By Jeff Diamant
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Tens of thousands of Muslims plan to pray "for the soul of America" outside the U.S. Capitol this month in what is being described as a first-of-its-kind event.
The event, headed by the Dar-ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth, N.J., will not include political speeches or placards, just prayer, said Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam and a main organizer of the Sept. 25 event.
''Most of the time, when Muslims go to Washington, D.C., they go there to protest some type of event," Abdellah said. "This is not a protest. Never has the Islamic community prayed on Capitol Hill for the soul of America. We're Americans. We need to change the face of Islam so people don't feel every Muslim believes America is 'the great Satan,' because we love America."
A permit from the U.S. Capitol Police, issued July 28, grants access to the area by the West Front of the Capitol from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 25, but the the Friday prayer service is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Abdellah said that he hopes to draw 50,000 people from mosques across the country and that non-Muslims are welcome, too. About 400 people are expected from his mosque, which is raising money from donors to help pay for the event, which is expected to cost more than $200,000.
The gathering will occur near where presidents have been inaugurated since 1981.
Abdellah said President Obama's inaugural address in January and his speech in Egypt in June led Abdellah and another imam to begin discussing the idea of a prayer service.
"For the first time in my lifetime," Abdellah said, "I heard someone of his stature speaking about Islam and Muslims not in an adversarial sense, but in the sense of being welcome and acknowledging we are integral citizens in the society -- that we're gainfully employed, we're educated.
"He said he had his hand open to the Islamic world," he said. "The Islamic world wants to open their hand and shake it."
The Web site set up for the event, http://islamoncapitolhill.com, has a logo with a red, white and blue hand shaking a light brown hand. The preamble of the Constitution and a page of Arabic text appear in the background.
Members of Dar-ul-Islam have been working since July to organize the event, through e-mails, phone calls and visits to mosques and Muslim student associations in various states.
''People didn't look to Dar-ul-Islam to organize this," Abdellah said. "No one called us and asked us to do it. We decided to do it on our own." Organizers said that they have not decided who will lead the prayer and give the sermon at the event but that it is unlikely to be a major figure in the American Muslim world.
''This is not about personalities," Abdellah said. "We don't want personalities involved. The personality for this event is the Prophet Muhammad."
Aly A. Aziz, president of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, which is helping to organize the event, said that too many Americans automatically associate Islam with terrorism and that the event is a way to "expose Americans . . . to how the Muslims pray." Shakoor Mustafa, a Newark resident who attends a mosque in East Orange, N.J., said he has donated money to the event and hopes to go to Washington if his workload allows.
''It's historical," he said, adding that, in his opinion, the mere granting of permission to hold the event reflects a dramatic change in how many Americans view Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
''Yesterday I was viewed as a terrorist," he said, "and today I've been given a permit on Capitol Hill to come and pray in a spirit of unity."