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Boycott urged for Muslim imam's prayer in Virginia House

By Anita Kumar and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 11, 2010; B04

RICHMOND -- Hundreds of people are urging legislators to boycott the House of Delegates' floor session on Thursday, when a Falls Church imam whom they accuse of condoning violence and defending terrorism is set to deliver the opening prayer.

The imam, Johari Abdul-Malik, and many other leaders in the Muslim and interfaith communities say the accusations are false.

Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers briefly worshiped at his mosque, the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, and one of its former imams, Anwar al-Aulaqi, has been linked to accused terrorists and subsequently denounced by the mosque, one of the largest in the United States.

But Abdul-Malik was not affiliated with the mosque in 2001, when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. In recent years, he has made statements following the arrest of Muslims on terrorism charges, arguing for due process, civil rights and fair sentencing.

"To try to cast me as someone who's a terrorist and closed-minded -- they picked the wrong guy,'' he said.

Soon after Sept. 11, Abdul-Malik was featured in paid ads produced by a group of national Muslim organizations, which denounced terrorism and the attacks. He has condemned terrorism and Osama bin Laden on "The O'Reilly Factor" and other television programs.

Still, letters and calls have poured into legislative offices since Friday, when a handful of concerned delegates let community activists know that Abdul-Malik was coming to Richmond.

"He's an apologist for people who commit criminal acts,'' said James Lafferty, chairman of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force. The group, along with the Traditional Values Coalition and Act for America, will hold a rally outside the state Capitol on Thursday morning.

Abdul-Malik said he was warned recently that similar negative comments were made about another imam -- Mohamed Magid, head of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling -- when he gave the prayer at the General Assembly two years ago.

"All they're doing is showing that racism still lives in the Old Dominion," he said. "But at the same time, there's a new Dominion. That's what we're going to show people."

Del. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said he has no regrets about asking Abdul-Malik to give the prayer in the House. "The imam is a peace-loving man,'' he said.

Many of the letters have asked House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to revoke Abdul-Malik's invitation, but Howell's chief of staff, G. Paul Nardo, said no such action is planned. The House's practice is generally to allow delegates to invite religious leaders of differing faiths, he said.

Ebbin said he is concerned that Abdul-Malik's presence will cause a disturbance, but added: "I haven't seen any substantiated reason to ask him not to come. . . . I hope it would be a peaceful occasion where people could reflect."

Allies in the interfaith community have responded in support of the imam. When Abdul-Malik prays in Richmond, the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, will be sitting next to him on the assembly floor.

As one of the most active and outspoken imams in the D.C. area, especially in the interfaith community, Abdul-Malik has given prayers at Howard University, where he was the college's first Muslim chaplain; at the U.S. Capitol for Muslim staff members; and for past D.C. mayors.

Ebbin sent a letter to his 99 colleagues Thursday defending his choice of Abdul-Malik and saying that any concerns about him were driven by "false rumors propagated on the Internet."

Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who opposed a member of Dar al-Hijrah's board being appointed by former governor Timothy M. Kaine to the state immigration commission, said he has concerns about Ebbin's choice.

"I don't think anyone has any problem with this being a Muslim prayer,'' he said. "This particular imam and this particular mosque have been a flashpoint for controversy because of the teachings they promote and the connections they have had."

Abdul-Malik would be the first imam to deliver the opening prayer in the House or Senate during this year's legislative session, although others have done so in the past, according to the clerks' offices.

"We're seeing this over and over. Whenever any Muslim seeks to engage in the political process or even have input in that arena, they come under attack,'' said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Muslim civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations. "There's a whole cottage industry of Muslim bashers that's formed to do this stuff."

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