Muslims are steadily improving their position in U.S. society, contrary to the image of a community besieged by suspicions of links to militants, a leading U.S. Muslim cleric said yesterday.

Yahya Hendi, a prayer leader who teaches at Georgetown University, said the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities spurred Americans to learn more about Islam and Muslims to affirm their U.S. identity.

“I think the future is bright, because of our wisdom in dealing with the reality,” Mr. Hendi, a Palestinian by birth, said at a gathering of Saudi academics on a visit to Saudi Arabia.

“There are serious efforts being made among the second and third generation to become part of the political establishment. The challenge we face is in the media and from some Christian extremists who don’t want an Islamic presence in America.”

Mr. Hendi said U.S. Muslims were working on “nationalizing” Islam as part of the fabric of U.S. society, including cutting funding links to Muslim countries.

“Last year, we elected the first Muslim to Congress, and I expect that by 2015, there will be three or four, as well as at least 30 mayors,” he said, adding that the number of Muslim lawyers in the United States has multiplied since September 11.

Those terrorist attacks, in which 19 Arab Muslims killed about 3,000 people in New York and Washington, led to strict security measures in the United States that some rights groups say often unfairly target Arabs and Muslims.

Mr. Hendi, who met with President Bush days after September 11, said Muslims exhibited a tendency to shun political action such as voting and running for office because it was considered akin to surrendering to U.S. culture.

He said he did not feel there was general animosity toward Muslims in American society, and that he encouraged Muslims to join intelligence bodies such as the CIA and FBI.

Islam has about 17,000 converts a year in the United States, but that is behind converts to Buddhism and evangelical Christianity, he said.

Mr. Hendi told his Saudi audience that he did not believe in judging Muslims and non-Muslims over practices such as wearing the hijab head cover or praying five times a day.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites and 15 of the September 11 attackers, practices a strict form of Sunni Islam that gives clerics wide power to ensure rites are followed to the letter. Many Saudi clerics denounce Shi’ites as heretics.

“I deal with a woman whether she wears a hijab or not; that’s my position. Maybe some of you will disagree,” he said.

“There is no need for labels — ‘You’re an infidel, Muslim, Islamist, you’ll go to heaven.’ I deal with citizens whoever they are, and God is the judge.”