The Muslim Next Door

Since 9/11, most American Muslims have taken a low profile, understandably afraid of provoking a backlash. But seven years later, Muslims in the Richmond region have decided the time has come to engage with the community — to go mainstream, as it were. To that end, the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs hosted a Ramadan dinner Friday evening for members of the local media. Journalists from print, television and blogs (including yours truly) were in attendance.

The Coalition estimates that some 12,000 to 15,000 Muslims live in Central Virginia, a mix of ethnicities including Middle Easteners, south Asians and African-Americans, with a smattering of “anglo” converts. For the most part, these people have practiced their religion quietly and have kept largely to themselves, with the result that their mostly Christian neighbors know very little about them.

The Coalition’s website explains the reasons for the group’s “coming out” party.

We believe that Muslims in America have to abandon the isolation mentality and resolve to become an integral part of the society, and proactively interact with its components. For that we need to become outward, and acquire social skills of interacting with people and cultivate relationships. It is both an individual and a collective effort. …

The objective should be to let the society at large know through action what Islam is and who are the American Muslims. Our aim should be to serve the society and work for its betterment. We need to work hard and honestly for a better America: for America that is morally sound, more tolerant, more just in its domestic and foreign policies, free of poverty. We do establish programs and participate in any program that serves any good purpose (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping the elderly and the handicapped, etc.)

The Muslims that my wife and I met were exceptionally friendly, hospitable and eager to talk about their role in American society. One man, who has earned his citizenship, extolled the virtues of the United States as a nation of immigrants where, he said, he enjoys more freedom and opportunity than he did in his native Pakistan. He marvelled that, only 40 years after the end of legalized segregation, an African-American has a serious shot at becoming president.

Another fellow stressed the commonality of all people. Muslims, Christians, Jews and others have the same priorities in life: to live in peace, have a good job, come home to the wife and children, and contribute to the community. As became clear to me when an imam explained the meaning of the Ramadan fast, Muslims, like the practitioners of other religions, struggle with their personal frailties to become better people, to follow the way of their God.

The main stumbling point for some of the guests was the status of women in Islam. Nearly every Muslim woman in the room wore a hijab. (I noted only two younger women, students, who did not.) One hijab-clad young woman, a reporter with the Newport News Daily Press, addressed the group about the difficulty she faced reconciling the traditional values of her Muslim family and her ambition as a journalist.

In the tension between tradition and modernity, Muslims have much in common with, say, orthodox Jews or old-school Mennonites. I found nothing particularly alien or threatening with the way our male hosts treated the women in their midst. Indeed, although Islam teaches women to be shy and reserved, many of the women I met struck me as well educated, articulate, passionate and independent minded as most American women I know. I sense that Muslim culture is already adapting to American mores.

As long as Muslims sort out the challenges posed by Westernization peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law determined by our democratic system of government — as opposed to carving out exemptions for sharia law, as some have endeavored to do in Canada and Great Britain — then I welcome them with an open heart. The people I met last night will make wonderful Americans. They will weave another vibrant thread into the rich tapestry of the world’s only true “global nation,” a country where people are united not by race, ethnicity or religion but by their commitment to the idea of America.

Update: Robin Farmer with the Times-Dispatch wrote a story in today’s Times-Dispatch about the charitable impulse in Richmond’s Muslim community — presumably an outgrowth of the Virginia Muslim Coalition’s outreach.

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13 responses to “The Muslim Next Door”

  1. If the Irish Republican Army attacked the United States and killed 3,000 Americans in the name of the Catholic Church I would expect each and every priest, bishop and cardinal in the US to disown the attacks and to condem the attackers in the loudest possible voices. I would expect any priest who eith remained silent or said anything about understanding the motivations of the attackers to be run out of the church on a rail.

    Where is the public condemnation from the imams? Did they start your media party by publicly stating their revulsion and horror at the muslims who attacked the US on Sept. 11, 2001? Did they state that the 20 murderers who attacked the US on 9/11 do not represent Islam or American Muslims?

    Or did they just keep mum and talk about other things?

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Groveton, No, there were only oblique references to 9/11. I was the only person, as a member of the audience, to even raise the issue of the global struggle within Islam between modernists/secularists and fundamentalists/jihadists. I told that group that I, as a journalist, was interested to know how that debate was unfolding in Muslim community within the United States.

    I would infer that our hosts belong to the moderate camp. The very fact that they want to engage with the community is evidence of that.

    The chief organizer, Dr. Imad Damaj, a VCU professor, declared that all topics were on the table. He asked his guests to raise any issue they wanted to. As it turned out, none of the journalists thought to bring up 9/11. The issue that seemed to get the most traction was the place of Islamic women in society, and the symbolic import of their wearing the hijab. Apparently, the hijab makes some of our media multiculturalists feel a little creepy.

  3. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    A recent poll showed that 1/20, 5%, of American Muslims supported Islamist groups like Al Queada. So, only 5% of 15k = 750 Muslims in Central VA support our mortal enemy.

    Ask the Muslims, take a poll, on if they agree to compromise the Koran’s teachings that they should live under Islam – including Sharia law – and live under U.S. law.

    Also, how many Muslims want the U.S. to become an Islamic country and be under the Sharia?

    Finally, for humor, ask them how many practice ‘taqiya’ (the authorized lying to infidels).

