U.S. Muslims Struggle Over Islam's Image
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|Sat, 04-05-2003 - 3:24pm|
By BOB LEWIS
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
RICHMOND, Va. -- Mahdi Bray paced the floor, hands in motion, preaching with righteous fervor.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," he thundered. "All our religion has to offer America is good - our ethics, our values, our beliefs."
Bray and the Muslim American Society are trying to undo the damage caused by Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by offering nationwide seminars to teach Muslims what they can to do to change Islam's image in America.
"From our side, we did not do enough to break out of isolation," said M. Imad Damaj, a Lebanese immigrant who is vice president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition and a pharmacology researcher at Richmond's Medical College of Virginia. "There are good people, law-abiding Muslims in this city, and they've never engaged in civic action."
His wife, Amal Damaj, accuses bin Laden of hijacking the religion.
Bray, a former Baptist who converted to Islam 27 years ago and now heads the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, urges Muslims to become active in their communities to show Americans all the good they have to offer.
Misconceptions about Muslims have been aggravated by some U.S. media, particularly radio talk shows, Imad Damaj said. And Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have attacked Islam as a violent or evil religion, although Falwell has apologized for his remarks.
To change the misconceptions, the Falls Church-based Muslim American Society has held seminars to teach Muslims basic civics in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Falls Church and Charlotte, N.C. Others are scheduled in coming months in Detroit; Boston; Raleigh, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Phoenix; Cleveland; Germantown, Md.; and St. Paul, Minn.
A session in Richmond last month included tutorials on writing press releases, holding news conferences, writing letters to the editor and the techniques of being interviewed.
"We don't get the kind of coverage we want because we don't play the game as well as they play the game," said the Muslim American Society's communications director, Ismail Royer. "Know how the media works. And a lack of positive coverage is not a Zionist conspiracy."
The Richmond training session's discussion of courts, the Constitution and civil rights revealed Muslim anger over the 2001 Patriot Act, passed weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The law gave federal authorities broad new powers to obtain personal information about U.S. citizens in an attempt to prevent similar attacks.
"We see that our rights seem to be eroding," said Raeed N. Tayeh of the Muslim American Society. "They're raiding Muslim organizations, they're raiding people's homes, they're taking people's property, and it doesn't seem reasonable."
Yvonne Haddad, who has tracked Muslim assimilation into U.S. culture for 30 years as a professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said she isn't sure how effective the seminars can be because of the level of fear in wartime America among Muslims, most of whom came to America in the past four decades.
However, Anjum A. Ali, who works for a Richmond-area law firm, is one Muslim taking a public stand. She appears with her toddler in a public service announcement that is part of a campaign called "The True Face of Islam."
"It's a chance for people to see a Muslim who is not a monster, to see that Muslims are people who have children, who are compassionate and caring," she said. "They work at jobs like you and me. They're human."