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Facing New Realities as Islamic Americans

A Community of Immigrants

Hidden behind rows of tall evergreens on a street near Seven Corners, Dar has long been a magnet for recent Muslim immigrants. Hundreds of taxis, pickup trucks and economy sedans converge on the mosque on a typical Friday, and the worshipers are as likely to wear jeans and T-shirts, or the long smocks of their homelands, as business suits and ties.

"It's a diverse community" and "the place we meet our friends," said Falls Church resident Driss Lampkadem, 37, a Moroccan-born employee of Home Depot who stood outside the mosque on a recent Friday with his Moroccan friend, security guard Aziz Hilali, 31, of Alexandria.


About 3,000 people pray at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center each Friday. Congregants are from around the world; about 60 percent are Arab. (Photos Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

About This Series

Three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government has undertaken extensive efforts to root out Islamic terrorists around the world and to defend the U.S. homeland. Articles today and tomorrow are part of a series looking at the elusive nature of the threat and the problems authorities confront in battling it. Today's story examines a worldwide Islamic movement that has been linked to terrorist groups but also has produced some of the most influential and moderate Islamic institutions in the United States. Tomorrow's report looks at how a mosque that grew out of that movement fares in the world after Sept. 11. Previous parts of this series can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/nation.

_____From This Series_____
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities (The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2004)
In Search Of Friends Among The Foes (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
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About 60 percent of the worshipers are Arab, said mosque spokesman Johari Abdul-Malik, but an increasing percentage hail from such countries as Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

The roots of Dar Al Hijrah, which means "Land of Migration," lie in a group of mostly Arab college students who in the early 1980s broke from the Islamic Center in Northwest Washington, a mosque run by embassies of Muslim countries. After worshiping in temporary sites, the fledgling congregation purchased the 3.4-acre Falls Church property just off Route 7 in 1983. Three years later, it began construction of the $5 million mosque, with financial help from the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. The mosque's current revenue comes entirely from the congregation, Omeish said.

Some Dar founders also were among the immigrant activists who started the Muslim American Society in 1992. Some had belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood in their native lands, where they often worked clandestinely against governments that had banned their movement. They faced an entirely different issue in the United States: how to retain their Islamic identity in a secular culture where they were a religious minority.

The founding of the society reflected the facts that their goals had changed and that they no longer needed to operate secretly, said Mohamad Adam El Sheikh, 58, a Brotherhood member in Sudan who helped launch both the American group and Dar, where he is the imam.

Those who founded the society felt that "we should cut relations with the [Brotherhood] abroad and regard ourselves as Americans. . . . We don't receive an order from any organization abroad, and [they] have no authority to tell us what to do," Sheikh said.

The society, based in Falls Church, now has 50 chapters across the country, many of them affiliated with mosques. Among its objectives, according to its Web site, are "to present the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims," to promote understanding between the two groups and to encourage Muslims to build "a virtuous and moral society."

Society president Ghannouchi, the nephew of Rashid Ghannouchi, an Islamic scholar and activist known throughout the Middle East, is a native of Tunisia and has been in this country for almost 20 years. He declined several requests for an interview. Colleagues said he believes that Muslims in America should become active in their communities on local issues rather than be preoccupied with problems overseas.

"Even though we refuse . . . to be treated as a security problem and we are opposed to the way our government is conducting foreign policy, especially the way the war on terrorism is being conducted, we still enjoy many rights that Muslim activists do not enjoy in most Muslim countries," Ghannouchi wrote in the recent online chat that appeared on the society's Web site.

A Leading Role

The society is well-represented in Dar's leadership. Three mosque board members -- Ghannouchi, Omeish and Amin Ezziddine -- are active in the society, as is the mosque's administrative director, Samir Abo Issa. And the society's general secretary, Shaker El Sayed, is on the executive committee that runs the mosque's daily affairs.

The relationship between the society and Dar "is not a lockstep" one, mosque spokesman Abdul-Malik said. "But the work of MAS on the national level colors the work on the agenda of Dar Al Hijrah, definitely," he said. For example, "we had a voter registration drive because MAS is pushing a strong voter registration program."

But the prominent role of the society in Dar's internal affairs is controversial among Dar members. The mosque's constitution requires that four seats on the board of directors be assigned to top officials of national Islamic groups, including the society. Dar officials said the other five seats are reserved for mosque founders and prominent members.

This unelected board often meets behind closed doors, and it is unclear how many board members representing outside organizations actually attend. According to the mosque's Web site, Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, is on the board. But in a telephone interview, Syeed said he resigned "at least five years ago."


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