Showing 'the face of Islam'

Before the Huntington Beach City Council meets every other week, someone walks up to the podium to lead a prayer after the flag salute.

Prayers in public meetings often end with a phrase like "in Jesus' name," which reflects the country's dominant faith.

But on the day following the announcement of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, a woman in a long, flowing, sky-blue dress and a blue scarf covering her hair walked to the podium. With her head down, she led the prayer.

Maria Khani, a representative of the Islamic faith on the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, didn't lead the prayer on that Monday evening as a result of the news about the killing of an extremist who used her faith to commit terrorist acts that changed the world almost 10 years ago.

In fact, it wasn't Khani's first time leading the prayer at the council meeting.

At first glance, it seemed like a coincidence. But thinking about it, Khani said it was an act of God, who usually works in mysterious ways.

"I said, 'Wow! God wanted me to do the invocation,'" Khani, a Huntington Beach resident, said. "I was thinking to myself on Sunday when the incident happened, and I said, 'Maybe God has a plan. Maybe he wants a Muslim to be in a city hall doing an invocation.'"

Fighting for a voice

Since 9/11, Muslims have been blamed for and associated with actions that they say do not represent their faith. Many have spoken in opposition to Bin Laden and his followers through various media outlets, held community prayers and even prayed at Capitol Hill in solidarity with 9/11 victims' families.

But it always seemed as if their voice was not loud enough or simply not given enough attention, said the Rev. Peggy Price of the Center for Spiritual Living in Seal Beach.

Price, a Huntington Beach resident, is one of the founders of the Interfaith Council.

"Moderate Muslims, most of Muslims, were hijacked on 9/11, but then continued to be hijacked by the media," she said.

Price spoke of the many press conferences and events she attended with Muslims speaking against acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, and the disappointment she felt when the story didn't make the media or only got a few paragraphs in the back of a newspaper.

Khani's presence that night was a subtle reminder to all Americans.

"I'm one of them," she said. "I'm part of this community. I'm part of this society. Nobody forced me to be here. When I took my citizenship and took the oath, I believed in every word I said, and I still do and I'm living by my words."

A push for diversity

It is also what Surf City is all about: including everyone.

While outsiders might know Huntington Beach for its bustling downtown and high surf, deep within lies a diverse community, one that has suffered from high-profile hate crimes but also rejoices in overcoming differences.

Several crimes, including the brutal beating and targeting of gay men and people of color in the city in the mid-1990s, led former Mayors Ralph Bauer, Shirley Dettloff and others to create the Human Relations Task Force.

The Interfaith Council also came from that effort. Its mission is to represent various faiths in the community and build tolerance and respect among people, Price said.

The city approached the Interfaith Council with the task of selecting people of various faiths to lead the invocation before each meeting.

"It was to help set the tone," Price said. "Sometimes the meetings can get very contentious. We try to select people from different religious beliefs so the city can see the diversity that's here."

While it's permissible to use the words "God" or "spirit," those who lead the prayer at City Hall are asked to not use names that are exclusive to specific religions, like Jesus or Allah, although Allah is Arabic for God.

Keeping the prayer inclusive keeps the city within the right guidelines of the Constitution, which prohibits governments from promoting one religion over another, Price said.

It also shows tolerance for one another, said Mayor Joe Carchio.

"I think we set that example," Carchio said. "I think Huntington Beach is pretty tolerant of religion."

'The face of Islam'

While some continue to look at Muslims with suspicion, Khani's prayer at the council meeting is an example of the real story that is being written about Muslims in America today, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"It's a story of Muslims being accepted and recognized as part and parcel of our diverse American religious and social fabric," Ayloush said. "In America, for the most part, the face of Islam is the Muslim teacher, the Muslim doctor, the Muslim member of Congress, the Muslim student, the Muslim neighbor and the Muslim friend. And Bin Laden and his group are becoming and were becoming what they are: mostly an irrelevant, extremist and rejected phenomenon."

As she prayed, Khani, a full-time mom who volunteers with many organizations throughout Orange County, hoped her prayer would mark a new, more peaceful era.

"I was thinking about the words I was saying," she said. "I was thinking that God put me in this place for a reason to say the invocation. We hope this will bring a new beginning, a great beginning."

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