- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

American Muslims held a Muslim American Heritage Day yesterday in Freedom Plaza, offering explanations of Islam and celebrating the diversity of Muslim cultures.
"Since September 11, Islam was presented to the American public, unfortunately, in a biased way," said Abdul Haleem al Ashqar, who helped organize the event. "This is an attempt to correct that negative perception."
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had proclaimed yesterday "American Muslim Day" in the District to coincide with the heritage festival. The director of religious affairs for the mayor's office, the Rev. Carlton Presley, delivered the proclamation to the festival, saying the day would "set the tone for reconciliation."
The event was sponsored by the Muslim American Society. About 200 persons wandered through the exhibit tents or sat around Freedom Plaza at any given time. Organizers said they did not expect a large turnout because the event was new and many of the preparations were made at the last moment.
The Muslim American Society hopes to make the festival an annual event.
The festival was dominated by four large exhibit tents. In one tent, visitors could hear lectures about Islam, in another exhibits highlighting the history of Muslims in America dating back to the 1600s, and in still another explanations of the cultures of various Muslim nations.
The final tent provided a Muslim view of the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It was lined with photographs mounted on poster boards that showed women and children sitting in the rubble of their destroyed homes. Other photographs, taken in hospital settings, showed women, children and elderly men with bullet and shrapnel wounds.
Accompanying the pictures were slogans such as: "Today the children of Palestine are being killed tomorrow is the resurrection of Palestine." A photograph of a Palestinian flag waving behind a barbed-wire fence was accompanied by the caption: "Cry, beloved Palestine."
Two food booths and a handful of vendors offered Islamic food, craft work, jewelry and clothing. Mahke Bray, executive director of the Freedom Foundation, the civil rights arm of the Muslim American Society, said the food and souvenirs were secondary to the festival's educational intent.
"We want our neighbors to know who we are," Mr. Bray said. "We are not terrorists. We are not flying planes into the World Trade Center. We are your neighbors. We are lawyers, bankers, firefighters. We just want people to get to know each other."
Entertainment included an Indonesian children's choir and songs by children from the Washington Islamic Academy, a religious school for children in kindergarten through fourth grade. To the tune of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain," a group of the youngest children from the Islamic Academy sang, "We will all go to Mecca on the Hajj"
Later, a schoolboy chanted in Arabic the Islamic call to prayer and the festival was suspended for 10 minutes while more than 100 men and 40 women lined up facing northeast toward Mecca. They knelt and bowed to the ground in unison as they observed the afternoon prayer.
Fatimah Popal, a 16-year-old Afghan-American from Annandale, Va., who wore the traditional head scarf and burka of Muslim women, said she came to the event to support the Muslim community. "I think everybody hates us and wants to retaliate against us," she said. "We wanted to show people what we are really like and that we are not terrorists in any way."
Joe Flowers and his wife, Diahann, said they were impressed by the good will and kindness extended to them by Muslims at the festival. Their young boys enjoyed dressing in traditional Moroccan robes and fezzes. Their daughter was giddy about her temporary henna tattoo.
But the Silver Spring couple said they were "a little suspicious" of Muslims and thought the festival was a public-relations ploy. "I kind of wonder if because of what's going on [with terrorism] that they are trying to be especially welcoming," Mrs. Flowers said.
A woman who gave her name only as Paula and her age as 44 said she thought the exhibit was a worthwhile experience, especially for Americans. "I think it is important for the Americans to know another explanation for the situation," she said.


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