On the anniversary of Islam's 14th century as a religion yesterday, the Islamic Center at 2551 Massachusetts Ave. NW was virtually deserted -- a symbol of a diplomatic quandary.
Its director, Dr. Mohammad Rauf, a Sunni Moslem who must try to be all things to all area Moslems, regardless of sect, appeared pained at being asked for an interview.
"Please," said the white-haired immam, hurrying to pack up to leave the country for two weeks. "The board of directors [comprised of Islamic nations' ambassadors to the United States] has instructed me not to speak to the press. Please."
"He doesn't feel well," said an aide as Rauf prepared to leave for his native Egypt on a trip of an undisclosed nature. "He's just come from the doctor's."
Indeed, Rauf, like many area followers of Islam, are not only pained at being caught in the crossfire between Washington and Iran, but between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who represent the two sects of the religion: Sunni and Shiite. Khomeini and his followers are Shiites, who make up the majority of Moslems in Iran.
"If Dr. Rauf talks, he's bound to hurt the feelings of some Moslems, no matter what he says," said Pakistani Mowahid Shah, a Washington writer and lawyer on his way from daily prayer inside the mosque. "It's like any U.S. presidential campaign; he must try to hug the center."
Three Iranian students, who had driven all night from college in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to validate their passports at their embassy up the street, emerged from praying in the mosque, slipped on shoes and asked the center's librarian for a book on Islamic law. They were searching for legal justification of the seizure of diplomatic hostages -- beyond their belief that what their follow students have done, and what Khomeini has approved, is right.
Nothing in Islamic law, however, say experts, sanctions seizing diplomatic hostages.
Nonetheless, says one angry student, "if diplomats spied, no matter what the law is, what they did is wrong and they should be tried."
The librarian winced.
"If talk is silver, silence is golden," the librarian told the student. "You are giving away all your gold."
The student could hardly contain himself. "What else can we do when you have the shah?" he asked. "Why should you keep the shah here when people in my country are screaming and yelling to ask your people to give the shah back so he can be tried."
"They talk too much," said the librarian, a Moslem from the Suan, who declined to give his name. "They stoke the fire."
Outside, five uniformed D.C. policemen huddled on the corner, their ears glued to the all-news radio station announcing increasing anti-American violence halfway around the globe: "In Pakistan, a mob rushed the U.S. Embassy, killing one Marine guard and trapping 100 Americans inside a third floor room . . ."
"Send in helicopter gunships with sickening gas," said one officer, a former paratrooper with the Army's 82nd Airborne. "They could come out of nowhere and make the students awfully sick. That might keep them from killing the hostages. Of course, the Americans would get sick, too, but they'd be alive.
One officer whittles himself a toothpick with a large fishing knife; another, a wad of chewing tobacco bulging from his jaw, spat his distaste for the Iranian standoff into the soft earth.
"A lot of things I don't like to do," said another officer who has been assigned to protect the Mosque and the Embassy of Iran. "Some mornings I don't feel like getting up, but I do it because it's part of my job. I do what I'm told."
"I pray to god for peace," said Fatola Samily, the former Iranian embassy's consul, for education and cultural affairs who, after the shah's overthrow, was granted permission to remain in the states. Out of work, but attempting to set up his own import-export business, he has volunteered to chair the center's advisory board for the 14 Centuries of Islam Celebration.
He, too, is caught in the middle. "Sudden changes" are trying, he said.
As for the Islamic Center, he added. "We must try to stay neutral."