Beliefnet
Seattle, Nov. 12--(AP) When John Muhammad was arrested in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks, Muslims in and around Seattle recoiled. Despite Muhammad's ties to this northwestern state, Muslims here said they had never heard of him, and they emphatically said he doesn't represent them.

But the Muslim community here has become so big and so diverse, it is getting harder to say exactly who or what represents the area's Muslims. In the early 1960s, Muslims in Seattle all knew each other by name and could fit comfortably in the church basement where they met for prayers. Since then, the Muslim community has grown to more than 30,000 people of different races and nationalities - some immigrants, some American-born - worshipping at 14 mosques of differing degrees of orthodoxy.

After Sept. 11, local Muslims grew used to answering questions, sometimes hostile ones, about their religion. The questions returned on the Sept. 11 anniversary, with the recent arrest of Seattle Muslim James Ujaama on terrorism charges, and now with the arrest of Muhammad, a black Muslim convert who lived in Tacoma and Bellingham in Washington state as recently as last winter.

But the area's Muslims cannot answer as one. The community has grown far too diverse for Seattle-area Muslims to speak with a single voice. "The Muslims have been pretty divided ethnically," said Ann El-Moslimany, a Muslim convert and the wife of one of Seattle's first Muslim immigrants. "In the old days all the Muslims were together because there were so few of us."

Muhammad, for example, is a black convert to Islam who belonged to the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. Mainstream Muslims reject the U.S.-based Nation of Islam's beliefs as heresy.

As for Ujaama, a black Muslim convert from Seattle, some black leaders in the city praised his anti-drug work, but he barely registered with the mainstream Muslim community, which considered his Dar-us-Salaam mosque extremist. Several members of the now-defunct mosque have been investigated for possible terrorist ties.

One thing many Seattle-area Muslims share is a frustration about how the media portrays their religion. Aziz Junejo, the 42-year-old host of a cable-access show called "Focus on Islam," said strangers ask about his religion often, and he is happy to tell people about his Islam - not the twisted version of serial snipers or suicide bombers. "We're in the spotlight now," he said, "and I think that's good."

The local Muslim community has grown up along with Junejo. He was a toddler when his father, a Boeing engineer from Pakistan, moved the family here in 1962. They were one of three Muslim families. Later they established a mosque in a house at Sea-Tac. It still exists, and gets so crowded at Friday prayers that people pray outside in the yard.

The 1970s saw an influx of Arab-born engineers who worked at Boeing Co., a longtime Seattle anchor before moving to Chicago. Cham refugees, a Muslim minority from Cambodia, also arrived in Seattle and settled in a mobile home park in south Puget Sound.

In the '80s, many Pakistanis came to work in high-tech jobs and built a mosque in a suburb north of Seattle. Bosnian Muslims came to Seattle during the early '90s. In the past few years, Somalian immigrants arrived en masse, many settling in south Seattle.

About 90 percent of Muslims in the Seattle area are immigrants. Even within the many ethnic groups, Muslims are split between young and old, modern and traditional, liberal and conservative. El-Moslimany, founder and former principal of the Islamic School of Seattle, has seen some of those divisions. Some Muslim immigrant parents want their children to get a secular American education; others complain the school is too American. El-Moslimany wishes the community could recapture some of the unity it had in 1963, when she moved here with her Egyptian-born husband.

Junejo said the new Islamic arrivals sometimes remind him of what the more established Muslim community has lost. "The Somalis three years ago, they right away started opening stores and businesses. They started finding all kinds of ways to support one another," he said. "We've lost that sense of real dependence on each other."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus