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A Milestone for Muslims

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imam Abdul Karim Hasan converted to Islam 42 years ago, when being a Muslim meant being viewed as a heathen, a threat, an outcast. Back then, Muslim holy days passed quietly in the Islamic community, mostly unnoticed by the rest of the nation.

“It only made us work harder to make the public aware of Islam as one of the world’s revealed religions,” said Hasan, who heads the Bilal Islamic Center at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Central Avenue in Los Angeles. “I’ve seen the change from just ignoring Islam altogether, to rejecting it, to tolerating it, and now recognizing it. As a religion and as a community, we have come a long way.”

Just how far they have come will be evident in the nation’s capital this week when the White House hosts a celebration Thursday of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Muslim holy month Ramadan. This year’s celebration, an outgrowth of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efforts, has been hailed as an indication of a move toward greater acceptance of Muslims.

The White House has selected two Los Angeles-based groups--the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Muslim Women’s League--to help organize Thursday’s celebration.

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“For the first lady of the United States to recognize the significant contributions of Muslims in America helps the process of mutual understanding among America’s religious groups,” said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “It helps combat a number of stereotypes about Muslims because we are now putting a human face on Islam.”

Although attendance at the White House celebration will be limited to about 100 people, the impact of the event is being felt throughout the Muslim community. The celebration is not only helping to redefine the way other Americans view Muslims, but the way Muslims in the United States view themselves.

Aside from the political and social implications of the White House event, “people are excited by the fact that something that means so much to us is now being shared with other people,” said Al-Marayati’s wife, Laila, who heads the Muslim Women’s League.

Ramadan is the holiest of months for Muslims, the month the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. During this time the faithful fast and restrain from other sensual pleasures from dawn until sunset each day.

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The month is a time of reflection, constraint and compassion for the poor. The Eid al-Fitr, a joyous three-day event, marks the successful completion of the month. It is a time when families gather for prayers, meals and renewing their bonds. “It’s a form of rejuvenation and spiritual recharging that gets you through the rest of the year,” said Laila Al-Marayati.

The White House celebration of the Eid comes after years of efforts to educate the public about Islam and a specific effort to encourage recognition of Ramadan, said Khaled Saffouri of the American Muslim Council, a Washington-based educational organization.

“The Bush administration was not receptive,” Saffouri said. “They would not return phone calls or answer letters.”

After Saffouri organized an observance in the U.S. Senate in 1996 and personally invited the first lady, her aides asked him to organize a similar event at the White House.

Although hastily planned, that first observance left a deep impression on the Muslim community in the United States and abroad, Saffouri said. The event was widely discussed within Muslim communities nationwide and covered in the foreign press.

“This was the first time the Muslim community was acknowledged by any administration,” Saffouri said. “Muslims felt someone invited them, included them and appreciated them for the first time. It was a historic event for Muslims worldwide.

“Because of political conflicts in other countries, lots of Muslims feel that America is anti-Muslim or hates Muslims. This helped clarify things and showed this is not true.”

The hope, Saffouri and others said, is that the White House observance will ultimately lead to an increased understanding. They said they hope that the celebration will help Muslims in the United States create their own identity, rather than be defined by the images and actions of Muslims abroad--particularly those involved in conflicts with the United States.

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In the past, Muslims have been faced “with a false choice between being American and being Muslim,” Salam Al-Marayati said. “We’re trying to forge the identity of being an American Muslim.”

At Los Angeles’ Bilal Islamic Center when Muslims break the fast each evening, the community is invited. The homeless, hungry and curious enjoy a free meal, and hear the prayers and teachings each night of Ramadan.

“The non-Muslims look forward to Ramadan because they know there will be an increased focus on charity,” said Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope. “They’re aware of Muslims and Ramadan. They might not understand all the dynamics, but they’re aware.”

Like other Muslims, Ali intensifies his charitable efforts during Ramadan, delivering food and clothes to the homeless, visiting hospitals and speaking to at-risk youths. He remembers when he was one of those youths.

“Before I converted to Islam I was tearing up the community,” he said.

Hasan said there are an estimated 8 million to 12 million Muslims in the United States and that 2 million to 3 million are African Americans.

“The influence of this group reaches far beyond the number,” Hasan said. “They have families, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.

“At first, when we accepted Islam, our parents used to oppose us,” Hasan said. “When they couldn’t shake us from our new beliefs, they would ask the grandfathers and grandmothers to come talk sense into our heads. If they failed, they would ask aunts and uncles, cousins.”

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But with time families began to realize that, far from being a threat to family stability, the convert’s behavior had changed for the better, he said. The Koran teaches respect for parents and other tenets that are “right in accord with what I was taught by my parents in the South,” Hasan said.

And the lessons of Ramadan, with its emphasis on self-control and the power of the human will, can benefit anyone, he said.

“If we can abstain from things that are necessary for a healthy life--food, water, relations with husbands and wives--there’s nothing we cannot control,” Hasan said. “We can certainly break any habits we may have that may not be good for us.”

The Muslim presence in the American political arena has increased, contributing to the nation’s awareness of Islam. Muslims from Southern California have participated in a White House conference on hate crimes and sit on an advisory board on religious freedom abroad. In 1995 Laila Marayati was named to the official U.S. delegation to the U.N. International Conference on Women in Beijing. In 1996 the first lady told the Muslim Women’s League in Los Angeles that Islam is “a guide and pillar of stability for many of our people.”

Salam Al-Marayati said organizations in Southern California’s Muslim community have “established a strong record of commitment to the national interests of the United States, along with a really deep-seated allegiance to our faith.”

At the White House on Thursday, Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California will deliver a sermon that expresses “our gratitude that at long last Muslims are being accepted and welcomed as a normal and integral part of American society . . . and that there is a place in the White House and the heart of America for all American citizens, irrespective of religious, ethnic or color background.”


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