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Muslims Struggle for Understanding in US - 2004-09-21

Some religious experts say there is an ongoing struggle within Islam, between those who believe the faith must be more open and inclusive, and those who fear such moves turn Muslims away from the "true teachings." They say the struggle extends even to Muslims living in the United States. But in the Detroit, Michigan, suburb of Dearborn, home to one of the largest populations of Arabs and Muslims outside of the Middle East, clerics say efforts to show the true face of Islam frequently involve opposition to America's foreign policies as well. At a recent campaign stop near Detroit, President Bush used the stump speech he's honed since the September 11 attacks. The U.S., he says, is bringing democracy to the Middle East AND making America more secure in the process.

"A free and peaceful Iraq... a free and peaceful Afghanistan... will be powerful examples in a part of the world that is desperate for freedom. Free nations do not export terror," he said.

But recent polls suggest that even in Detroit, where people brush shoulders daily with thousands of Arabs in next-door Dearborn, many Americans believe that Muslim nations do export terror, and that there is a direct connection between terrorist violence and the teachings of Islam. In the days after the World Trade Centers fell, many conservative media broadcasts painted Islam as an "evil" religion requiring followers to kill. It left leaders of Muslim community groups in Dearborn, like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's Imad Hamad, with something to prove.

"The national tragedy of September 11 truly tarnished the image of Islam by the name of the few terrorists who committed that horrible acts," says Mr. Hamad. "The Muslim-American community felt compelled to respond and to be more open-minded and more determined to set the record straight. And not to judge any faith, regardless of what it is, by the few who might be extremists or be too conservative."

In fact, some Muslim clerics in Dearborn are working like never before to expose Islam to the masses.

The American Muslim Center in Dearborn was once an abandoned church. But Imam Mohammed Mardini remodeled it three years ago. Recently, he's also been working hard to put a new gloss on his faith. Over the vocal objections of some elderly members of his congregation, Imam Mardini allowed women to break Islamic tenets by not covering their hair in public and to enter the mosque through doors typically reserved for men.

Imam Mardini says, especially after the September 11 attacks, Muslims need to help their neighbors to understand this complex religion.

"Even the Muslims who come, born and raised here, they learned their life and they are all-American. But they are Muslim and they go everywhere," he says. "But they choose not to cover their hair. Are they disbelievers? No! God said to them to cover, but if they don't this is their choice. Our duty for them, to remind them, to admonish them...Not to fight with them or isolate them or say they are not a"

The Imam admits it's hard for the most conservative of his congregation to accept change, when some persistently believe the war in Iraq and against terror are signs that the U.S. wants to wipe out all Muslims. "Many of these people, they don't understand the system," he adds. "Many of these people, they may have felt like this is directed against them. But I tell them, we all in the same boat, whether they emigrated today or emigrated 20 years [ago] or [their ancestors] emigrated 150 years [ago]. And I will say this, liberty and freedom has a price to be paid for."

Yet according to one of the oldest, most revered clerics in Dearborn, a man known by many as the "Godfather of Imams," there's also a cost if Muslims stray too far from the strictest of their teachings. But Abdul Latif Berry says Muslims CAN obey both Islamic law and the rules of the west.

"When the Muslim woman has a scarf, for instance, all of them work freely while they follow the rules of Islam, as they following the laws here," he explains. Still, Berry agrees with his fellow Imam Mardini, that moderate Islamic leaders must publicly define the principles of their faith to counter extremists who have been using Islam to justify their acts of terrorism.

Imam Berry says Islam expressly forbids killing children or kidnapping and executing innocents, acts carried out with appalling frequency by insurgents from Iraq to Chechnya. On a recent visit to his native Lebanon, Imam Berry says many people told him they were just as concerned about the devastating impact of U.S. military actions than by the violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. To allay those fears, Imam Berry says, Muslims in the Middle East need exposure to the reality of a tolerant, open and democratic America. "To breathe America like air. Not to feel afraid from America," he says. "This is very important. The message of America, according to my understanding, is to attract people in the world, to let people love America. It's why I think most of the people in the world has some connection with America."

But Imam Berry says too many Muslims he's seen, in Lebanon and Dearborn, have become disillusioned by a U.S. foreign policy they no longer regard as a beacon for justice and peace.

"Step by step, maybe during 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, we can find [a] good result," he adds. "But to make war and force people to do something like this, it's impossible. You will put America in the corner, in the spot. This is what we fear right now. Because this kind of action can make terrorism. So it's what we see in Iraq."

Instead, the Imam says, the United States should cooperate with countries surrounding Iraq to find a joint solution to create a stable country. But some of those nations have been cited by the Bush administration for harboring terrorists. As a result, U.S. policy analysts say, regional cooperation is unlikely anytime soon. So Imams in Dearborn, from fundamentalists like Abdul Latif Berry to moderates like Imam Mohammed Mardini, say they will battle the taint of extremism in Islam by trying to ensure that their mosques are as open as is humanly possible.