  4. I am troubled by this basic approach to essentially blaming other ethnicity, religions, nationalities for the abuses of some members of same.

    A catholic from Ireland, for instance, could justify not trusting Protestants because of similar fears.

    Or the events in Bosnia, or even the differences between Shiites and Sunni.

    The white man has systemically demonized native peoples not only in the Americas but virtually worldwide – and yet our response to this is usually along the lines of “Don’t blame me for what my ancestors did”.

    but the related excuse of “Don’t blame me for what others with me for what folks with the same ethnicity, religion, nationality have done.

    I acknowledge the visceral instincts in all of us but at what point do we try to reconcile our Hatfields vs McCoys attitudes towards others?

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Re: this quote

    “As long as Muslims sort out the challenges posed by Westernization peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law determined by our democratic system of government — as opposed to carving out exemptions for sharia law, as some have endeavored to do in Canada and Great Britain — then I welcome them with an open heart.”

    This view strikes me as incredibly patronizing. Why single out Muslims for violence? Look at the millions dead in sub-Sahara Africa in the last 30 years or the millions killed in CHina in the name of maoism which was its own religion.
    Or,look at Christianity. What were the Crusades all about? How about the Spanish Inquisition by the Catholic Church or the various attrocities by Protestants including what some believe to be the genocide of English Protestants against Irish Catholics. Geez, wasn’t Hitler a “Christian?”

    When I read comments such as yours or one by J.A. Bowden, I detect a kind of “Christian” smugness that doesn’t quare with actual history.

    Peter Galuszka

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar


    Maoism is dead — even in China. Not an issue today.

    The Crusades ended some 600 years ago. Not an issue today.

    The Spanish Inquisition ended centuries ago. Not an issue today.

    Hitler had contempt for Christians. His religious beliefs, such as they were, were informed by Teutonic paganism.

    Fundamentalist Islam is a vital force in the world today, appealing to many Muslims and underwritten by Saudi oil money. There is an ongoing battle for the soul of Islam — not just in the United States, but in Iraq, and Iran and Egypt, in the Gulf States, in Western Europe and in cyberspace. Whatever the outcome of that debate, it will have a tremendous impact on the rest of the world, including the United States.

  7. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake


    One more reason many Americans will never vote for Obama. They may have never heard of the word or even knows what it means, but rely instead on instinct and innuendo.

  8. I wanted to thanks Jim and Laura for taking the time and join our event. What most impressed me that he was wiling to ask important and direct questions. For that, he deserve credit. That’s the job of a journalist.
    As far as condemning 911 terrorist attacks, on the same day, all Mosques and organizations in the Richmond region sent a joint press release strongly denouncing the attacks. Next day, the islamic Center of VA, the largest Mosque in the region, organized a large community event to again public denouncing these terrorists.
    There are a lot of important questions raised and deserve some serious discussion.
    I hope we can debate those soon.
    Thanks again Jim,

  9. Hello all,

    For those interested in hearing more about what Muslims really think, there’s some interesting research done by Gallup. It’s available at the URL below:

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    A tiny minority of Muslims have long been terrorists or fanatics prone to violence. It isn’t new. So, your argument trying to set up militant Islam as exclusively “today’s” threat doesn’t hold water. The vast majority are not violent and law abiding wherever they live..
    Also, you are dismissive of my points that MOST religions have had their share of violence. You say this argument doesn’t matter because I’m talking history.
    And if you want to talk about clear and present danger, I believe that one of the biggest threats to American freedom could come from extreme Christian fundamentalists who are inclined to legislate and use state power to enforce their values. This is why I find Sarah Palin scary. As mayor, she supported censoring library books. The same thing happened in Loudoun County with the Internet a few years back when the Christian right got power.
    I found your original blog interesting and useful but I was turned off when you started setting conditions for accepting people of a particular faith. It smacks of the anti-Catholic Americans in the early to mid 19th Century who said that maybe they’d accept “Papist” immigrants if they met certain conditions.

    Peter Galuszka

  11. MID:

    Thank you for the commentary regarding the reaction from mosques in the Richmond area in the aftermath of the 9/11 murders. The reaction here in Northern Virginia seemed much more muted.


    You points are well taken from an historical perspective. In fact, Catholic and Protestant terrorism was alive and well in The Republic of Ireland and the UK just a few short years ago. My litmus test will remain the reaction of any group’s leaders to violence. In today’s world no religious leaders should support violence. In fact, I believe it is incumbent on the leaders of all legitimate religions to aggressively speak against violence.

  12. smithsan Avatar

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  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Thank you for this. I live in an area that has many Muslim residents ( most are Afghans or Pakistanis). I am really amazed when I read posts on other sites from people who really believe that most Muslims support extremism to some degree and that any
    denial of such on their part is simply act to lull American’s to sleep while the Muslims plot against us. I think these people must not live next door to Muslims. The parents in these families go to work, just like “us”. The kids go to school, just like “us”. The Muslim Mom cooks dinner and Dad fixes the bathroom sink and the kids eat and do homework , just like “us”. They are just trying to have a life and raise their kids the best they can, just like “us”. It seems crazy to me to assume that they are plotting against anyone. It also drives me crazy when people ask why they did not denounce the 9/11 attacks. Duh, they did. It was on the news; go figure!


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