The athan, a Muslim call to prayer, sounded throughout Masjid Muhammad in the Washington, D.C.’s northwest as it has for decades to a quiet group of predominantly African Americans. “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar (God is great. God is great),” the melodious chant would begin.
It was time for Jumah, Friday congregational prayer, the gathering that some American political leaders want to make illegal. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, cab drivers, educators, journalists, bankers, elected officials, government workers, laborers, construction workers, business owners, homeless and the needy stood side-by-side to give reverence to Allah, whom they consider creator of all things.
“We are involved in every aspect of American life. We own, rent, buy and sell. We are intertwined in the fabric of America. We mean no harm,” said Sabir Abdus Samee, a Muslim for over 40 years, before the prayer,. “Our religion encourages us to continue to educate ourselves and be the best. It demands that we respect others and our community.”
Just one day prior on Capitol Hill, Rep. Keith Ellison, (D-Minn.) and several Muslim leaders testified before Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) about what he believed to be radical Islam developing in America. The hearing came as no surprise with Republican legislators across the country calling for the many Islamic practices, including washing of feet, to be considered as acts of terrorism and punishable as a felony for 15 years.
The fears and negative reactions towards Muslims have been mounting since Sept.11, 2001, after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by a group claiming to be Muslim extremists. The attacks killed over 6,000 Americans. There have been other terrorist attempts on American soil since that time involving young radicals here and abroad.
“It’s a kind of delicate walk because we can’t deny Muslims were involved in the Sept. 11, tragedy,” Saleem said. “[But] if someone thinks that Muslims’ credibility is diminishing with the negative depictions from the media, it’s not. More people are interested in Islam than ever before.”
Talib Shareef, 49, resident imam at Masjid Muhammad, pointed out another perspective. “What concerns me is that an Arab face is being depicted as a reflection of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world when in actuality we are in every race and country. Even if terrorists, regardless of their nationality, identify themselves as Muslims, they are not seen by us as Muslims,” said Shareef.
Sitting in his office before Jumah prayer, Shareef reflected on the struggle to build a mosque for African Americans. “This masjid was the first one built from the ground up among thousands across America. For 75 years, it represents good citizenry and people who are involved in every aspect of community and government life,” said Shareef.
Now Muslim gatherings have become the target of some political campaigns, rhetoric, headlines and debates. More than 12 states are considering legislation to ban Muslims from practicing Shariah religious laws, including washing of feet and congregational prayer. If successful, Muslims would be the only group in America without the freedoms to practice their religion.
Some American political leaders also want Muslims to have a careful eye for budding terrorists and turn them into the authorities before any harm is done to be prosecuted. However, some Islamic leaders believe a different approach is more suitable.
“I believe that when we see radicalization developing and people going astray, we should reach out and teach them that what they are doing is wrong and can only bring us harm,” said Saleem.
Zarinah Shakir, 62, has been involved in promoting interfaith dialogues for over three decades. As producer and host of Perspectives of Interfaith, a local cable show, she said many interfaith ministers have spoken against the hearings and turmoil against Muslims.
“They realize that this a witch hunts and there is no basis for this. What do they want from decent tax paying people upholding the laws? Today it’s Muslims. Tomorrow it will be another religious group,” Shakir said.