FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) – The voice of the new imam at one of the largest mosques on the East Coast rang loud from the pulpit during Friday services: “The call to reform Islam is an alien call.”

People who do not understand Islam are the ones seeking to change it, said Shaker Elsayed, the new spiritual leader at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. “Ignorance comes from outside circles who know nothing about us.”

Though his role as the mosque’s religious leader is a new one, Elsayed is well-known as a civic activist in a large Muslim community that has been subject to sharp scrutiny ever since the Sept. 11 attacks. His face is a familiar one at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, where he has lent support to area Muslims he sees as victims of a federal witch hunt – from those prosecuted for immigration violations to soliciting treason.

Elsayed, who assumed duties as imam on June 1, also has served as secretary general of the Muslim American Society. Some federal authorities and U.S. Muslim leaders suspect the advocacy group has links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a seminal anti-Western group that has inspired other hard line Islamic organizations. Elsayed, however, said he is not a member of the Brotherhood.

He has also served as an unofficial spokesman for the family of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who is accused of joining al-Qaida while studying overseas and plotting to assassinate President Bush. Abu Ali grew up in Falls Church, and worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah.

With all his activities, it’s perhaps not surprising that Elsayed’s sermons seem to carry political overtones. On a recent Friday, preaching to more than 500 men and women – with the genders worshipping separately as is customary – he said without mentioning specific nations that: “Islam forbids you to give allegiance to those who kick you off your homeland, and to those who support those who kick you off your homeland. We do have license to respond with all force necessary to answer our attackers.”

Asked after the sermon to elaborate, Elsayed said that opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East is different than viewing the American people as the enemy.

Talking about his views on militant groups like Hamas, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization, Elsayed compared the Palestinian group formed in 1987 to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress – organizations that resorted to violent resistance only after decades of injustice.

“Everybody jumps on Hamas,” Elsayed said. “Look at how long Israel has occupied (Palestinian lands). How long did it take to say enough is enough?”

Still, he said support for Hamas’ objectives does not mean he always supports their tactics, which at times have included suicide bombings. “Islam calls for the minimum effective response to aggression,” Elsayed said.

Muqtedar Khan, an expert on Islam and a political scientist at Adrian College in Michigan, said Dar al-Hijrah is not a typical American mosque and Elsayed is not a typical American imam.

“Shaker Elsayed is more like a political figure than a religious figure,” said Khan, who worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah for several years while attending Georgetown University as a graduate student. “Dar al-Hijrah is a very Arab-centric mosque, very much centered on Arab politics.”

The mosque, he said, is more typical of what one might find in the Arab world, with the rhetoric toned down a little bit for fear of drawing excessive attention in a post-Sept. 11 world.

“Dar al-Hijrah has always been in the hands of the conservatives” since its founding in 1983, Khan said.

While the leadership is conservative, Khan said, the congregation itself might not hold the same beliefs. For many people, the mosque is simply a convenient place to attend required prayer services. The northern Virginia suburbs – particularly the neighborhoods close to Dar al-Hijrah – have a relatively large Arab and Muslim population.

Dar al-Hijrah’s outreach director, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, said imams have free rein to preach on anything they see as relevant, and said it makes sense to discuss politics at a time when world events have a major impact on the Muslim community.

“It has to address the issues facing our community or else our faith will be irrelevant,” Abdul-Malik said. “That includes politics, education, health care … the whole panoply of human issues.”

Elsayed is a good choice to lead Dar al-Hijrah because of his pre-eminence as a scholar and his ability to relate to both the immigrant and the native-born communities, Abdul-Malik said. Elsayed was born in Egypt but is a U.S. citizen fluent in Arabic and English, and has written his own English translation of the Quran. Abdul-Malik said Elsayed is an established religious authority who has previously served as imam at the Islamic Center of Washington.

Abdul-Malik also disputed the claims of critics that Dar al-Hijrah is a bastion of fundamentalism, or that it promotes Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia that some believe promulgates extremism.

In fact, he said, some area Muslims dissatisfied with Dar al-Hijrah’s ideological stance formed the Dar al-Arqam mosque just a few miles away. It was Dar al-Arqam that was home to many of the young Muslim men convicted of forming a “Virginia jihad” group that used paintball games as a form of paramilitary training for holy war around the globe. Prosecutors convicted a former lecturer at Dar al-Arqam, Ali al-Timimi, of inducing others to wage war against the United States, saying he was the paintball group’s spiritual leader and a leading U.S. proponent of Wahhabist ideology.

While Elsayed and Abdul-Malik publicly supported the paintball group and al-Timimi in their criminal case, Abdul-Malik said that doesn’t translate to acceptance of their ideology.

Elsayed, for his part, bristles at labels like moderate or conservative. He said calls to reform Islam, like recent efforts to allow men and women to pray together, are misguided – yet he also urged his congregation to reach out to non-Muslims.

“Our mosques are open. Our doors are open. Our homes are open,” he said. “If you reach out to people, even if they don’t join you, maybe at least they don’t join those who attack you.”


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