Islamic leader looks to build communities in major U.S. cities

Group's goals include interfaith unity and self-sufficiency

August 16, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The leader of the nation's largest Islamic body outlined a vision yesterday of self-sufficient Muslim community centers that would improve life in U.S. cities as their residents reach out to people of other races and faiths.

"Soon we hope to realize phenomenal growth," Imam Wallace D. Mohammed, who leads the Muslim American Society, told a crowd of about 2,800 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"We hope to have structures built from the ground up, to increase our private schools, to improve the ones we have. We hope also to have cultural and social centers. We hope to have financial institutions, all built by us, produced by us and managed by us."

Three months ago, Mohammed, 65, traveled to Saudi Arabia to begin raising money from business leaders and philanthropists for model communities in Louisville, Ky., Florence, S.C., and suburban Miami. He hopes to raise $30 million to $50 million.

In Baltimore, Muslim American Society members are trying to establish an enclave near the Muslim Community Cultural Center on West North Avenue in Walbrook.

Mohammed, a son of the late Elijah Muhammad, took over the leadership of the Nation of Islam from his father in 1975. He promptly shifted the group's black separatist teachings toward traditional Sunni Islam, changing its name, most recently to the Muslim American Society in 1997. In the past several years Mohammed has been an increasingly visible advocate of dialogue across religions.

Welcoming Mohammed yesterday was Cardinal William H. Keeler, a friend who escorted Mohammed to Rome in 1996 to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Keeler urged the Muslim community to work with Catholics to combat pornography and to promote "the practice of virtue" in schools. Together, he said, members of both faiths can "help to advance the cause of goodness, of decency, of justice, of religious freedom and of peace."

Mohammed said he wanted to take that cooperation one step further -- to the develop- ment of communities.

"We want to see it expressed in the material structures of this society -- to have us, Christians and Muslims, joined together to see better material establishments and better material life in our poorer neighborhoods," he said.

But for such a notion to become reality, Mohammed said, African-American leadership is needed.

"I would like to see us welcome a life in America that does not keep blacks and whites separated, but a life that will allow us all to work together in competition," he said. "But as God says in our holy book, a competition -- like a race -- for all that is good." Mohammed's speech, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, prompted an enthusiastic ovation from the audience, many of its members clothed in traditional, brightly colored headscarves or knit prayer caps. Afterward, several people praised the imam's theme of inclusion.

"His message was very clear and very profound," said Conreid Al-Amin, 41, who rode a bus from Jersey City to hear Mohammed. "This is what the Koran teaches us: We should not despise one another."

Said Sumayya Ramadan, 41, of Baltimore: "It's where we should be as a people. I think it's good that he's reaching out to all religious leaders."

Pub Date: 8/16/99

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