By Daniel Strieff PARIS – Mustapha Tougui says he has the Quran in his blood. The Moroccan-born, Saudi-educated lecturer at the Muslim theological institute at the Paris Grand Mosque uses earthy language as he tries to preserve what he calls his students’ spiritual hygiene. His enthusiasm is infectious. “If you eat always your mother’s cooking, what a pity. I like other cooking, and Islam invites me (to appreciate) that. Islam shows me that,” Tougui said as his students laughed. “The situation is a bit difficult now because (terrorists) give us an image and it’s too difficult to clean … this dirt from the image of Islam.” The government hopes that moderates like Tougui at this Algerian government-funded mosque will play a leading role as this country tries to forge a so-called French Islam – one that is not only compatible with Islamic tradition but also palatable to the French government, mainstream society and, not least of all, Muslims themselves. The mosque is serving as a kind of incubator for a moderate strain of France’s second religion, which the government hopes will head off any drift toward radicalism within Europe’s largest Muslim minority. “We are an open Islam,” Dr. Djelloul Seddiki, the head of the theological institute at the mosque, said. “But there are other Islams in France,” including fundamentalists and radicals, he said. The Paris Grand Mosque oversees the affairs of around 400 of the 1,800 facilities described as mosques throughout France, which can include simple one-room structures. The head of the mosque, Dr. Dalil Boubakeur, described by the Le Monde newspaper as “the ideal Muslim,” is the most prominent Muslim in France and a friend of President Jacques Chirac. “We prefer that [the radicals] are inside than outside, because it keeps them close,” Seddiki said. “The best defense is education.” That’s where Tougui comes in. The 56-year-old’s courses are open to all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The mosque’s theological institute also runs courses that it hopes will train a new generation of French-born imams, which is a hot topic in France. “I hope to bestow the right religion so that they can educate themselves. I want to preserve them from spiritual pollution,” Tougui said. “Unfortunately you have very few teacher-lecturers who know how to lecture. They have gold in their hands, but they don’t know how to manage it,” he said. France, along with other countries across Europe, is eager to limit its dependence on foreign imams. “In the mosque, if the imam is not a French citizen and if he does not speak French, you can not speak about a ‘French Islam’,” Seddiki said. […]
DETROIT – It was an image of Islam that might have startled many Americans: a young Muslim woman wearing a traditional head scarf standing in the center of a chandeliered banquet hall singing the U.S. national anthem. “It saddens me,” Denise Hazime, a 25-year-old, Muslim American law student remarked after watching the woman sing to kick off an Arab student fundraiser. “The way things are now, I bet the average American would never think of the image of a covered girl singing our national anthem.” The way things are now is this: American Muslim leaders say they are facing an increasingly tough public relations battle as they fight to portray their faith as non-violent. Some Muslims say conveying a peaceful image of Islam is tougher now than it was after the Sept. 11 attacks, and they blame a daily barrage of negative media images. They are referring to stories such as a Christian convert being threatened with execution in Afghanistan, coverage of thousands of Muslims expressing outrage at Danish cartoons and shouting anti-Western threats, and daily bloody images from Iraq. “We say we’re peaceful people, but it doesn’t matter what we say,” said Irfan Rydhan, 31, a spokesperson and organizer for the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose, Calif. “They see these violent images on TV, and those people look like us.” American views of their Muslim neighbors had been improving. A Pew Research Center poll released in July 2005, after the London terrorist bombings, showed that 55% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Muslim Americans. But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in March showed that a majority of Americans have a negative view of Islam. ‘It’s really hard right now’ It seems as if extremist voices “have taken over,” said Rana Abbas, a 26-year-old Muslim American who is deputy director of Michigan’s American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a nationwide civil rights group based in Washington, D.C. “It makes your struggle so much harder. It makes it seem as if all your efforts are in vain. It’s really hard right now for moderate Muslims to get their message out.” A large part of the public relations problem is that most Americans do not have a basic understanding of the turmoil that exists in parts of the Muslim world, said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, a political advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Zogby said that many heavily Islamic regions have been destabilized by war. “The problem is not the nature of the religion; it is the dislocation and disruption of normal society brought on by the trauma of war,” he said. “It’s similar to what happened in our own country during the post-Civil War period where you had lynchings and the emergence of extremist currents that lasted for decades.” Imam Hassan Qazwini heads the largest mosque in the USA, the Islamic Center of America, based in Dearborn, Mich. Qazwini said he and other imams have grown weary of being made to answer for every violent act committed in the name of Mohammed. “This has become a daily nightmare for Muslims,” Qazwini said. “We’re upset. We’re frustrated. We cannot control every Muslim. We cannot be held responsible for everything.” Qazwini said he is confounded when Islam as a whole is blamed for the actions of individuals, while other religions are not. “How is it that when Pat Robertson calls for the murder of the president of a sovereign country that nobody said Christianity is promoting violence and murder?” Qazwini said, referring to Robertson’s call last August for the assassination Venezuelan President Hugo Ch_vez. Robertson later apologized. Qazwini said his mosque is trying to do its part to open dialogue. The mosque offers tours of the elaborate, 76,000-square-foot community and worship center, which is topped with a huge dome and accented with teak and mahogany doors carved in Turkey and the Philippines. ‘We’re not so different’ A group of 27 eighth-grade girls and boys from a Catholic school about an hour outside Detroit recently toured the mosque. The girls fidgeted with their makeshift headscarves, straw-blond hair poking out. A boy with shaggy bangs and pale skin asked the tour guide, a 46-year-old nurse consultant who sent her daughter to Catholic school, “How come you can’t draw Mohammed?” He was referring to recent news stories about the controversial Danish cartoons and the belief that any images of Mohammed are considered sacrilege in Islam. As guide Najah Bazzy waved goodbye to the students, one of their teachers stopped to thank her, saying it was her first time in a mosque. The teacher added, “We’re not so different.” Bazzy agreed. “That’s why these tours are so important,” Bazzy said after the teacher left. Muslims in San Jose are making special efforts at public relations, too. “Images are more powerful than any words,” the South Bay Islamic Association’s Rydhan said. With that in mind, Rydhan organized “Muslim Unity Day” last year at Paramount’s Great America amusement park. He said part of his mission was to provide an image of Muslims being carefree, and that’s his mission for this year’s unity day, too, which is Aug. 27. More than 4,000 Muslims from the area showed up for a day last year at the park in Santa Clara, Calif. The South Bay Islamic Association’s imam, wearing traditional loose, white religious clothing and a thick, long beard, got off a water ride with some friends at one point during the festivities. He was soaking wet and laughing. That’s a good picture, Rydhan says he thought to himself.
SAN FRANCISCO – Prominent Muslim dignitaries on Saturday met for the first time with the world’s most influential Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, enlisting his help in quelling fanatical ideologies within Islamic communities and improving the faith’s declining image in the West. The summit was a measure of the desperate concern among moderate Muslim leaders and scholars about religious extremism and increasingly negative views of their faith arising from Western concerns about terrorism. Indeed, Islam traditionally has not recognized Buddhism. “The main issue of this conference is to provide a platform to teach that there is no room today to say or invest in anything but love,” said Imam Mehdi Khorasani of Marin County, who had extended the invitation to the Dalai Lama. “We are happy and grateful for His Holiness’ decision to lend his energy to this cause.” Appearing comfortable and jovial in his maroon and saffron robe before a crowd of about 600, the Dalai Lama, 71, was true to his image as one of the world’s most avid advocates for peace. “Some people have an impression that Islam is militant,” he said, seated in lotus position on a center-stage baronial chair at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel. “I think that is totally wrong. Islam is one of the world’s great religions and it carries, basically, a message of love and compassion.” He pointed to his homeland of Tibet as an example of a place where Buddhists and Muslims have existed together in peace for centuries. In an interview earlier, the Nobel laureate and religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism said, “Promoting the genuine message of Islam and the proper impression of the Muslim world – that is my hope. “Some of my Muslim friends have told me that those people who claim to be Muslims, if