For Conservative Muslims, Goal of Isolation a Challenge

Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences
The Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences was a key part of a Saudi campaign to spread Wahhabi Islam, but now only holds Friday prayers, with sermons that are "nothing controversial," one man said. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Twelve girls sat in rows at the front of the community room in Silver Spring's Muslim Community Center, calming their nerves with giggles and girl talk. In their sweaty hands, they held prepared speeches. On their heads, they wore scarves in a rainbow of colors: pink, brown, gold, white and lavender.

The seventh- and eighth-graders were competing in a debate on this question: Is a segregated, all-Islamic upbringing key to protecting your Muslim identity?

Eight of the dozen argued yes, using variants of the theme offered by Fatimah Waseem. Young Muslims "join with the non-Muslims, copy them and look up to them. This is hurting our identity. . . . Sometimes, we turn way from Islam," she said. "In conclusion, . . . we cannot sway in the wind and become weak. We need to be protected . . . by segregation."

" Takbeer! " shouted some in the audience of proud, clapping parents as each girl concluded her case. "Let us praise God!"

Like Fatimah, most of the debaters attend Al-Huda School in College Park. It is run by Dar-us-Salaam, one of the Washington area's most conservative Muslim congregations. Many of its members believe that, in order to be true to their faith, they should live apart from secular society as much as possible. The congregation's Web site describes how it hopes one day to become a self-contained Islamic community.

The kind of Islam practiced at Dar-us-Salaam, known as Salafism, once had a significant foothold among area Muslims, in large part because of an aggressive missionary effort by the government of Saudi Arabia. Salafism and its strict Saudi version, known as Wahhabism, struck a chord with many Muslim immigrants who took a dim view of the United States' sexually saturated pop culture and who were ambivalent about participating in a secular political system. It was also attractive to young Muslims searching for a more "authentic" Islam than what their Westernized immigrant parents offered.

But the discovery that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were Saudi and that their violent al-Qaeda ideology was rooted in Wahhabism had a particularly deep impact on Salafis, whose theology and practices were suddenly suspect.

The attacks "shook the foundations of anyone affiliated with Wahhabism or Salafism," said Chris Khalil Moore, 31, of Annandale, a convert who became immersed in Wahhabism while studying in Saudi Arabia before abandoning that approach to Islam. "Because they were fingered, pointed at, as being the ideology that helped foster the mentality of those hijackers," he said, "I think a lot of people got scared."

One of the area's most prominent Salafi preachers, Ali al-Timimi, is in prison, convicted on charges that he incited young Muslims to wage war against the United States. Dar al-Arqam Islamic Center in Falls Church, where he preached, is now closed. The Saudi government's proselytizing campaign has also been rolled up. Its preachers were sent home, and a Saudi-run institute in Fairfax that taught a strict Salafi outlook no longer has any students.

Moderate Muslims have become more vocal in warning about the dangers of separatism and fundamentalism while policing rhetoric that could be construed as radical or extremist. In particular, they increasingly take exception to the sharp divide between Muslims and non-Muslims drawn by some Salafis, saying it can encourage intolerance and violence.

The sense of beleaguerment among many Muslims in the Washington area is particularly strong among Salafis. "In the past, people would say, 'I'm Salafi.' Now, I never encounter people who say that," District resident and Muslim activist Svend White said. "It's a combination of fear, anxiety and a real change in the community."

Seeking 'Pure' Islam

Taken broadly, practicing Salafism means imitating the ways the prophet Muhammad and his companions in the 7th century practiced their faith, from their clothing to the spiritual principles that guided them. Salafism also stresses a return to fundamentals in pursuit of "pure" or "authentic" Islam.

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