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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)

Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative brand of Salafism that emerged in Saudi Arabia. Its strictest adherents read Islamic scriptures literally, reject centuries of Islamic legal scholarship as unnecessary "innovation" and regard many Western values as un-Islamic. They also regard Jews, Christians and non-Wahhabi Muslims as "unbelievers" who should be avoided.

"Salafis are the fundamentalists of the Muslim world," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. "Just as Christian fundamentalists are focused on who's going to heaven and hell, who's the true believer and who's the nonbeliever," Salafis "are really focused on belief. . . . For the most part, they are apolitical."

Polling by Bagby found that about 8 percent of worshipers at U.S. mosques favor a Salafi approach. But although Salafi Muslims are more isolated now, some scholars say their approach to Islam could become more appealing in response to increasingly negative views of Muslims among Americans and vitriolic Islam-bashing on the Internet.

"Salafi teachings begin to be more attractive to more Muslims as a defensive response," said Peter Mandaville, an assistant professor in George Mason University's Public and International Affairs Department. "In the face of this new global war on Islam, they are saying, we will hold fast and emphasize anew the fundamental tenets of our faith."

Safi Khan, Dar-us-Salaam's imam, declined requests to discuss the mosque or his theological beliefs, and Minhaj Hasan, a spokesman for the mosque, said its officials had decided not to talk to Washington Post reporters.

But other Salafis have tried to allay fears that their brand of Islam fosters extremism.

Salafi Society D.C., a group of mostly African American Muslims who worship in an unadorned white brick building in Northeast Washington, has a prominent disclaimer on its Web site stating that "we are free from . . . car bombings, highjackings [sic], suicide killings, and all forms of terrorism."

Nihad Awad, executive director of the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Salafis increasingly are prepared to participate in the U.S. political system instead of shunning it. "I have been invited [by Muslims] to talk about election strategy, whereas I would not have been invited before," he said.

Yasir Qadhi, a lecturer with AlMaghrib Institute, an Islamic educational organization founded by a former prayer leader at Dar-us-Salaam, cited his own experience as an example of how Salafism has adapted in the United States.

Qadhi, who was born in Houston and graduated from Saudi Arabia's Islamic University of Medina, is getting his doctorate in Islamic studies at Yale University -- a sign, he said, of how second-generation Muslims are adapting. "It's unprecedented that a Salafi is doing a graduate degree at an Ivy League school," said Qadhi, 31. "Our forebears would see that as anathema."

In the past, Qadhi said, Salafis debated whether Muslims should even live in the United States. "For me, that question is so utterly ridiculous," he said. "Where do you want us to go?"

The Saudi Campaign

Nabil Samman's urgent voice filled the prayer rooms -- one for men, one for women -- at the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America on a recent Friday afternoon. The white-bearded, Jerusalem-born prayer leader was giving a khutba , or sermon, about the perils of not properly supervising Muslim girls.

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