Washington, Oct. 31-(UPI) Season's greetings in Arabic calligraphy welcome the visitors to this site. Another corner displays 11 beautiful pictures of mosques in the United States. Yet another corner offers the religious landscape of the United States in English, French, Russian and Spanish languages.

Yet the Web site that offers all this is run by a secular institution--the U.S. State Department, which is running a $15 million campaign to befriend Muslims in the United States and abroad.

The department's campaign coincides with the advent of Ramadan, which begins next week. During this month Muslims around the world fast from dawn to dusk and spend their evenings praying to God.

The department hopes that a message of peace sent during Ramadan would help improve relations with Muslim nations, some of which are often hostile to the United States. As part of the campaign, supervised by Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, the department has prepared four television commercials aimed at providing a better understanding of Islam in America.

Each about two minutes long, the ads explain "what kind of a society we are, how we treat people," says the department's spokesman Richard Boucher. "The goal is to use the period of Ramadan to play these ads because there's a tradition of people telling the story of Islam in their country during the month of Ramadan," Boucher said.

He said the United States was under no illusions that the ads would stop suicide bombers by showing Islamic militants the United States was tolerant of their religion. "But there are an awful lot of people who need to know more about the United States," he said. "What they think they know about the United States is based on distorted images and rumor ... and that it's good for us to tell them our story."

The spots feature a doctor, Elias Zerhouni, the Algerian-born director of the National Institutes of Health; a Libyan-born baker, Abdul Hammuda of Toledo, Ohio; a Lebanese-born teacher, Rawia Ismail of Toledo; and a medic with the New York Fire Department, Farouk Muhammad. They were produced in conjunction with the Council of American Muslims for Understanding, a nonprofit, nonpolitical group which aims at providing a better understanding of Islam in America.

One of the articles on the Web site deals with the general misconceptions about Islam in the West, particularly in the United States. Making a distinction between Islam as a religion and culture and the politics of the Islamic groups, the article points out that "to say that Islam is responsible for terrorists is just as incorrect as the assertion that Christianity produced the Nazis."

Quoting Bernard Lewis, a retired professor of Near East studies at Princeton University in New Jersey, the article says that there's an "enormous amount of shared heritage, shared belief and shared customs" between the Islamic and Western cultures. "There are still significant numbers, in some quarters perhaps a majority, of Muslims with whom we share certain basic cultural and moral, social and political beliefs and aspirations," Lewis said. "Remember, we are talking about one and a third billion people; about more than 14 centuries of history; and about an enormous diversity of differing and often even conflicting traditions within the same larger culture."

Another article on the State Department's Web Site quotes a Muslim-American leader of an Islamic think tank as saying that problems such as terrorism and violence plaguing the Muslim world have "only one way out--democracy."

Radwan Masmoudi, executive director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, says that the Islamic world is in a state of disarray because of confrontation between extremist religious movements that see themselves as the "defenders of Islam" and authoritarian political regimes that claim to be "defenders of modernity." Masmoudi says authoritarian attempts to impose Islam or modernity are dead ends.

Yet another article tells the readers that Islamic financial institutions are expanding in the United States to meet the needs of a growing American Muslim population. "The Islamic banking investment and financial management market is growing at a rate of 15 percent per year, currently operates in 75 countries and accounts for around US$200 billion," said the article. "Nearly one-quarter of all Islamic financial institutions are working in countries that do not have Muslim majorities," including the United States.

Islamic banking and finance, a modern movement that began in the 1960s, embraces Islamic ethical principles (Shariah), which prohibit paying or charging interest, and prevent investment in unethical sectors and industries that produce pornography, alcoholic beverages, gambling and other morally questionable practices.

Financing businesses projects according to Shariah is based on installment sale, leasing and/or equity participation. This allows the Islamic banks and their depositors to share their financial risk with the entrepreneurs and together reap the benefits of investment. The practice of profit sharing essentially means that wealth creation should be the result of a partnership between investors and entrepreneurs in which the risks and rewards are shared.

"Thirty percent of the 7 million American Muslims (who account for 2 percent of the U.S. population) want to adhere to strict Islamic principles when dealing with their finances," says Abdulkader Thomas, a principal consultant at Strategic Guidance LLC. "Two percent of the U.S. population is not a small number, and 30 percent of that is not an undesirable market," he adds.

On the right-hand corner, the State Department's Web site has the picture of a stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service on Sept. 1, 2001, which says: "Eid mubarak," or "May your religious holiday be blessed." The Eid stamp, honoring Muslim feast days known as Eid and which marks the end of Ramadan, was reissued Oct. 10, 2002.

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