WASHINGTON — Swapping prayer rugs for massive plastic rain tarps, an estimated 3,500 Muslims gathered at the foot of the U.S. Capitol on Friday (Sept. 25) to pray for “the soul of America” in a grassroots demonstration of religious and national pride.
The rally, organized by the Dar-Ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth, N.J., was billed as regular Friday “jummah” prayers, but it quickly became a chance for rank-and-file Muslims to publicly witness to their faith and claim their place as American citizens.
“Islam and Muslims will never ever give to America anything except the best,” said Hamad Chebli, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick, N.J. “Islam and America will never ever bring anything from their homelands, from their countries, except the best.”
Participants were told that the “Islam on Capitol Hill” rally would not be a political event, and were advised to leave their protest signs at home. Indeed, the only protests came from a few dozen vocal Christian demonstrators with bullhorns shouting from the sidelines.
“The political stuff is not what we’re here for,” said Ahmed Bashir of Newark, N.J., wearing a sweatshirt that said “The Quran: Learn It, Love It, Live It.” “This is not a political statement; this is just our Friday prayers.”
The crowd fell far short of the 50,000 participants organizers had planned for. The event was pulled together without the endorsement of major U.S. Muslim groups, and the two Muslim members of Congress — Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana — did not attend.
The event was bare bones, with no stage, an uncooperative sound system and constant pleas from organizers for attendees to sit down and stop talking. Men sat on the left, and women on the right, as participants performed ritual pre-prayer washing with plastic bottles of water.
But participants said the low attendance numbers and lack of organizational support did not distract from the enthusiasm they felt for being part of the first-ever Friday prayers on the Capitol grounds.
Many said the event may help ease concerns about America’s increasingly visible Muslim population.
“I love this flag,” said Azizah Abdullah of Rustburg, Va., who wore a stars-and-stripes hijab around her head. “This is my flag, too.”
Speakers at the rally deliberately downplayed politics, sensitive topics and mentions of terrorism. Abdul Malik, a frequent preacher at mosques in New Jersey and New York, voiced praise for President Obama and urged Muslim doctors to provide free medical care, but largely steered clear of hot-button issues.
At the same time, participants said they wanted the rally to showcase the diversity and patriotism of U.S. Muslims, as well as dispel myths about a faith that is still foreign to many Americans.
“We are here for the Muslims, but we’re also here for humanity,”
said Rachel Foye, a Muslim convert from Newark. “We’re here to be part of the solution, not the problem.” Her friend, Hamidah Abdullah, piped in, saying, “And to show that we’re not terrorists. Islam means peace.”
Still, not everyone was convinced. Vocal Christian protesters carried signs reading “Islam Is A Lie” and argued with Capitol Police who tried to keep them at a distance. Critics had accused the event’s chief organizer, attorney Hassen Abdellah, of defending terrorists in court.
On Thursday evening, officials from the Family Research Council and the National Day of Prayer Task Force hosted a national call-in prayer-a-thon in which one woman prayed, “We take together (God’s) sword and break the sword of Islam over this nation, and we loose forth the blood-drenched sword of Jesus Christ.”
Organizers of the call introduced a girl identified as Rifqa Bary, the 17-year-old Ohio girl at the center of a custody dispute after she converted to Christianity, fled to Florida and sought shelter from a Christian pastor and his wife. The girl grew emotional when she was asked to pray for Muslims to embrace Christianity.
“I cry out on behalf of my people, Jesus,” she prayed. “Would you expose the lies… send forth fire from heaven and… break their hardened hearts.”
Addressing the handful of Christian protesters at the rally, Abdellah pleaded for understanding.
“We would never come to a prayer meeting that you have to make a disturbance,” he said. “Please show some respect because for us, this is a sacred moment on a sacred day. Just as your Sunday is sacred, our Friday is sacred.”
In his sermon, Malik, the New York preacher, denounced violence in the name of Islam, or any religion, and said “We Muslims must seek the higher ground.” He also appealed to Muslims to become more visible in their schools, jobs and communities.
“America is not perfect,” he said, “but there is nowhere else on the planet where we could do what we’re doing here today.”
By KEVIN ECKSTROM
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.