Longtime Muslim activist and Ashburn resident Sharifa Alkhateeb died Oct. 21 of pancreatic cancer. She was 58.
Alkhateeb was described as a "bridge" between American and Islamic cultures by more than one of her friends and colleagues. During her life she could be found speaking on a number of forums on Islamic life and culture, wearing a traditional head scarf with tailored pantsuits. The most widely-known of her series of accomplishments is probably the groundbreaking study she launched on domestic violence in Muslim homes. The study found that 10 to 12 percent of Muslim homes experienced domestic violence.
Locally, she was instrumental in getting Arabic taught in Fairfax County public schools.
"She is definitely a force that will be missed in the Muslim community and by anyone interested in maintaining the wonderful diversity we have in this school system," said Andy Shallal, an Annandale businessman who served with Alkhateeb on the Fairfax County school system's human relations advisory committee in the late 1990s.
Shallal recalled an event that demonstrated the widespread support in the Muslim community that Alkhateeb had at her fingertips. A fundraising wrestling match in Centreville pitted a stereotypically evil Arab against other stereotypes. He called Alkhateeb.
"In a matter of hours, she was able to rally the whole community behind [the opposition]," Shallal said. The wrestling match was quashed.
DESPITE HER RENOWN both inside and outside the Muslim community, Alkhateeb was recalled by colleagues as a quiet, intellectual activist — the kind that could explain cultural differences without confrontation.
"If she disagreed with you, she wouldn't come in your face," said Nabil Mohamed, organizing director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights organization headquartered in Washington. "She'd say, 'How about this?'"
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee often featured Alkhateeb as a speaker at conferences. While her prominence as a Muslim scholar and writer gave her a public life to some extent, she also fulfilled a vital role in less visible ways.
"She was like a hidden, or behind-the-scenes, soldier," said Mohamed.
AMONG ALKHATEEB'S accomplishments: founder of the North American Council for Muslim Women, president of the Muslim Educational Council, organizer of a directory of Arab-American organizations, and mother of three daughters. She was tireless in her efforts to educate the American public about Islam, even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 made Arab-Americans a target.
"She was here on a mission," Shallal said. "She wasn't going to be diverted from that mission."
Alia Dajani served with Alkhateeb on forums sponsored by Mosaic, a charitable foundation sponsored by spouses of Arab ambassadors.
"It is a big loss to the Arab community to see Sharifa leave," Dajani said. "Hopefully, many people will follow her path."
"She was an open mind," said youngest daughter Nasreen Emaan Alkhateeb. "She was respectful of all other opinions. She stood firm in her beliefs without offending people. She was the most intellectually stimulating person I have ever met."
Sharifa Alkhateeb is survived by her husband, Mejdi Alkhateeb, and her daughters, Layla Alkhateeb, Maha Alkhateeb and Nasreen Emaan Alkhateeb. Survivors also include a brother, three sisters and a grandson.