Mustaq Khan was on his way to a kickoff party for his software company in Leesburg yesterday, but the Centreville resident had to make a quick stop by his mosque. Not to pray, but to speak bluntly about the looming war in Iraq.
"You know many of us want a regime change in Iraq, but we also want one in Washington," he said, triggering applause among more than 200 Jews, Muslims and Christians who gathered at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling for a day of talking politics and praying for peace. The event, organized by religious leaders in the Reston area, ended in a teach-in and vigil last night.
"I'm no supporter of Saddam; I want to see him disappear, too. But to go to war like this will result in casualties of all religions. We're all in this together," Khan said.
The teach-in featured a Persian Gulf War veteran, Erik Gustafson, who said the United States is not "seeking justice," but rather waging "a war operation called 'just us,' " part of comments that received a standing ovation.
A day earlier at the mosque, local Muslims swapped tales from the recent hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy Islamic city of Mecca. During a potluck featuring pasta, hummus, chicken curry and apple pie -- a feast that spanned their countries of origins -- women flipped through Laila Latib's photo album of her recent journey.
As passages from the Koran were read -- sung, almost -- they looked at snapshots of the traditions described in the verses.
"They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel, from every deep and distant mountain highway," one worshiper recited in Arabic from the holy book.
Nearly 2 million people, among them 10,000 from the United States, converged on the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca last month to fulfill Islamic duty by making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Officials say the number from the United States who participated was down slightly because of concerns over security in the region and fears that they might not be allowed back.
But some who made the pilgrimage say it took on greater significance because of the political climate at home and abroad.
"It elevates the spirit of the heart when all you hear are war rumblings on the news here," said Laila Latib, 54, who lives in Herndon. "I've seen what September 11 has done to the Muslims of this country. A lot of them are afraid and questioned. When you're in Mecca and [the sacred city of] Medina, you've seen the fairest of the fair and the darkest of the dark. You realize we are all the same."
The photographs in her floral-bound album attested to her words: an energetic 73-year-old Afghan woman, an African American bunkmate from Boston, Latib's sister-in-law from South Africa.
In impromptu conversations held in tents where pilgrims slept and in lines at concession stands, Americans often became sources of information for those from the rest of the Muslim world. Many pilgrims who attended Saturday's potluck recalled being asked about the U.S. policy toward the Middle East and the impending war.
"You're sure you're not the CIA?" Chris Moore, a former punk rocker from Annandale who converted to Islam in 1994, said he was asked. Moore said he took the query as a joke, then engaged his questioner in conversation.
"People can be sincerely Muslim and sincerely American," Moore said he responded. "They're not incompatible."
In the days of the prophet, it took months, even years, for some to travel to Mecca. Those who did so came home to communities that heralded them for their efforts. Today's pilgrims travel by plane, bus and train, yet the warm homecomings have endured.
The Sterling mosque's imam, or spiritual leader, acknowledged that although some in the United States might have canceled their pilgrimage plans, his membership seemed eager to make the journey, he said.
"Last year, five people went. This year, eight," noted imam Mohamed Magid. "People needed to pray. I saw an intense supplication and prayer for peace, a world free from terror. There was hope in the air."
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy said many Muslims living in the United States who are not American citizens or permanent residents feared that if they made the pilgrimage this year, they would not be allowed to return because of heightened immigration enforcement.
Some half-dozen travel agents in the Washington area are licensed by the Saudi government to sell pilgrimage packages, which generally cost about $2,500. This year, many noted a slowdown in business.
Mohammad Aslam, owner of Metro International Travels in Arlington, said he usually sells about 150 such packages. "This year was a little less, about 100," he said. "A few people called me and said they were concerned over the situation in that area."
At the Sterling mosque, where recent pilgrims took turns speaking about their experience, many grew emotional as they urged other worshipers to follow in their footsteps.
"If you can, go as quickly as you can," Latib said. "Make things better for yourself and your community."
Making the pilgrimage strengthened her bond with Muslims from all over the world, which became clear even as she and her husband returned to the United States, Latib said. A snowstorm was sweeping the Northeast, and their connecting flight from New York to Washington was canceled. An Afghan family from Northern Virginia was in the same predicament. So the newfound friends rented two cars and slowly followed each other home.