At local mosque, Muslims reveal mixed emotions on war PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 22, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

The 250 people at Masjid Ul Haqq kneel on the gold carpet in quiet prayer facing, as always, The Ka'ba, the place of worship in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, that Muslims believe God commanded Abraham and Ishmael to build more than 4,000 years ago.

For these West Baltimore Muslims, the war in the Persian Gulf has presented more than the usual mix of personal and moral conflicts because of the competing allegiances they feel.

First and foremost they are Muslims, part of a worldwide community of 1 billion people. They also are Americans and have brothers, uncles, sisters and cousins in Saudi Arabia waging war against Iraq, a Muslim nation.

Most of these congregants also are black, and they have concerns about the principles driving a U.S. foreign policy that, in their eyes, shifts with American self-interest.

When Mustafa Sharief, an assistant imam at the mosque, sifts through all of this, he sees peace as the only position worthy of support.

"Many people are trying to make this appear as though this is a war of Muslims fighting against Christians. Or Muslims fighting against Jews. But this is not the case," Sharief said.

Since the war started, Sharief has found himself emphasizing to the uninitiated that Muslims love peace most of all. Unlike the image held by many Americans, Muslims are not religious fanatics, he said, adding: "Muslims are here in America as righteous, upright citizens."

But, while Sharief speaks of Muslims as Americans and says he does not want them to be alienated from other Americans because of their religion, some members of the mosque's 1,000-person congregation say they sympathize with Saddam Hussein, the Muslim who leads Iraq.

"A lot of us are against the expansionist policies of the U.S. government," said Ahmad Muhammad, after the Friday prayer service at the mosque, located on Islamic Way, near Druid Hill Avenue. "Muslims have to fight against those who fight against them."

Yusuf Muhammad has a brother-in-law serving with the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, and he doesn't see the war with Iraq as a religious dispute. But he thinks the United States should have exhibited more patience before pursuing war.

"Five or six months of sanctions wasn't long enough," Muhammad said, as he sat in the basement of the mosque enjoying an after-prayer meal. "They sure didn't go into South Africa like that. There, they are letting sanctions do their work."

Muhammad, a long-distance trucker, says he finds it troubling that blacks are disproportionately represented in the military.

"It's understandable though," he said. "A lot of people want to get away from the street life, or get some college funds. But they sure didn't join to go to war."

Imam Derrick Amin, who heads a Muslim congregation in East Baltimore and served with the Air Force in Turkey during the Vietnam War, said blacks will suffer a large share of the pain inflicted on Americans by the war.

"Our mothers will be disproportionately grief-stricken. Our fathers will be disproportionately grief-stricken. Our brothers will disproportionately killed. And our children will be disproportionately killed and maimed," he said.

Habeeb Abdus Salaam, a Vietnam veteran and a teacher at an elementary school run by the mosque, says that the "cultural arrogance" of the U.S. has caused the country to take the wrong stance in the Persian Gulf crisis.

"We tend to think that our culture is going to dominatnegotiations," he said. "We tend to have problems with people who resist Western culture. We make them demons. We did the same thing to Asians 20 years ago."

There was also criticism of Saddam Hussein among those at the mosque. "We should back [Kuwait] up," said Isa Odee, a Korean War veteran as he dug into his meal. "Saddam says he is Muslim, but he doesn't prove it with his actions."

Bilal Abdul Kabir, was at the mosque visiting from Atlantic City. And, he said, he has concerns with the Persian Gulf war as an American, a black man, a Muslim and a human being.

"I'm a Muslim who happens to be African-American," he said. "But my concern is for all people. I don't want to see people suffer. That's why I'm on the side of peace."

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