The scene was far different from the one planned more than four years ago. Then, the Lincoln Memorial was to be the backdrop for thousands of Muslims celebrating the 15th century of Islam.
But on this November evening, a small, hand-painted sign in an Arlington community center and a few Islamic pamphlets were the only reminders for the scattering of Muslims that this was to have been a grand celebration.
It was the second time in a year that a major Islamic celebration in the Washington area had been canceled.
"We were told by the (U.S.) Park Police that they would be unable to guarantee us protection if we went ahead with the celebration (on the Mall) because of all the recent anti-Iranian demonstrations. Yet we are not all Iranians," lamented Miraj Siddiqi, a native of Pakistan who has lived in Northern Virginia for more than 14 years.
Earlier, a similar event by a group of American scholars and businessmen also had been canceled.
In this, the Year of the Hostages, the cancellations meant one thing for many Muslims in this area. It was yet another reminder that, despite divergent nationalities, despite the fact that many are American citizens or permanent residents and despite varying opinions about the situation in Iran, Muslims in this country have become inextricably bound with the fate of the 52 Americans held in Tehran.
"This should be a bilateral political matter between two countries," Siddiqi said. "Instead, people tend to lump all Muslims together . . . but when Rev. (Jim) Jones led all those people to kill themselves, were all Christians fanatics?
"Just as everything a Christian does is not Christian, then not everything some Muslims do is Islam."
There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Muslims in this area. Many are professionals -- doctors, lawyers, business owners -- who live in the Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Many have lived here 15 or 20 years or longer and are American citizens or permanent residents of this country.
In short, although many in the Muslim community were born in one of the nearly 70 countries stretching from Africa through the Middle East and Asia where Islam is the major religion, the United States is now their home.
Yet, they say, that home has become increasingly hostile since the hostages were taken more than a year ago.
Some Muslims says they have received threatening phone calls, have found "Go Home Muslims" signs tacked to the doors of their homes and have had their tires slashed. Others say they now avoid the only mosque in the area, in Washington, because of skirmishes between Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's supporters and anti-Iranian protestors.
Siddiqi, for instance, says his family has received several threatening telephone calls.
"They would call and say, 'Your family is dead' and then hang up," said Siddiqi, who lives in Springfield. "Luckily, few of us have been physically hurt. But we were frightened about our children going to school, and sometimes thought twice about going into areas where we were not known."
Siddiqi, by his own description, is part of the more conservative wing of Islam. He is chariman of the Muslim Development Corp., a group of about 200 Muslims who hope to build a Muslim complex in Fairfax County. Although no land has been purchased, Siddiqi said that for the last four years the group has been searching for a site that could accommodate about 400 housing units, a mosque, a school, a burial ground and a funeral home.
The group believes that establishing the complex would shelter traditional Islamic values from what they regard as the more liberal Western lifestyle.
"We would not be isolationists, but we would be like the Mormons," Siddiqi said. "Unlike many religions, Islam is a way of life and we need to preserve that in this country -- especially for our young people."
Despite the Iranian backlash, Saddiqi does not envision community opposition. Yet a similar attempt four years ago to buy a parcel of land between I-66 and Rte. 50 was killed by community protests, and a proposal by the Libyan Embassy to establish a school in Arlington was defeated in September.
"We weren't prepared then. We didn't understand how local governments worked, and they (the community) did not know about us. Now they do. We've been around for four years," Siddiqi said.
As the crisis in Iran lingers on, some Middle Eastern experts say that Islam, and the Muslim community here, remain misunderstood. Instead of being recognized for the diverse group they are, Muslims and scholars point out that two prototypes constantly emerge: That of the scimitar-waving oil sheik, or the scimitar-waving religious zealot.
A substantial number of Muslims in this area, for example, are much less conservative than Siddiqi's group, according to Muzammil siddiqi, director of the Islamic Center in Washington, and they have assimilated readily into American life.
"There is just as much divergence among the Muslims is this country as there is among other religions. Just as in the Christian world there are some good, faithful Christians and lax Christians, so are there different groups among the Muslim community," added Michael Hudson, director of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab studies.
Added Lucius Battle, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt: "Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world . . . yet most Americans still know very little about Islamic culture. We tend to see Islam as a monolithic culture. lYet it is different in each country and covers every segment of life.
"We cannot continue to engage in, these sweeping generalizations. The cartoon image of the black-robed religious fanatic screaming about Islam is just not accurate."
Battle and a group of other Americans with Middle East ties have formed a non-profit committee to commemorate the 15th Century of Islam and educate the public about the nature of Islam.
Some observers say an example of the depth of misunderstanding is a recent statement by president-elect Ronald Reagan. In the Nov. 17 issue of Time Magazine, Reagan is quoted as saying ". . . lately, we have even seen the possibilities of, literally, a religious war -- the Muslims returning to the idea that the way to heaven is to lose your life fighting the Christians or the Jews."
Saddiqi, for one, finds the statement appalling.
"It is very frightening to think that this person is going to be living in the White House and directing foreign policy and the minds of many Americans," he said. "Reagan is reinforcing anti-Islamism."
While Battle and Hudson attribute the lack of understanding to cultural ignorance rather than conscious malice, Saddiqi suggests that in a country as advanced as America and in an area as political as Washington, opinions should be more informed.
"In a country that has so much access to the news and to the media, there is no excuse for not knowing what is going on. You have so much more information available to you than (in) any other country," Saddiqi said.
Yet, he continued, "if you go into any classroom in this country and ask a child to draw a picture of a Muslim or an Arab you will get a picture of oil sheiks surrounded by exotic women, of religious fanatics, of lovers laying around in perfumed tents.
"It is wrong for (people in) a country that is one of the world's (major) civilizations to maintain ideas like these."