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Judgment Day
A leader in the Washington Muslim community speaks out.

The Washington Post Magazine
November 18, 2001

Quietly, one by one, the faithful walk stocking-footed into the mosque, kneel, touch their foreheads to the green carpet, and whisper prayers to Allah. It is a sunny Friday afternoon and Imam Yusuf Saleem is concluding the weekly juma prayer by talking about being a particular kind of American. He has chosen a set of inspirational words to read to his mostly African American flock at Masjid Muhammad on Fourth Street NW.

The words are President Bush's from his news conference the evening before. "'...A recognition that the Islamic faith' -- now listen to this!" Saleem shouts, "'should stand side by side, hand to hand with the Jewish faith and the Christian faith in our great land.'"

The imam pauses, then intones, "Yes, God has blessed America." This time, the words are his own. Islam. America. Saleem mixes the words constantly. He does so on purpose. The imam's speech is an exercise in and an affirmation of a distinct identity. We are Americans, he tells his flock. And we are Muslims. We stand as shocked and as horrified as anyone else after September 11. We have found, with a Republican president, common cause in opposing terrorism and in widening the circle of religious tolerance. "Who could've thought we could get the president to endorse Islam?" Saleem asks, beaming.

So don't even think of coupling Islam with terrorism. Not here. Osama bin Laden's call to Muslims to join a jihad against America has backfired at Masjid Muhammad. "I reject that position," says one congregant, Omar Kashif. The accused mastermind of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks "will have to account for all of his actions at judgment," says a tall ex-Marine named Robert Moore.

What one finds at Masjid Muhammad are, as the president himself might say, uniters, not dividers. The talk is of neighbors helping neighbors, fellowship, peace and patriotism. It is about improving oneself and, by extension, one's country. This country.

Several men sitting in rapt attention near the front respond to the rising sentiment. "Allah akbar!" they cry loudly. "God is great."

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