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50,000 Muslims to Pray on Capitol Hill: Guess Who's Not Happy?

5 years ago
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The event sounds like yet another Tea Party protest, or perhaps an encore of last weekend's Values Voter Summit: Devout believers joining together this Friday to pray on Capitol Hill for the soul of America.

Who could argue with that? Well, when the believers happen to be Muslims, and there could be as many as 50,000 of them kneeling to pray in Arabic, yes, you could see how there might be some blowback from the usual suspects.

Indeed, the online publication from David Horowitz, FrontPageMag.com, sounded the alarm in an article Monday titled "Taking Islamism to the Streets," and the title of the "9/12 Project" post is simply, "OUTRAGED!" The writers at "Bare Naked Islam" are calling the event "disgusting" and "treasonous" and warn that "50,000 Muslims, terrorists, and terrorist sympathizers" will turn the Capitol into "a giant outdoor mosque." And Charisma magazine, a mainstream Pentecostal publication, quoted Christians in its account saying things like, "It is warfare time."

The most organized pushback so far is from a new organization of a nativist bent called Stop Islamization of America, or SIOA. It describes itself as a group of "scholar warriors/ideological warriors in the cause of American freedom and Constitutional government"-- and defines Islam as against those things. SIOA is using Friday's event, "Islam on Capitol Hill," as a launchpad for the group and to stage a counterprotest.

But perhaps the most intriguing objections to this unprecedented event have come from within the American Muslim community itself.
"The truth may not be welcome, but remains truth: thousands of Muslims lining up for silent prayer in unison, within sight of the center of American government, is going to be misconstrued as an intimidation rather than an outreach, and not just to the rabid Islamophobic fringe," wrote Aziz Poonawalla, a Muslim blogger at Beliefnet, in a post last Friday. "It really doesn't help that the official slogan for the event plastered all over the Web site is 'Our time has come.' Or that when you load the official homepage, you are blasted with audio of a thickly accented Islamic prayer."

"It's unwise to ignore the 'optics' of such an event upon the paranoid segment of the American public -- who were out in force at the Tea Party last week on the National Mall -- who will certainly see the event as a threatening gesture which only validates their racism and Islamophobia."

Writing at The American Muslim, Sheila Musaji titled her criticism of the Capitol Hill event "Not Well Thought Out." Musaji noted that a Washington Times item on the event carries the provocative title, "Muslim prayers to surround U.S. Capitol." The story refers to a "massive" turnout and warns, "This is not a joke." Writer Julia Duin does conclude with a touch of sarcasm: "So if Islamic muezzins will chant out the 'adhan,' the call to worship, to folks kneeling on prayer rugs on the west front lawn, does that make the Capitol dome a minaret?"

Musaji points out that other writers -- such as the one at the "Creeping Sharia" blog -- aren't laughing, and the comments attached to them evoke the many recent incidents of anti-Islamic rhetoric or actions.

For example, passions continue to churn in Florida over a Gainesville church that has been sending some of its children to area schools wearing shirts that say "Islam is of the Devil." The children were sent home for violating the schools' dress codes, but the church continues to stage protests and carry signs with slogans like "Islam Kills" and "Jesus is not a liberal."

And the anniversary of 9/11 coming just before the end of Ramadan, which was marked by a commemorative stamp and an iftar dinner at the White House, prompted numerous viral e-mails and blog postings critical of Muslims and Islam. (It doesn't help that many still think President Obama is a Muslim, and forget that it was George W. Bush who began hosting a Ramadan iftar, which is the meal that breaks the daily fast during the month-long observance.)

On the eve of 9/11, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey showing that nearly six in 10 American adults believe Muslims face more discrimination than other religious groups. Thirty-five percent said it was Jews, while evangelical Christians, atheists and Mormons all came in around 25 percent. (Only gays and lesbians were seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims.)

But nearly 40 percent of Americans also agreed with the statement that Islam is "more likely to encourage violence than other faiths."

In light of those numbers and stories like the suspected al Qaeda-connected terror case stretching from Colorado to New York City, as well as the ongoing conflicts with the Taliban in Afghanistan and extremists in Iraq, it is easy to see why Musaji concludes that "it simply isn't the right time or the right place for such an event."

But organizers and supporters of "Islam on Capitol Hill" are having none of it.

"There is no turning back," Hassen Abdellah, president of the Dar-ul-Islam mosque in New Jersey and a main organizer of the event, told me on Wednesday.

Abdellah had just met with Capitol Hill police regarding security procedures and with sound technicians who will help broadcast the prayers. The organizers have a permit to gather at the West Front of the Capitol from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. but the main event will run from 1-2 p.m., the time of the principle Friday prayer service for Muslims.

"When Barack Obama ran for president everyone said that it wasn't a good time. So what's the difference?" Abdellah said. ("And no, President Obama is not coming," he added pointedly. "And he is not a Muslim.")

Abdellah argued that Muslims would be gathering to pray, not to protest -- and that the audience is also beyond the U.S. borders. "We will be there to promote America to the world, to show the world that we (American Muslims) are not oppressed...We think this is a free country and we want to show that."

Ibrahim Hooper, chief spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American Relations, or CAIR, a leading Muslim advocacy group, said he sees the Friday event as an extension of other Islamic celebrations that have been going on in Washington and elsewhere for years.

"What is significant about this event is that it is being seized upon by a cottage industry of Internet hatemongers who want to disenfranchise the American Muslim community," said Hooper, who cannot attend the event because he will be traveling. "People shouldn't stop doing things based on the hatred and bigotry of others. The civil rights movement did not stop moving forward just because racists didn't like it."

In his post at Beliefnet, Aziz Poonawalla raised concerns that the event is the brainchild of a few mosques in New Jersey, most notably Dar-ul-Islam, and that there was not enough vetting of speakers and organizers.

That concern may already be coming back to haunt organizers: opponents are noting that Abdellah, an attorney, represented Arab Muslims charged in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and was described by the New York Times as the "most aggressively combative of the lawyers" representing the defendants, who were eventually convicted.

In 2004 Abdellah also represented Numan Maflahi, a New Jersey Muslim tied to al-Qaeda fundraising. After Maflahi's conviction he told Judge Nina Gershon of Federal District Court in Brooklyn that the sentence she doled out would be a test of whether "this country could be fair to Arab-Americans."

Abdellah's client was given five years, the maximum sentence.

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