Nurturing an "American Brand of Islam" with Community Outreach

September 9, 2006

Source: The Record

On September 9, 2006 The Record reported, "It was in many ways a typical day at a New Jersey soup kitchen. Members of a suburban religious congregation arrived one morning last month in cars and SUVs, entered the church hall through the back door as if they were humble kitchen help and set to work preparing lunch for dozens of poor, hungry people. Except that these volunteers weren't the usual Catholics, Protestants or Jews. They were Muslims, the first Islamic group to join the rotation of interfaith volunteers at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown. And it wasn't typical soup-kitchen fare either. The volunteers from mosques in three New Jersey counties served the South Asian staples of tandoori chicken and basmati rice to a crowd of immigrant day laborers, recovering addicts and destitute seniors. They said they had come to fulfill Islam's injunction to help the poor. But their presence also signaled a new priority for America's close-knit and frequently insular Muslim community: showing a humane, caring side of Islam to a public that, since 9/11, is increasingly likely to view Muslims as potential terrorists. 'People need to see Muslim faces working with the community at large,' said Ali Chaudry, a longtime Muslim community leader who helped recruit some of the volunteers. 'In order for us to be successful with the American public, we should be involved in regular, ordinary roles that every American should be in, like going out and helping our neighbors.' Five years after Islamic radicals murdered more than 2,000 people at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, U.S. Muslims said they're struggling with an immense image problem. A national poll conducted July 28-30 reported that 34 percent of Americans believe U.S. Muslims back al-Qaida. And, nearly 40 percent surveyed in the USA Today/Gallup Poll said they favored requiring Muslims -- even those with U.S. citizenship -- to carry special identification. Meanwhile, a pervasive anti-Islam campaign is thriving on the Internet, in think tanks and in some conservative evangelical Protestant ministries... In northern New Jersey, home to one of the largest Islamic populations in the nation, Muslims say they rarely encounter open hostility from their fellow citizens. And, they say that American Muslims are more educated, affluent and patriotic -- and far less susceptible to radicalism -- than Europe's alienated Muslim enclaves. Yet even those who've lived in New Jersey for decades express new fears about the future. Some worry that their children are growing up feeling defensive about their faith. Others say the Muslim community is becoming politically isolated."