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Muslims at mosque in N.Va. await Obama's speech

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Credit
Monday, November 8, 2010; 9:00 PM

Many at the ADAMS Center mosque in Sterling recall the pride and hope they felt when they heard President Obama's first major address to the Muslim world last year. Some quote parts of it by memory: "Let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America."

But what has followed has possibly been the toughest year yet for American Muslims - marked by an outpouring of public hostility so unexpected and bewildering that it prompted Mohamed Magid, the imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, to start keeping a journal.

Sitting in his office on the third floor of the ADAMS Center, Magid has found himself copying down thoughts and memories between appointments, hoping to sort out his experiences.

His efforts to make sense of it all come as Obama is poised to give a major speech Wednesday at the largest mosque in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Those at ADAMS, which is one of the largest mosques in the United States with more than 5,000 families worshipping at nine branches, will be listening to the president for new signs of hope.

In many ways, Magid and others say, their place in the United States feels more uncertain than ever. And their efforts to reconcile the two equally important sides of their identity - Muslim and American - seem more complicated. It is as though they and their culture have entered a trial by fire. They are eager to pass it but uncertain how.

The story of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society is in many ways the story of the Muslim American experience over the past three decades.

The mosque began with a handful of families in Herndon in the 1980s. For years, they met weekly at high school cafeterias and middle school classrooms, mostly to hold Sunday schools so their children could learn the Koran.

The challenge of being Muslim in those days, the group's members say, was a much different and more benign affair.

"It was like we had a clean slate back then," Salma Ashmawi, 47, a mother of four. "For many people we met, it was their first time meeting a Muslim. With each conversation, it felt like we were building something new."

The resistance the members encountered in those days stemmed mostly from ignorance rather than prejudice, said Ashmawi, who said her head scarf was mistaken for a nun's habit.

As the Northern Virginia tech sector boomed, the Muslim population soared, and the ADAMS community grew with it.

By the time Magid arrived from the Sudan in 1997 to serve as imam, the community was a diverse patchwork of Muslim cultures.

"I'd look out during Friday prayers, and there'd be Pakistani Muslims, Bengali, Bangladeshi, African, African American, Caucasian Muslims," he said.

Magid began trying to understand the new cultures as well as the country they all called home.

He holed himself up at home and watched the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize." He began what would become a decade-long push to reach out to nearby churches and synagogues, becoming one of the most prominent interfaith leaders in the Washington region.

When the growing ADAMS community, which had been meeting in rented space for years, tried to build a 25,000-square-foot worship center on 16 acres in Sterling, it encountered apprehension from its neighbors. ADAMS members tried to allay their fears, at one point going door to door to introduce themselves and explain the planned mosque.

Islam in those days seemed poised to become an accepted part of the United States, ADAMS members said. And they were at the forefront of that effort.

Post-9/11 attitudes

Like so much else in the United States, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed how Muslims were seen.

By the first night after the terrorist attacks, the sign on the property that ADAMS members had bought to build their mosque was set on fire by vandals. The next year, vandals broke in and spray-painted "go home" on the walls of the half-finished mosque. On Sept. 11, 2003, slurs were painted on their van.

By 2004, the vandalism was so expected that Christian and Jewish leaders camped out all night in the mosque's parking lot for a candlelight vigil to ward them off.

But the most frustrating part of the 9/11 attacks was the subtle effects. Islam was no longer a blank slate to be filled with the community's earnest and deliberate representations. Instead, it became a preconceived notion, loaded with baggage.

"By the time 9/11 happened, there were many more Muslims in America, and much greater awareness of Muslims, not always good, either," said Ashmawi, who has attended ADAMS for two decades. "We as a community were no longer setting the tone. That was taken away from us by the much smaller group of people, the extremists."

Ashmawi worries about the challenges facing her children's generation. The battle they face as Muslims in the United States is much more difficult, she said.

"It's not just the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims that's changed," she said. "Even when we meet each other now, there is an element of fear. We don't know who we may be saying 'salaam alaikum' [peace to you] to. When you give someone your business card, you don't know who they might turn out to be, what connections they have that may be under investigation."

ADAMS leaders issue news releases condemning extremism within hours of every arrest or foiled terrorist plot that could trigger a wave of Islamaphobia.

They sent out e-mails after the massacre at Fort Hood, after five men from Northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of trying to join extremists and after a Muslim tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.

Then, two weeks ago, a man who had attended ADAMS for prayers was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of plotting to blow up Washington area Metro stations.

Leaders at ADAMS issued a news release condemning the suspected plot and convened an emergency meeting to prepare for a backlash.

Mosque employees searched their records and determined that the man had never donated to ADAMS and never joined as a member.

That night, at evening prayers, leaders gave out FBI phone numbers, urging members to call with any information they might have. The leaders of that Friday's services at ADAMS' nine locations in Northern Virginia gave sermons preaching against extremism. A support group for moms, which the arrested man's wife had been a part of, was disbanded.

But even as the mosque wrestled with how it could make it clear that it had nothing to do with the extremism, Magid, the imam, couldn't stop asking himself why someone would do something like that - and what could he could have done to prevent it.

Rabbis and pastors called, offering advice and comfort.

"After all the work we've done, to have one person, someone on the edges of our community, be a part of something like that, it was so frustrating," Magid said. "But we have to realize the reality now is that we can be dragged into every struggle, or the latest news. That's the challenge we face."

'Trial by fire'

The incident, ADAMS members say, is one of many that have marked the period since the hopeful days of Obama's speech in Cairo - wedged somewhere amid the fever-pitch debate over the mosque near ground zero, a threatened and then abandoned Koran-burning in Florida, the accusations that Obama is secretly a Muslim.

Through it all, those at ADAMS and elsewhere say they still have hope.

"What's going on for Muslim Americans now is a trial by fire," said Farhanahz Ellis, the interfaith director at ADAMS. "You look at the history of this country, and we're not the first group that's been put through the fire. You look at the experiences of African Americans, the Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Polish-Americans.

"The hope among Muslims," Ellis said, "is that once we get to the other side of these trials, we will never have to go through it again. That eventually, this, too, shall pass."

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