The Sunday night meeting of Boy Scout Troop 114 was coming to order. Or trying to.
“Formations, please! Por favor,” 15-year-old troop leader Yousof Omeish yelled over noise that only a pack of peach-fuzz teens can make.
The boys eventually quieted and put their hands out, palms up.
“In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful,” he said in Arabic, reciting “The Opening,” phrases from the Koran that Muslims use to begin most gatherings.
“Thee do we worship,” he said, “and Thine aid we seek.”
Then they switched to their three-fingered Scout salute and recited the oath in English, including the promise to “do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout law.”
God/Allah, country, honor and knots. It’s all unremarkable at this weekly Scout meeting at the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia.
Despite the ugly rhetoric of Donald Trump and the Islamophobia swirling around them, these Muslim boys aren’t giving up on their dreams of becoming Eagle Scouts.
After the prayers and pledges, Troop 114 moved on to Scouting business — merit badges, adventure trips, designing patrol flags, anyone know how to play the bugle? — just like any other Scout meeting in any school, church, synagogue or community center across the country.
At this mosque in Fairfax City, Muslim boys are learning about canoeing, woodworking and tying knots. They love the campouts and get nervous when it’s time to face the board of review — three women in hijabs at a table down the hall — to make each rank.
They chatter about qualifying for the next big trip — backpacking in New Mexico.
Yousof, a sophomore at W.T. Woodson High School, reminds them that all it takes is following the steps needed to achieve the right rank.
They could even make it to Eagle Scout in as little as 28 months. “It’s possible,” he tells them. “You just have to do the work.”
They are participating in the most American of traditions. Earning badges, grinding out their Eagle Scout service projects.
And yet, each of them knows what some of America is saying about them. After horrifying attacks by extremists in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Trump and others want to bar Muslims from the United States, put mosques under surveillance and require Muslims to register with the government the way Jews were ordered to do in Nazi Germany.
“We are constantly explaining that all this ISIS and terrorists and those world events, that’s not us,” one Scout said. “My friends know. But not everyone else does.”
Here’s what I found amazing. Although the Boy Scouts of America struggled with accepting gay members and leaders, the organization welcomed Muslim boys decades ago — and has never stopped including them.
“It was in my handbook, like, 30 years ago, the emblems,” said Abdul Rashid Abdullah, 43, an Eagle Scout and U.S. Army veteran who is the main organizer of the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Webelos, Venturers, Daisies, Brownies and Girl Scouts at the Islamic Center.
“This is as American as it gets,” Abdullah said. “Muslim Scouts were around when I was a kid. We’ve been around for years.”
The Girl Scouts even offer a more modest uniform for their Muslim members. And troops based at mosques all welcome non-Muslim members.
The National Association of Muslim Americans on Scouting lists about a dozen units in the Washington region.
At the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, about 500 children participate in some level of Scouting. After helping to develop that program, Abdullah moved to the Islamic Center, where he has gotten a couple hundred kids into Scouting.
Troop 114 has four boys on track to make Eagle Scout. Their goal? Four Eagles by Ramadan.
Abdullah’s son is one of the candidates. His Eagle service project is related to 3-D printed, prosthetic hands. Another boy, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, is trying to start a STEM tutoring service for his project.
This is how they confront the Islamophobia. By working. By achieving. By being American kids.
“Here, we want them to learn more about being self-sufficient,” said Ahmed Abutaleb, Scoutmaster to Troop 114 by night, telecom engineer by day. “And to give them a break from computers, phones, electronics. It’s a chance to get away from that world.
“And of course, we want them to learn to set a good example, to become good citizens.”
This is a theme that Yousof, the teenage troop leader, stresses at the end of their meeting.
“The Scout law? Apply that on a daily basis, as a Scout and as a Muslim, especially,” he tells the troop. “Every day, ask yourself: ‘Have I been helpful?’ ”