American Muslims fighting a negative image

By Cathy Lynn Grossman

USA Today

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 26 2011 10:39 p.m. MST

The Qureshi family marches down a suburban Washington street in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

Mustafa Qureshi, a Cub Scout, holds an American flag and his sister, Aisha, joins in reciting King's "I Have a Dream" speech at a community center.

These are the people U.S. Muslims want people to see as their neighbors - not shadowy radicals envisioned by anti-Islamic voices heard coast to coast.

Muslims and those who fear them have news to consider - a study projects the U.S. Muslim population will double in the next two decades.

They will still make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, scattered across a vast continent. Yet this tiny minority gets massive attention.

In August, during the height of controversy over Park51, an Islamic community center and prayer space proposed for two blocks from Ground Zero, 52 percent of 1,029 Americans surveyed by Newsweek said they were worried about "radicals within the U.S. Muslim community."

Last fall, opponents of a mosque planned for Murfreesboro, Tenn., tried unsuccessfully in court to claim Islam is not a religion entitled to constitutional protections.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of American Grace, a book on U.S. religious diversity, found that among all the faith groups, "Muslims were a stand out for unpopularity."

However, in the Newsweek poll, 61 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam, although most (58 percent) said they don't personally know any Muslims.

"Unfortunately, many just think Muslims are living in caves somewhere in the world. They don't realize their own neighbors already are Muslims or there are Muslims praying in their neighborhood," says Wajahat Qureshi, a computer consultant who came to the USA with his family in 1997 and lives in Herndon, Va.

His wife, Shafaq, a physician in their native Kashmir in northern India, is a stay-at-home mom for Mustafa, Aisha and Umaid.

Like their neighbors who pray in evangelical megachurches or massive Catholic parishes, they belong to one of the nation's largest mosques, although Qureshi makes his weekday prayers at one of several Washington-area churches and synagogues that rent to Muslims.

"If Americans get to know Muslims, there won't be any issues, they won't hear about this report and say, 'My God, this should not happen,' " Qureshi says.

That outreach door swings both ways, says Haroon Moghul, director of Maydan, a Manhattan-based Muslim business and government communication group.

Moghul says, "If anything, this report will add to the pressure Muslims feel to prove Islam is part of America. People will do more to put themselves out there in a positive way to widen the American conversation about Islam. More numbers mean more chances to be a positive force."

Rizwan Jaka agrees. He is a lay leader in the All Dulles Area Muslims Society (ADAMS), in Herndon, Va., who marched with the Qureshis last week.

The ADAMS mosque, which includes nearly 7,000 families using 10 prayer locations, is a snapshot of Muslim diversity.

The ADAMS Center serves immigrants from dozens of nations and both major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite.

Like the younger Qureshi children, Jaka's children attend ADAMS Islamic school.

Jaka says, "99.99 percent of Muslims want what all people of faith want - to have a job, to have food on the table, to have respect and to be good people."

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of Community Outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., sees confrontations over mosques and Muslim civil rights issues as "thresholds we have to cross like others did before us."

Animosity toward Muslims echoes U.S. history: Each new wave of immigrants has been grossly disparaged by those who came before, says political scientist Campbell, co-author of American Grace.

Campbell says, "Much of what we see and hear about Muslims today is what was once said about U.S. Catholics or Jews."

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