The voice of the new imam at one of the largest mosques on the East Coast rang loud from the pulpit during Friday services recently: “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 the Northern Virginia suburbs. “Ignorance comes from outside circles who know nothing about us.”
Though his role as the mosque’s religious leader is a new one, Mr. Elsayed is well known as a civic activist in a large Muslim community that has been subject to sharp scrutiny ever since the September 11 attacks. His face is a familiar one at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, where he has lent support to area Muslims who have been prosecuted for everything from immigration violations to soliciting treason. He has been vocal in support of Muslims he believes are the victims of a federal witch hunt.
Mr. Elsayed, who assumed duties as imam on June 1, also has served as secretary-general of the Muslim American Society. Some federal authorities and U.S. Muslim leaders suspect the advocacy group has links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a seminal anti-Western group that has inspired other hard-line Islamic organizations.
Mr. Elsayed, however, said he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
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. Ali grew up in Falls Church, and worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah.
With all his activities, it’s perhaps not surprising that Mr. Elsayed’s sermons seem to carry political overtones. On a recent Friday, preaching to more than 500 men and women — with the sexes worshipping separately as is customary — he said without mentioning specific nations that: “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. We do have license to respond with all force necessary to answer our attackers.”
Asked after the sermon to elaborate, Mr. Elsayed said that opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East is different than viewing the American people as the enemy.
Talking about his views on militant groups such as Hamas, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization, Mr. Elsayed compared the Palestinian group formed in 1987 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. “Look at how long Israel has occupied [land claimed by Palestinians]. How long did it take to say enough is enough?”
But he said his support for Hamas’ objectives does not mean he always supports their tactics, which at times have included suicide bombings.
“Islam calls for the minimum effective response to aggression,” Mr. Elsayed said.
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 Georgetown University as a graduate student. “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. The Northern Virginia suburbs — particularly the neighborhoods close to Dar al-Hijrah — have a relatively large Arab and Muslim population.
Dar al-Hijrah’s outreach director, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, said imams have free rein to preach on anything they see as relevant, and that 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.”