By Geneive Abdo
The Boston Globe
May 26, 2003
BALTIMORE — For Muzzaffar Sheikh, a technology consultant who was born in Pakistan, the mosque used to be a place he visited on occasion as he went about building his life as a new immigrant. But since the hostility toward Muslims began escalating nearly two years ago, the Baltimore Islamic Society has become a refuge for him more often.
”More people are coming to the mosques more than ever,” said Sheikh, dressed in a traditional tunic on the grounds of the Al Rahmah mosque. ”Even if they were progressive Muslims in their own countries and not so observant, now they are sending their kids to Islamic schools.”
Islamic organizations and Muslim leaders say a revival has increased attendance at the 1,300 mosques and at the 300 to 400 Islamic schools in the country. This renewal is also accelerating demands for political power to defend the community’s interests. There are said to be more than 2 million Muslims in the United States, and possibly as many as 7 million.
The number of Friday prayer services has increased to accommodate the influx of worshipers, plans are underway to build more Islamic schools, and some Islamic societies have secured permission for students to pray on Fridays in public schools. Magazines and newspapers for Muslims are also flourishing. Participation at US mosques increased greatly during the 1990s, a 2001 survey suggests, but Islamic leaders report that an upturn in attendance has occurred since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war against Iraq.
”From the beginning, we wanted a well-defined identity in this country. Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq have accelerated this process and have shaken all of us,” said Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, an advocacy group based in Plainfield, Ind. ”The attacks on Islam are unfounded and have been an eye-opener for Muslims here.”
Community activists, who worked quietly behind the scenes for two decades, now are hopeful that Muslims can attain the same degree of social and political power the followers of other religions enjoy in the United States.
In addition to religious centers, civic organizations are emerging throughout the country, from urban neighborhoods to rural communities.
Part of the drive for a more defined Islamic identity stems from the anxiety some Muslims feel. The FBI has reported a surge in hate crimes against Muslims and Arab-Americans.
According to the Committee on American-Islamic Relations, FBI raids on the homes of suspected Islamic militants continue, as does what critics call the profiling of Muslims. The Washington, D.C., civil rights group also noted that the number of Muslims fired from their jobs or harassed for religious reasons is on the rise.
Verbal attacks from top Christian evangelicals have also contributed to the hostility that many Muslims face. They cited a remark made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell last year during a ”60 Minutes” interview in which he said the Prophet ”Mohammed was a terrorist.”
Fueling the rise of Muslim activism across the country is Islam’s status as the fastest-growing religion in the United States. About 80 percent of the nation’s mosques have been built since 1980.
The backgrounds of the new Islamic immigrants have also played a role in the revival in America. From 1991 to 1997, the greatest number of Muslim immigrants came from the Indian subcontinent, with those from Arab countries ranking second, according to statistics compiled by the Committee on American-Islamic Relations. In both regions, Islamic revivalism has been on the rise since the 1970s.
For many Muslims, the mosque and Islamic center, generally built as one complex, are not only places of worship but also centers of social life, as they are in much of the Islamic world.
But unlike the ornate mosques adorned with antique tiles and gilded minarets in the Arab world, many of the Washington-area Islamic community centers resemble apartment complexes or office buildings.
At the Al Rahmah mosque, located in a nondescript red-brick building off Interstate 695, a bulletin board provides information on everything from a summer school program at the Harvard Business School to free blood screening at a local clinic.
”Islam used to be strictly something cultural for me,” said Loay Abdel Karim, a structural engineer who has been hired to design a new Islamic community center in northwest Baltimore and three mosques in the city.
”But now, it is important for me to demonstrate that I am a Muslim. Now I go to the mosque, something I never did in the Sudan,” said Abdel Karim. He said he had campaigned against the presence of Islamic groups on campus while he was a student at the University of Khartoum, in Sudan.
”People feel now that they have a choice: to accept the American definition of what they are as Muslims or to define who you are by yourself,” said Abdel Karim.
At the Adams Center, a mosque and community center in Herndon, Va., Imam Mohammad Magid counseled a steady stream of worshipers one recent Friday in his second-floor office. He held up a photograph of himself standing next to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. ”You see, Muslims get mixed messages,” Magid said. ”We are told by US officials that America believes Islam is a peaceful religion. But then we realize by their actions that pictures like this are just photo opportunities which have little meaning.”
Many American Muslims oppose US policies in the Middle East, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to what they see as the US government’s unconditional support for Israel.
Many American Muslims hope that through religious and social unity they can gain more political power and begin to steer US foreign policy toward the Middle East and the Islamic world.
”I believe we are heading toward acquiring more political power,” said Sheikh, at the Al Rahmah mosque. ”We are also forming civic organizations, and we stress the importance of voting.
”We will fight for our rights just as every other ethnic group did when they came to America,” Sheikh said. ”We want to let Americans know that we are here to stay.”