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For Muslims, a Beleaguered Feeling

As Ramadan Begins, Many Say Sentiment Against Them Is Hardening

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page B01

One recent Saturday night, about 50 Muslim scholars filed into a classroom at George Mason University's Arlington campus to hear the keynote address of their three-day conference on Islam and modernity. They had to watch it on a DVD.

The speaker, Geneva-based Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, could not attend in person because his U.S. visa had been revoked. Yet to those in the audience, his moderate words sounded like the kind of message U.S. officials would applaud. He urged a serious dialogue on the "universal values" shared by Islam and the West and added, "We should not blame the West for our problems."

Afeefa Syeed, principal of Al-Fatih Academy, says for Muslims, "the test of living is on a local level." (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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"I was sad more than anything else," Shahed Amanullah, a Georgetown University graduate student attending the conference, said of the decision to bar Ramadan from entering the country.

"There's a level of perfection expected of Muslims that is almost impossible to meet," he added. "People don't pay attention to the content of what we say. They look for a reason to mistrust us."

Starting today, Muslims begin observing Islam's holy month of Ramadan, a period of daytime fasting and prayer aimed at acquiring spiritual discipline and deeper faith. But as the George Mason incident underscores, many American Muslims feel more beleaguered and discouraged than at any time since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

In the weeks after 9/11, American Muslims encountered an angry backlash that included violence. But many of them considered this to be an understandable and temporary emotional reaction, and the outbursts were tempered by many acts of kindness toward Muslims by non-Muslim neighbors and co-workers.

Three years later, many Muslims say the atmosphere seems much bleaker. Anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be hardening into a permanent feature of public discourse, and Muslim advocacy groups report an increase in hate crimes and discrimination.

Leaders of those groups acknowledge that continuing acts of violence by Islamic terrorists, especially beheadings in Iraq, have contributed to Islam's deteriorating image in this country. But, they add, so has a constant stream of invective against Islam by ill-informed talk radio and television pundits and some religious leaders.

A recent national poll found that almost one-third of Americans respond with a negative image when they hear the word "Muslim." Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which commissioned the poll, said he has a folder of more than 800 e-mails against Islam or Muslims that have been sent to his organization in the last two years. The "viciousness" of such messages has gone way up compared with the period immediately after 9/11, Hooper said.

Many American Muslims believe that the U.S. government has contributed to the deepening of anti-Muslim sentiment by treating them more as foes than allies in the war against terrorism. They say the government has done this by singling out Muslims for special scrutiny at airports, investigating Islamic charities and detaining Muslims who eventually are found innocent of criminal activity -- all of which leads to a growing perception that the war on terrorism has become a war against Islam.

"I hear a lot of people saying that today, especially moderate Muslims, people I never thought would have this feeling," said Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a mosque in Sterling.

Echoing other Muslims, Magid said he fears that there is "some element in the [Bush] administration intent on dismantling Muslim organizations and bringing them down. . . . It's very disturbing."

Immigrants feel especially vulnerable. Palestinian Osama Abu Irshaid, 30, who lives in Annandale and edits a newspaper critical of U.S. Middle East policies, said he and his friends carefully avoid saying anything on the phone that the FBI might interpret as a coded message. When they get together, he said, "we're talking about [how] it might be our last party. It might be our last picnic."

One friend, who has since left the country, used to sleep in his clothes in case he was arrested. He didn't want to appear on television in his pajamas, Irshaid said.

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