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U.S. Muslims put cartoon dispute in perspective


In a rear room of a stately old house at the far end of West North Avenue, about 30 Muslims gathered for Friday prayer service.

The congregation was made up of black Americans. A young black man in dreadlocks walked to the front of the room and sang the opening prayer in Arabic. The Muslims intermittently prayed by either bending over at the waist and touching their knees or by dropping to their knees and placing their foreheads on the floor.

They're as devout a group of Muslims as anywhere else in the world. And they're just as offended by the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers that has led to rioting in the Muslim world. (No images of the Prophet Muhammad, offensive or otherwise, are permitted in Islam.) But rioting was the last thing on their minds.

"They're hurt," Earl El-Amin, the resident imam at the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, said of the protesting and rioting Muslims. "They're torn up. They don't know how to really process this thing. Because the people that they were supposed to ask how they processed it - the people who were the last ones to get the Quran on the planet - they never asked them the question. They never asked them the question, 'Brother, how did you get through this here?'"

Those "last ones to get the Quran" that El-Amin referred to are black Americans who embrace Islam. To understand El-Amin's remarks in their full context, you have to know the history from which his congregation sprang.

El-Amin and his congregation follow the leadership of W. D. Muhammad. For years, W.D. Muhammad was known as Wallace Muhammad, the son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. When the elder Muhammad died in 1975, Wallace Muhammad assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam.

Some agreed with that choice. Others - most notably Louis Farrakhan, leader of one of at least two sects of a new Nation of Islam - did not. But few could argue that, in the 1960s when Malcolm X was chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam, the organization went through a period when some of its members embraced fanaticism. And perhaps even fewer could argue that in those times of fanaticism it was Wallace Muhammad who was the voice of reason in the Nation of Islam.

W.D. Muhammad changed the name of the Nation of Islam and had his followers embrace orthodox Islam. He steered his sect toward a more mainstream, pro-American course. But his followers still remember their roots as black Americans, roots that El-Amin emphasized in his sermon last Friday.

"You have a group of people who are hurt and angry," El-Amin said of the Muslims protesting the cartoons. "And the only way that they can receive attention in the world is through what they perceive as protest. Well, because of the experience that you and I have gone through, and those before us have gone through, we already understood that there were cartoons about us: darkies, Sambo. You were called demeaning names."

Others in El-Amin's congregation felt similarly.

"We're taught to think about the situation and then react to it," said Hakim Scott. "We can't get upset and angry every time someone attacks the prophet of Islam. We'd be fighting every day." Patricia Salaam nodded her agreement with Scott.

"We have forged our way," said Hakim Ali. "We have been molded just like steel. We have learned not to be so sensitive to those issues."

Daralyn Hassan feels that where Muslims live might determine their reaction.

"Being in America helps to keep us a bit more balanced," Hassan said. "Even though I never did see the cartoon, I can see it being offensive. But it was a very small thing. It's not going to make or break anyone's life."

Hassan drove home a point that shows how well she and others in her congregation have kept the cartoon controversy in perspective. Her remarks should give pause to all those who feel Westerners have done all the offending.

"There have been things," Hassan said, "printed in the Muslim world that have been offensive."

Rioting Muslims and the clerics who encourage them - who probably don't even make up 1 percent of the world's estimated 1 billion Muslims - have demanded apologies and self-censorship from the West when it comes to Islam. Don't expect anything like a quid pro quo from them regarding what their newspapers print.

"They stay hung up on the physical," E. Abdul-Saboor said of what, for lack of a better term, I'll call "high-dudgeon Muslims."

That may be true of the rioters, but the clerics and others encouraging them clearly have an agenda more political than religious. The riots and reaction to the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad might have more to do with the ire of a minority of Muslims toward the West, in general, and toward the United States and Israel, in particular, than with any perceived or real insult to their religion.


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