Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Islam has been in the news and in the consciousness of Americans like never before. For the estimated 6 million Muslim Americans, the new spotlight on Islam presents both hazards and opportunities. A Muslim congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina has taken September 11 as a wake-up call an unprecedented chance to reach out to the wider community.
The week of the September 11 attacks, attendance was sparse for Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Raleigh. The school run by the center was closed for four days because somebody called in a bomb threat. And after more than a dozen other anti-Muslim incidents in North Carolina, a lot of Muslims stayed home.
But at Friday prayers in the following weeks, the mosque's imam, or prayer leader, Muhammad Baianonie, stepped to the pulpit not to complain about the mistreatment of Muslims. In fact, calls of support to the Islamic Center far outnumbered harassing calls. Instead, the imam issued a challenge to his congregation.
"So what do we learn from the dreadful events that took place on September 11?" asked the imam.
The Koran unmistakably condemns the killing of innocents, the imam told some six hundred men and women gathered for one of two midday sermons. But because the prime suspects in the terror attacks are Muslims, cloaking themselves in the language of holy war, many Americans are suspicious of all Muslims. That, the imam told his congregation, shows American Muslims have done a poor job with public relations.
"When this crime took place, we realized that we have weak relationships with non-Muslims," the imam said. "How do we deliver the Islamic message, how do we deliver Islam clearly, if we don't have good and well-established relationships with non-Muslims?"
The Islamic Association of Raleigh draws about 1700 people for Friday prayers every week. Most are immigrants from the Middle East, though the congregation also includes South Asians, Africans, and American converts, black and white. Twenty years ago, Raleigh had just a few hundred Muslim residents, most of them university students. Today an estimated 10,000 Muslims live in Raleigh.
"The growth has been in immigration, the growth has been in conversion, the growth has been in children, you know, birth," says Ihsan Bagby, a professor of International Relations at Shaw University in Raleigh and an expert on Muslims in the United States. Like many other new immigrant groups, American Muslims have largely stayed to themselves, Bagby says. But September 11 came as an alarm bell.
"Now you can't sit back and say, 'we're going to focus on ourselves,' because in doing so we're endangering ourselves. And that's the motivation, that it is in our own self-interest that people understand us, understand that we're not terrorists, that we are good citizens, and that we have something to contribute to America."
On a recent Friday evening at the Islamic Association of Raleigh, about a hundred members of the congregation sit on the carpeted floor of the prayer hall. They talk about how to proceed post-September 11, and how to learn from the media savvy of non-Muslims.
In the rear of the room Kariman Allam took the microphone to express her admiration for "a program in the TV, it is called 700 Club, and this is like a Christian program." Ms. Allam makes clear she admires the Christian cable show for its use of the medium, not for its message. She recalls a program host reading a letter from a child who said he'd been told Islam was a peaceful religion.
"And the anchor told him, 'I'm sorry, Islam is a bloody religion. No matter what they are going to say, it is a bloody religion.' Now this is a TV show and it is shown to everybody so I think we should open, like, talk to people from outside, not for us here," Allam said.
The Raleigh mosque isn't about to launch any TV shows, but it has a committee devoted to Dawa, or outreach. Volunteer Lebeed Alkadi heads the committee. In the parking lot at the mosque, he and several other volunteers load boxes of brochures into the trunk of Alkadi's Toyota.
"These are called 'Discover Islam,' booklets that we've ordered. So we kept like a thousand in the Islamic Center and the rest of them they said there is no space, so I volunteered to take them home.'"
Until recently, the mosque's outreach committee consisted of a few people fielding the occasional query from a school or church group, or visiting prison inmates.
"But now [since September 11], because of the enormous demand and requests by e-mails, by in person, by phone calls, we've asked for volunteers and a lot of people really came forth to help us out in that endeavor," Alkadi says.
|High School students visit Raleigh's largest mosque, the Islamic Center of Raleigh|
In recent weeks, Alkadi has given presentations to classes from a local high school that had never visited the mosque before. His remarks to curious teenagers, most of them Christian, tended to emphasize common ground among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
"You'd be amazed," he tells one World Civilizations class from Raleigh's Broughton High School. "There are more stories about Jesus in the Koran than there are in the New Testament. About Mary, some details about her, about Moses, about Aaron, about Zechariah, John the Baptist. There is a whole chapter about Mary, as a matter of fact, in the Koran."
Alkadi's committee is planning get-togethers between mosque members and church congregations.
Meanwhile, a few local Muslims are taking their own initiative. Iyad Hindi, another lay member of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, stood up at the evening panel discussion to describe how he and several of his Muslim neighbors had gone door-to-door among their non-Muslim neighbors. They "knocked at the doors and gave them some brochures about Islam and so on. I was amazed by the very warm and positive response from the neighbors," Hindi told his fellow mosque members. He added that he thinks it's "high time" that the Raleigh Muslim community place more emphasis on involvement and outreach to the larger community.
Hindi lives in Bryarton, a well-trimmed, 2-year-old subdivision on the edge of Raleigh. The diverse neighborhood includes a sprinkling of Muslim families. Hindi's neighbor two doors down, Bobby Jenkins, had never spoken with Hindi before September 11, but since then they've had several conversations about Islam, Jenkins says.
"It's fair to say that I have a level of interest in every religion that holds footing in the Middle East that I didn't have before September 11 and I want to know a lot more about everything."
Jenkins and his fiancÚ threw a neighborhood get-together after the terror attacks something they'd long talked about but hadn't gotten around to. He says 65 families came, including a number of Muslims. Children sold lemonade to raise money for New York City. Like Muslims who are suddenly eager to make contact with their non-Muslim neighbors, Jenkins says his motive for throwing the street party was, in part, self-preservation. "Just as I did not want my Muslim neighbors to be worrisome about repercussions from me or my neighbors about the attacks, I did not want to be worrisome about my Muslim neighbors."
There are bound to be tensions and bumps in the road as Muslims and non-Muslims get to know each other, say local Muslim leaders. Imam Baianonie of the Islamic Association of Raleigh says, eventually, he hopes Muslims will start to exert a real presence in US society not only in neighborhoods and PTA meetings but also in the public square. Baianonie, who emigrated from Syria in the mid-1980's, compares himself to the Pilgrims; he came to the United States because it afforded him freedom to practice his religion without government repression. He would like for Muslim immigrants to return the favor to their adopted homeland.
"As we know from our study of Islam we find solutions for many American [society's] problems in the spiritual level, and in moral and behavior and in crime level. And really we call our American society to look toward Islam not necessarily to adopt it as a whole faith
Take from it what you feel really is beneficial to your society."