Muslim newspaper’s staff shrinks while community outgrows College Park

April 10, 2012

The cover story in a recent issue of the Muslim Link considers the various design styles of an emerging architectural form: the mosque in America. What should an American mosque look like? It’s a question that the biweekly newspaper’s editor, Minhaj Hasan, says now confronts the Muslim community in College Park, where the publication is based.

These days, the mosque in College Park looks like a Knights of Columbus hall. The community has to rent space at the Catholic fraternal service organization to accommodate its 700 worshipers who arrive weekly for Friday prayer.

The Muslim Link is the media outlet created soon after an organization called Dar-us-Salaam (House of Peace) opened an Islamic school in College Park in 1996. The building doubled as a mosque and soon became the hub for a variety of community projects, including the paper.

The paper’s staff is the only thing about the community that hasn’t grown in recent years. Hasan and two full-time employees (a graphics person and a financial administrator) work with a team of 20 or 30 freelancers to put out the biweekly product. The paper boasted a staff of seven full-time writers and editors before the recession hit in 2007.

The Link still covers a lot of ground, paying freelancers to cover the Hill, the courts and neighborhoods throughout Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia — where it enjoys its largest readership. Its 6,000 copies are distributed to Islamic centers and businesses in that same region. “Our distribution guy logs 800 miles on his round to drop papers off,” said Hasan.

The paper and its online version connect international stories to local residents and focus heavily on the civil liberties beat, including stories about the profiling of Muslims in College Park. Hasan says federal agents have parked outside the mosque, writing down license plate numbers as cars leave the parking lot after prayer services — visiting community members later at their homes for interrogations.

Overall, the Link has built its audience with inward-looking pieces that shed light on the experiences and struggles of Muslims in the region.

“We try to stay local so we stay relevant,” says Hasan. “When people read our paper they see the names of people they know.”

Though they’ve set down roots, the College Park community is almost sure to move. Unfriendly neighbors, says Hasan, have complained about the crowds and sought strict enforcement of zoning laws around Dar-us-Salaam’s parking allotments and building capacity.

“They launched a ‘jihad’ against us,” he says ironically, with a smile. “I don’t think the sentiment is anti-Muslim, but I do think it is anti-religious.”

While Dar-us-Salaam searches for a new place to settle, its publication remains the outlet through which area Muslims chart their evolution.

“People are debating the issue: ‘Should we be assimilating? Are we American? Do we have our own culture?’ ” says Hasan.

In January the city’s first Muslim council member was sworn into office — which makes the impending move all the more heart-wrenching. “Some people will not move, they’re too heavily invested here,” says Hasan.

Hasan thumbs through a copy of the Link and shows me the cover photo, an Americanized mosque without turrets — and more reminiscent of a strip mall. The location and design of Dar-us-Salaam’s next mosque is unknown, but according to Hasan, there’s a good chance the community will land in a largely white, Republican, rural area.

 “We’ll just have to reintroduce ourselves and say ‘howdy,’ ” he says.

Wherever the College Park community goes, the Muslim Link’s staff will be reporting each step along the way.

This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here.

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