Mixed emotions for Md. Muslims

Many support U.S., abhor Hussein even as they oppose war on Iraq

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - Many of them had hoped the war wouldn't come.

But it did, so members of one of Maryland's largest Muslim communities prayed yesterday for the soldiers of their country - the United States - and for the people of Iraq. And they prayed that blame for American casualties won't fall on them because of their appearance or their faith.

It's complicated being a Muslim in America, and never more so than when the country is at war with a Muslim nation and with terrorists trumpeting Islam.

After yesterday afternoon's prayer service, attended by about 700 worshipers, two young men stood outside the modern mosque on New Hampshire Avenue arguing about the war.

Although not all the worshipers knew it, the chant of the adan, or call to prayer, had come just as the United States and its allies were launching an intense bombardment of Iraq, signaling a sharp escalation in the invasion.

"Are these not our brothers and sisters in Iraq?" asked one of the men. "Are they not dying? Who is killing them?"

Overhearing their conversation, Mohamad Bashar Arafat, who had delivered the day's sermon, said: "The people are angry. My duty is to see how we can, at the same time, not let anyone transgress boundaries - to voice our concern in the best manners. ...

"God's way is always peace and caring for all the people," said Arafat, the Muslim chaplain of the Baltimore Police Department.

Most of those interviewed after the service expressed patriotism but said they oppose the war - even as they abhor the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"We need to pray for our fighting men and women and the citizens of Iraq," said Sabir A. Rahman, a Montgomery County homebuilder who heads the Muslim Community Center here. "Nobody likes Saddam Hussein. It's the method that is being questioned, not the end result."

Tonight, the center is having a vigil at 7:45 to "pray for peace," Rahman said. Representatives of other Maryland Islamic communities, including those in Baltimore, have been invited.

In Frederick County, members of the Islamic Society are to join in a vigil for peace at the Glade United Church of Christ in Walkersville tomorrow night. Muslims, Christians and Jews are invited, said Khalil Elshazly, the society's president, who hopes Muslims won't be shy about attending.

"I see it from a lot of Muslims. They are afraid to come to a demonstration or to a prayer service," said Elshazly, a Frederick mechanical engineer. "It seems like anyone who disagrees with the [Bush] administration is called unpatriotic."

Yahya Hendi, imam of Frederick's Islamic Society and Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University, said many Muslims have felt stigmatized by federal government actions or hate crimes since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Saying it needs a better accounting of who is in the country, the Bush administration is asking thousands of foreign nationals who are not permanent residents, asylum applicants or diplomats to register with immigration officials. Yesterday was the deadline for those from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The war, Hendi, said, is another reason for U.S. Muslims "to be uneasy because if we say we are anti-war, we are seen as anti-American, which is not the case."

In Baltimore, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has written to state and local law enforcement officials asking them to be alert to "possible attacks on Muslim and Arab Americans" in Maryland.

In his sermon, Arafat counseled Muslims not to be afraid "to keep saying what we believe is right." Afterward, he said: "There is America, there is the United Nations and there is God. If you don't do things the way God wants you to do them, then no matter what you achieve you are on the wrong side."

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