Muslims fight negative perceptions of Islam with strong words and quiet actions


On an early spring morning, there is no soulful call to prayer emanating from the Downtown Islamic Center in Chicago, only the sound of people bustling by on the sidewalk.

Housed in a nondescript office building, the center is devoid of the external trappings of a typical mosque. There are no minarets, no muezzins, and no crescent symbols on top of a dome.


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the singing sounds of prayer in Arabic.

Close to midday, hundreds of people file into the small entryway for the Friday juma’a, or communal prayer. En masse, they ascend the stairs, remove their shoes and perform the ritual washings in male- and female-designated areas, before

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they sit on a carpeted floor to listen to an imam preach.

Then, at the end of the service, the building echoes with rumblings as worshipers move collectively through the Islamic postures of standing, sitting and kneeling, all while facing Mecca.

Almost everyone at the center seems gracious. A man at the reception welcomes anyone who enters to attend the prayer services, and people hold doors open.

In passing, people address one another as “brother” and “sister.”

And after the noon prayer is over, the sound of laughter and conversation comes from a large room where chicken biryani, a traditional Middle Eastern rice dish, is sold in heaping portions on plastic plates.

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exterior of the building and the interior, some Chicago Muslims say the outside world doesn’t always

see the loving, peaceful nature of their religion. They are working to fix that.

A religious ruling, or fatwa, issued on March 2, by a Muslim Pakistani cleric Tahir Al Qadri has received international attention for condemning terrorism in very plain terms. Chicago Muslims say the real news is that the fatwa is not so revolutionary.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations
released a similar statement in 2005, in collaboration with

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Muslim scholars. The statement was direct in its condemnation of terrorism.

“All acts of terrorism targeting civilians are haram (forbidden) in Islam,” it stated.

Amina Sharif, spokeswoman for the American-Islamic council, said she was unsure why this most recent fatwa, or religious ruling, has received so much attention. While she thinks it is important for community members

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to be outspoken in their disapproval of violence, she said it is only half the battle.

“We can condemn terrorism every day in our mosques,” Sharif said. “But if no one’s communicating that to the public it’s not happening.”

The council is a national civil rights and legal advocacy group. The Chicago branch has taken up cases such as that of Amal Abusumayah, who was assaulted at a Tinley Park grocery store for wearing a headscarf. Another woman shopper made a derogatory comment and pulled her headscarf, days after Nidal Malik Hasan, a soldier of Middle-Eastern descent, opened fire at Fort Hood in November of last year.

Chicago has also recently seen the arrest of two local men on charges of terrorism. David Headley and Tawwahur Rana were accused of involvement with the 2008 Mumbai attacks

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Because the Council on American-Islamic Relations deals with the fallout from both such instances, they address both sides of the issue.

The council’s mission is, by necessity, two-part, Sharif said. They give hate-crime and discrimination victims a voice, and to stop the cycle of hate, they work to educate the public about Islam and positive things Muslims are doing.

In 2007, there were more than 1.8 million Muslims living in the U.S., according to CIA fact book estimates.

Al-Qadri, a Pakistani cleric, issued the fatwa, or religious ruling, in London. In it, he denounced any acts of terrorism or suicide

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bombings committed in the name of Islam. His message reached beyond the confines of the Muslim community, thanks to international media attention.

The 600-page treatise has also received praise from Muslim communities from the Phillipines to the U.K. It has been praised as a comprehensive argument against those who justify terrorism with Islam.

“The killing of Muslims and the perpetration of terrorism are not only unlawful and forbidden in Islam” the statement reads, “but also represents
the rejection of faith.”

Abdul Malik Mujahid is a Chicago imam and president of Sound Vision, a business that specializes in selling Islamic products and providing information about Islam. Its Web site is an amalgam of marketing and religion, selling everything from floral hijabs, or head coverings, to educational software about the Quran.

On a recent Friday, he gave a sermon about the virtues of patience at the Downtown Islamic Center. He implored worshippers to practice it like a sport.

“If you don’t swim, you don’t get better at swimming,” he said. “Patience is like that.”

When it comes to changing the face of Islam, Malik said patience is

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important. He is skeptical about any effects the fatwa might have locally. This most recent condemnation, he said, is only one in a long line of statements Muslim scholars have issued against acts of violence.

“Condemning terrorism and issuing fatwas – this is nothing new,” he said, adding that there have been hundreds against terrorism issued since the Sept. 11 attacks.

A fatwa is

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any ruling issued by a Muslim authority. Clerics, imams and organizations can make them about nearly any topic.

The trouble, Malik said, is that one terrorist can erase the accomplishments of a thousand such statements. When an act of violence occurs, he said, it trumps any words of peace.

“What impact will it have here?” he asked.

He shook his head,

answering his own question.

Terrorists and extremists will not be deterred by the fatwa, he said. They will continue to commit acts of violence, because they see people in their community suffering. He sited the huge numbers of refugees and the deaths of civilians caused by war as the real spark for extremism.

“They need to recognize the human cost of war and

suffering,” he said. “Only then can you stop the terrorist rhetoric.”

It is crucial, he said, for all religions and governments to recognize that it is trauma from war that leads people to commit acts of terror

“Now I’m looking for all the clergy to come together in America to condemn war,” he said. “My request is for the Christian clergy to issue a fatwa against war.”

Mohammed Sahloul, chairman of the

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Council of Islamic Organizations, said that he saw nothing surprising about the fatwa.

“That is our position,” he said. “We are against killing innocent people.”

The real way, Sahloul said, to combat Islamophobia and change people’s minds, is through community action.

Initiatives like the “Green Ramadan Campaign,” which encourages Muslims to reduce energy consumption during their holy fast, he said, are what will ultimately reflect on the Muslim community here.

“We always believe that action will show the true faith of the community, not words,” he said.

After a Friday prayer service, Fatih Turk, a student at Kaplan language school, stood outside the Islamic center waiting for

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When asked to elaborate on why, he had a simple answer.

“If you believe in God, then all

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