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Muslims work to connect, educate

The Baltimore Sun

The first time the Howard County Muslim Council held its food drive, the response was limited.

But last year, "I put up fliers in my neighborhood and people bring the food to my doorstep," said Anwer Hasan, a Clarksville resident and president of the Maryland Muslim Council. And as they handed out information at a local supermarket, people told them, "We'll be waiting for you on Sunday."

"We want that kind of connectivity and relationship," Hasan said, "so that the people feel comfortable with each other and not necessarily fearful of each other."

Muslims statewide are organizing councils on the county level to interact with their local leaders and to improve understanding of Islam within their communities.

"We understand how the system works," Hasan said. "In order to get your policies adopted or implemented, you need to work at different levels."

Akbar Ansari, the president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council, agreed. "The basic concept is to promote activism in Muslims on the social level and the political level as well," he said.

The three more established councils in Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties will begin holding their annual food drives this weekend. They will be joined by members of Muslim councils organized this year in Frederick County, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County.

The events are scheduled days before the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks Tuesday.

"Since Sept. 11 happened, we thought in general in the media and in other areas there is kind of a negative face of some of the minority people that really disfigured the face of the community at large," said Rizwan Siddiqi, a member of the board of the Anne Arundel Muslim Council.

The group elected officers Tuesday and is completing paperwork for incorporation.

The council's "goals and mission is more community welfare and community interaction and less focused on religious activities, from that point of view," said Siddiqi.

"The situation in this country is such that Muslims have been stereotyped now by the media," said Dr. Syed Haque, president of the Frederick County Muslim Council. "Every Muslim is a terrorist until proven otherwise."

Though the mosque in Frederick County, the Islamic Society of Frederick, has been involved in interfaith activities, "I felt there should be a political wing of that as well," Haque said. But religious groups cannot conduct political activity and maintain their nonprofit status, he said.

"We have to tell the people that Muslims living in Frederick County are involved in the socioeconomic well-being of the county, and do that in a way that is acceptable for the non-Muslims in the county as well," Haque said.

In addition to elected officials, the councils also work with local school systems and police departments. For example, Omar Davis of the City of Baltimore Muslim Council, which formed about six months ago, described how police officials approached some gas station owners to help deter crime at those areas.

"That's something we want to continue, at convenience stores as well," he said.

This year, the food drives also fall near the start of the month of Ramadan, during which time Muslims abstain from food and water during daylight hours.

While the Howard and Montgomery councils will hold picnics and food drives this weekend, the Baltimore County council plans to hold an event the next weekend, during Ramadan.

By helping Muslims help others, they help them live their faith, Ansari said. "Where you live, you need to be involved in the affairs of the community," he said, recalling a saying: "If your neighbor goes hungry and you have food yourself, that food is no good for you."

"You are obligated to also make sure your neighbor has something to eat. You need to worry about your neighbors in your community," he said.

And by getting to know their elected leaders, they can participate in the process.

"We have to be part of the game," Ansari said.

That integration is a key part of the process. "My kid is 9 years old," Haque said. "When he grows older, I don't want him to feel like an alien. I want him feeling exactly like an American."

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