they create bloodshed, that is not genuine Islam,” he said. “Those few mischievous ones do not represent the whole Muslim community.” Some of those in attendance suggested that the open display of mutual support might not play well with more extreme members of either Islam or Buddhism. “It’s a brave thing for imams to reach out to the Dalai Lama – it’s likely to be seen in some circles as an act of weakness and undignified of their own traditions,” said Caner Dagli, assistant professor of religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. “The Dalai Lama is also putting himself out on a limb by standing with his Muslim brothers and sisters,” he said. “But I’m happy about all that. It’s right that they should be allies.” One difference is that although the Dalai Lama holds an unquestioned position as spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, Islam has no similar central authority uniting its members. Hence, Muslims around the globe interpret the faith quite differently and are more divided among themselves. That the meeting came together at all was remarkable, coming near the date of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday, as well as during Passover and Easter weekend. It also followed the release last week of the recorded sounds of struggle and panic when Sept. 11 hijackers took control of United Airlines Flight 93 and screamed, “Allah is the greatest,” as the plane went down. But the Dalai Lama, who normally books his appearances seven years in advance, and the Muslim leaders and scholars from around the world broke their holiday commitments to attend the hastily organized event. “This meeting had to happen,” said Dan Kranzler, a philanthropist and one of the gathering’s sponsors. “The 90% of the Muslim world that is moderate and peace-loving wants to overcome the radical ideologies of the rest,” said Kranzler, who is Jewish but refers to himself as a “universalist.” “If there is anyone in the world who can cheat the odds and make that happen it’s the Dalai Lama.” Organizers called it an extraordinary convergence. Essentially, Muslim leaders were seeking the Dalai Lama’s rock-star status, broad appeal and skills as a neutral conciliator in dealing with divisiveness within their faith, deepened by worldwide media attention. Even moderate Muslims, who make up most believers, are not united enough to impose their visions of peace and tolerance on those who are intolerant or promote violence. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, founder of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, which is dedicated to reviving the sciences of classical Islam, pointed out another reason for wanting the Dalai Lama on their side. “Buddhism gets the best press of any religion in the world,” he said. “Islam gets the worst press because it’s associated with war and belligerence. “When a recent Gallup Poll asked Americans what they respected about Islam, 38% answered not a thing, and 12 % said they weren’t sure,” he said. “Yet one-fifth of humanity is Muslim. “So we are delighted that the Dalai Lama wants to understand how we view this situation and assess what his own community can do to alleviate the problems,” he said. Under tight security, the Dalai Lama initially met privately with 40 leaders, including Mahmud Kilic, a professor of Sufism and president of the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul; Sayyid M. Syeed, head of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest umbrella organization of Islamic centers in the United States; and Ahmad Al-Hashimi, president of the Ihsan Muslim Heritage Society of Ontario, Canada. One proposal that emerged from the discussions was a possible visit by the Dalai Lama to Saudi Arabia. Later, on stage, he was flanked by religious leaders and scholars including Huston Smith, emeritus professor of religion at UC Berkeley; Thomas Cleary, a Harvard professor whose interpretation of the ancient Chinese “Art of War” became a bestseller; and Robert Thurman, a Columbia University professor known as the Billy Graham of Buddhism. In an interview, Smith said the meeting was in direct response to the violent exploitation of one of the great traditions. “The world is in flames. We are at war with Islam,” he said. “The Muslim leaders here wanted to talk to the Dalai Lama about what they could do to persuade terrorists that their terrorism only increases terrorism.” Though Muslim leaders called for the gathering, it was organized and funded by a coalition that included film producer Steven Reuther and Kranzler, who made his fortune in the computer software industry. In an effort to make Muslim guests feel as comfortable as possible in their daily prayers, the organizing team determined the exact direction of Mecca from the Nob Hill hotel – 15 degrees east of north. Receptions were alcohol-free and vegetarian, in keeping with practices of Islam and Buddhism. Dozens of participants wore white scarfs that had been draped around their necks by the Dalai Lama in private sessions.