After spate of attacks, area Muslims reach out during Ramadan to foster better image
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Rabia Baig, 17, sits with her friends after an Iftar dinner held at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, Va. The mosque opened the dinner to the public in an outreach effort. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends Friday, a spate of recent terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists — including massacres in Tunisia and Kuwait— has marred a time intended for contemplation and prayer.
But for Muslim American immigrants in the Washington area, this Ramadan has offered an opportunity to send a contrasting message about Islam and to engage in unprecedented public outreach.
Dozens of interfaith events have been held in mosques, embassies and government offices. Muslim charity drives have raised funds for damaged African American and Pakistani churches. Families have opened their homes to neighbors and colleagues to break the daily fast with evening feasts.
One of the largest events was an interfaith Ramadan dinner Sunday at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) mosque in Sterling, Va., where the hundreds of guests included FBI officials, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), local politicians and candidates for office, and leaders of area churches, synagogues and other worship communities.
“We condemn all terrorism, and we condemn ISIS, which is a twisted, horrific deviation from Islam,” Rizwan Jaka, outreach director for ADAMS, said in an interview, using a common term for the Islamic State. He said the rise of the group — whose leaders vowed to make Ramadan a time of “calamity for the infidels” — had created “a lot of confusion” and abetted “anti-sharia hysteria” in American society.
Sonia Rehman, a Fairfax psychologist, uncovers the main courses for an Iftar meal that she and her husband, Tariq Rehman, hosted at their home on July 14. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
“We are asked left and right what we are doing to counter radicalization,” Jaka said. “Well, we are leading the way.”
Other parts of the country have experienced scattered incidents of violence and confrontation in recent months, including the shooting deaths of three Muslim college students in North Carolina and the attack on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas by gunmen who claimed a link with the Islamic State.
But the Washington area has become a relative oasis for Muslim Americans, a fast-growing immigrant populace that has attained increasing social integration, economic success and political clout.
Many recall feeling ostracized after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; some described hateful outbursts from strangers or scarf-pulling in school. But no one interviewed at mosques, homes and public events across the region this month said they had faced anything more discomfiting since the rise of the Islamic State than stares in the Metro or extra questions at airport security checkpoints.
The change, they said, is partly a result of growing familiarity, with Muslims more numerous in the region and the country than 14 years ago. The Pew Research Center in Washington estimates that the number of Muslim Americans reached 2.6 million by 2010 and will grow to 6.2 million by 2030. In the Washington region, the Council on American Islamic Relations puts the populace at about 250,000.
A growing voice in the area
In some regions, the growing number of Muslim families, businesses and mosques has created tension and suspicion. But in the Washington area, Muslims have become better organized, more confident, and more connected with government and law enforcement agencies, as the high-level official turnout at the ADAMS dinner suggested.
“In other areas, there is still a lot of ignorance, but people here are educated, they know us and our kids have grown up together,” said Qaith Abdo, 68, a technology specialist from Jordan who attends a mosque in Silver Spring. Once, Abdo said, a driver shouted at him to go back to his country. “That was back in 2003, and there has been no such incident since,” he said.
Mikaeel Martinez Jaka steadies an American flag as he forms a color guard with fellow Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts at an Iftar dinner held by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, Va. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
On the other hand, many Muslims here said the surge of extremist violence abroad, paralleled by the growth of Islamophobia in parts of the United States, had galvanized them to try to foster a magnanimous, nonviolent image of Islam.
To this end, Muslim organizations are increasingly aiming their efforts at victims from other minorities and faiths, especially African Americans. One group distributed food in Baltimore after a surge of unrest over the death of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries he suffered in police custody in April. During Ramadan, an Internet campaign raised $45,000 in Muslim circles to help rebuild black churches that had been burned down.
Another kind of venture is using innovative business marketing to break down religious barriers. One of the Muslim practices least understood by Westerners is the use of water for washing after using the toilet instead of relying on toilet paper. Sonia Rehman, a Pakistan-born psychologist in Fairfax, has worked with her husband, Tariq to design a variety of attractive water jars called “Aquabeans” and promote them for sale as an environmentally-sound alternative to toilet paper.
“Our goal is to connect American cultural identity with Muslim lifestyle,” Rehman said. She noted that thousands of American restaurants now sell “halal” food, ritually blessed for Muslims. “You can even get halal Philly cheese steak,” she said. “But with watering jars, people usually hide them from white guests or colleagues to avoid questions. Now we can tell them Aquabean is another way to go green.”
In the shadow of attacks
Although local Muslim immigrants have faced relatively little harassment, they are keenly aware of the tensions percolating in other parts of the country. Legislators in more than 20 states have introduced laws to ban Muslim practices in the name of curbing “foreign” ideologies.
They also worry that their efforts to cultivate a moderate image are competing with images of each new Islamic State atrocity, domestic terrorist attacks such as the Boston marathon bombing and Internet recruitment of Muslim youths by extremist groups. Authorities are also investigating the shooting deaths of four Marines at a Navy facility in Tennessee on Thursday as a possible terror attack.
In the Washington area, there have been several high-profile cases, including the indictment of 11 Muslim men for using paintball exercises to train for attacks on India, and the FBI pursuit of a Somali cab driver for allegedly supporting Islamist militias in Somalia.
“It feels like there is a split personality within Muslims these days,” said Ahmed Mahmood, a Muslim student leader at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “We may feel very secure in our own communities, and internally we have resolved this debate about terrorism, but externally it feels like there is a shadow that looms over you.”
At ADAMS, Jaka said leaders have counseled young Muslims who seemed drawn to militant ideas and have formed close ties with county police and the FBI. A Northern Virginia group called MakeSpace enrolls Muslim students and young professionals to “develop an American Muslim identity” through education, civic engagement and community service.
Other ideas have emerged from recent “hackathon” conferences, including a project called “champions of Islam,” which aims to create superhero role models for Muslim youths. “Groups like ISIS recruit on the basis of Islamic masculinity and say they are defending the community,” said Maryland lawyer Asma Uddin, who created the project. She said this appeal has created a “crisis of manhood among Muslim men, and they need positive champions.”
Many local Muslims said the best method of countering public fears is not making grand gestures, such as holding interfaith dinners or giving money to charities, but simply being a good neighbor or colleague.
One mosque leader said he won over a suspicious new neighbor by plowing the person’s driveway after several snowstorms. Tariq Rehman, a urologist, said he first met with suspicion when he set up a medical practice in rural West Virginia but that over time he built a good reputation and starting introducing patients to his faith. “I add 10 minutes to each appointment, and I talk with clients about what Islam is really about,” he said.
Muslim women in the area have become especially active as ambassadors for their faith, in part because wearing a headscarf immediately identifies them. By contrast, young Muslim men in jeans and short beards may easily blend into ethnically diverse campuses and social gatherings.
Nada Mousa, 19, a student at American University, said she had not been harassed since she was a Maryland high school student and someone pulled off her scarf and called her a terrorist. Now, she said, her college peers are “more mature and aware,” but the brutal behavior of the Islamic State has made life more difficult in other settings.
“When you go for a job interview, you have to decide whether to wear the hijab or not. It becomes a struggle between your faith and your profession,” she said. Mousa said she was working on a Web site aimed at showing that Muslim women are “normal, we like to draw and sing and dance.” And when people ask her questions about Islam, even ignorant or offensive ones, she said, she is always polite.
“I want to present them with a choice,” she said. “Do we trust people who behead others and claim to represent Islam, or do we trust this sweet girl on our street?”
Pamela Constable covers immigration issues and immigrant communities. A former foreign correspondent for the Post based in Kabul and New Delhi, she also reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.