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Bridging the Divide

Members of local mosque found a calling to explain Islam to nervous residents following attacks.

For many Americans, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an awakening to the world outside their borders. For some local Muslims, they were an awakening towards their communities at home.

"Before 9-11, Muslims around here were mostly inclusive, they focused on their communities and stayed amongst themselves," said M. Daoud Nassimi, a Herndon resident and a part-time imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, at the border between Herndon and Sterling. "After 9-11, we knew that we had to be more involved for the good of the community — to show to people what Islam really teaches."

As the general public's apprehension grew about possible relations between local Muslims and the fundamentalists that attacked the United States in the name of Islam, members of the ADAMS Center knew that something was needed to define the differences between their beliefs and those of terrorist organizations.

This need was increasingly demonstrated when the temporary home of the ADAMS Center in Sterling was the target of anti-Islamic vandalism the day after the attacks.

The vandalism occurred at the former temporary location of the mosque, a commercial unit in Sterling that was being used while its now permanent location was under construction. The vandals had broken into the unit and spray painted walls and carpets with obscenities and anti-Islamic statements, Nassimi said.

"It was a very scary sight," Nassimi said. "We didn't know what could happen next, some of us began to think that maybe our families would be next."

Instead of shrinking from public, many members of the ADAMS Center knew that they needed to publicize the truth about what Islam meant to them, he added.

"There were some people who were scared, but there were some of us who took it as a challenge to get out and work with the public — to explain to people the differences between us and the people who did this," Nassimi said.

THE ANSWER, Nassimi said, was to engage in dialogues with residents and worshipers of other faiths as much as possible and to open the doors of the ADAMS Center for anyone who wanted to understand what Islam meant to them.

The large number of area congregations that approached the ADAMS Center offering solidarity following the vandalism was the best place to start.

"What the ADAMS Center has done has brought such a positive face to the American Muslim," said David Kalender, a rabbi at the Olan Tikvah synagogue in Fairfax, which has had several annual Islamic-Jewish exchanges with the ADAMS Center since Sept. 11. The exchanges "really open the Jewish community, as it does to all other religious communities, to the fact that these are not the people that we see on TV — demonizing their religion."

The number of people that the ADAMS Center has been able to reach is impossible to number, said Farhanahz Ellis, assistant to the imam at ADAMS Center.

"We have the person who walks in [to the ADAMS Center] off the street, or it could be an audience of 300 students," Ellis said. "When you have the right information, you can share that with others as well, so we have no way of telling just how many we have reached."

Ellis remembers one woman and her teenage son who came in to the ADAMS Center to ask questions about Islam a few years ago.

"He was pale and he was shaking, he was absolutely terrified," of visiting the mosque, Ellis said. "After awhile, we were able to show him that we are not evil, that we are normal people, just like you and me."

He now regularly plays basketball at the ADAMS Center, she added.

THE AFTERMATH of Sept. 11, 2001, hasn't been entirely negative for Muslims, Ellis and Nassimi said, highlighting the relationships that the ADAMS Center has built with other places of worship with a wide spectrum of religions.

Despite a small act of vandalism that occurred to a van parked at the ADAMS Center last year, Nassimi said that practitioners remain optimistic and hopeful for the future.

"The important thing is that we continue to show to people the good that we do, the good that Islam teaches," Nassimi said. "Through being good and helping others, sooner or later we will have the possibility to reach out to those people who have a negative perception [of Muslims]."

The thing that people need to know about Muslims living the area is that they live just like everyone else, Ellis said.

"Traffic isn't any different for us, we still have to wait on [Interstate] 495 going to work, just like everyone around us," she said.

While the events of 9-11 should not be forgotten, Ellis said that she hopes that their neighbors who might not know about Islam to utilize the positive energy and to learn more about what they might not know about.

"Of course I wish that [Sept. 11] didn't have to happen for these experiences to come, but I think that people needed to use the events of Sept. 11 to bring us together as a community," she said. "We just need to continue moving forward and showing people the good that we bring."