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A Mecca for Inclusion : After Years of Staying Among Themselves, Muslim Americans Are Working to Alter Stereotypes and Make Their Views Heard

August 27, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At this week's Democratic convention, Kuwaiti-born Jihan Hamdan became the first Muslim to serve on the platform committee of either political party. She also became a symbol of the increasing Muslim presence in Los Angeles and around the nation.

Hamdan, 27, is a member of the board that guides the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. The group has launched a campaign to improve the image of Islam and the 5 million Muslims in this country and to register Muslim Americans as voters.

After years in the starting blocks, the campaign moved into high gear in May when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a council banquet at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The first lady's presence "really opened the door for us, showing us what's possible," Hamdan said.

In July, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan followed with the first mayoral appearance ever before the council and said he shared at least some of Hamdan's goals.

"We have seen too many communities which have been excluded from the political table," Riordan said at the council's mid-Wilshire community center. "The Islamic community should be included."

While Riordan would not comment on the lack of Muslim delegates to the Republican convention, his advice to Republican nominee Bob Dole was, "You should use them. They can be strong political allies."

The emergence of the American Muslim community, which is most heavily concentrated in Southern California, derives from changing immigration patterns, said Dr. Hassan Hathout, director of the center's outreach program. As recently as 20 years ago, two-thirds of this country's Muslims were first-generation immigrants, primarily from the Middle East, he said.

Ill at ease with English and the workings of democracy, and often the objects of scorn by mainstream Americans, Muslims tended to stay among themselves, he said. In doing so, they followed the pattern of previous immigrant groups, who congregated in ethnic ghettos mostly in East Coast cities.

As the community grew, however, a generation of native-born Muslim Americans increasingly overshadowed first-generation immigrants. At the same time, the rise of the radical right, whose fliers and talk shows often targeted Muslims as trigger-tempered, bomb-wielding nonbelievers, drove home the point that Muslim Americans could no longer hide out on the fringes.

And so, using the Muslim center as a hub, director Salam Al-Marayati and Hamdan began organizing the community here.

Hamdan already had some experience in political organizing. Working with then-state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), she helped revise public school texts dealing with Muslim culture.

Torres recalls that Hamdan approached him about six years ago "to discuss stereotypes in the school texts." One of the stereotypes depicted "people in Arabic garb with a camel nearby. It implied that's what Muslims look like here in California," he said.

"I thought it was outrageous because it reminded me of the way they depicted Mexican Americans in years past," Torres said.

At Hamdan's urging, Torres testified before the state Board of Education's textbook committee about the need to make changes.

Torres continued to collaborate with Hamdan on other issues and appointed her to the platform committee.

Hamdan said that on the platform committee, as in other parts of her life, she sees her role as dispelling anti-Muslim myths and accentuating the strengths Muslim Americans can bring to the country. For example, she said, Islam strongly prohibits the use of recreational drugs, and some inner-city ghettos organized by black Muslims have seen a sharp decline in illegal drug use.

Hamdan also enjoys using shock tactics to dispel anti-Muslim myths. "When many people find out I'm Muslim, they're stunned," she said. "I don't have an accent, I don't dress a certain way. They're still expecting a certain type of person."

Islam specifies that it is up to each Muslim to find God in his own way. In keeping with those teachings, the Los Angeles center has no imam or priest; rather, the leader of each week's religious service is chosen in advance from among the congregants, today's leader becoming next week's devotee.

Muslims also believe in integration, regardless of race or social status. Thus, the conclusion of a recent center prayer service featured Chinese, black and white Muslim men kissing each other on either cheek.

And yet, even amid these outward differences with mainstream Western religions, there is a common emphasis on secular problems. For example, this month's issue of the Minaret, the center's magazine, features a cover story on the Muslim perspective on child abuse.

"Islam teaches that we must strongly respect children. It says that we are responsible to God, and will be questioned in the life hereafter for what we do now," said editor Aslam Abdullah.

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