Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director at Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, says the years after 9/11 forced the mosque and its members to come out of their shells.
Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church is the largest mosque in the D.C. area, and one of the largest in the country. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik says even before 9/11, Dar al-Hijrah was a microcosm of Muslim cultures across the globe.
"There are about 37 different languages spoken here, so anything that happens in countries of Muslim majority -- I don't want to call them the 'Muslim world' -- there's a connection here at this mosque," Abdul-Malik says.
Since the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, however, the mosque, and Abdul-Malki himself, have had to make some adjustments. Abdul-Malik has had to explain exactly what those connections are. Many people want to know about Dar al-Hijrah's former Imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual Yemeni and American citizen who left the U.S. in 2002 and has since been linked to several terror plots.
And Abdul-Malik doesn't shy away from discussing the controversies when he feels he can provide clarification and teach people about his religion. His face has become a familiar one on cable talk shows. He says 9/11 forced Dar al-Hijrah and the other Muslim communities to move beyond an introspective stance. He points to the expansion of the mosque’s charitable efforts.
"After September 11, it became apparent that [the mosque] didn’t really meet the standards of Islam to “Ta'am al Miskeen" -- to feed the indigent person," he says. The practice never qualifies that Muslims should only reach out to other Muslims. "But now in the post 9/11 reality, it had to be feeding people who are of other faiths," Abdul-Malik adds.
Post-9/11 atmosphere has bred mistrust
But there are others that say the post-9/11 scrutiny has been detrimental to Muslim communities. Aziz Abu-Sarah, co-executive director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, says local mosques have lost a warmth and an openness.
"Nowadays, there's a lot of fear of the person that says I'm interested to study Islam, because, often it’s the fear that this person is an informant," Abu-Sarah says. "So even within the mosque, there's this fear that there's somebody spying on me all the time."
Abu-Sarah points to a recent example of continuing community unease with Muslims in Northern Virginia: the opposition faced by Fairfax's Islamic Saudi Academy. When it wanted to expand in 2009, there was vehement community push-back. The county's board of supervisors ultimately approved the project in a close vote.
Abu-Sarah feels a conservative Christian or Jewish school would not have faced the same obstacles.
"I think that's the way a lot of Muslims in Northern Virginia feel today … that we are targeted, mistrusted, and therefore we also mistrust the community," he says.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Muslim Americans say life has gotten more difficult since 9/11. That's up from 53 percent who said the same in 2007.
But yet 79 percent of Muslim Americans rate their communities as positive places to live.
Among neighbors, much has stayed the same
Adnan Ansari agrees that on the community level, things are headed in the right direction. He’s the vice president of programs for Islamic Relief USA, which is based in Alexandria. Immediately after 9-11, Ansari says, some Muslim groups were asked to prove a negative: that they were not tied to terrorism.
But those questions died down quickly, he adds, and he and his wife find things are better at the neighborhood level than they've ever been.
"We live in Sterling, and whenever we leave we hand over the keys to our neighbor, and she is Catholic," he says, laughing. "So as a couple there is no problem in any way."
Back at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, Sabahat Adil, her hair covered with a shimmering, white patterned head scarf, is rounding up her staff to serve Iftar to women there. Iftar is the evening meal with which Muslims break their daily fast during the month of Ramadan.
Adil directs the mosque's social services outreach, and is very clearly a bit of a mother figure to women here. On a personal level, she says, her relationships with her non-Muslim friends, neighbors, and even strangers, are more tension-free than ever.
"I feel it has gotten better, definitely," she says. "I don't feel anybody is targeting me because I'm a Muslim, and I do wear scarf. So it's all good."
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Adil says things aren’t perfect, but local Muslims have a choice: seeing the glass as half-empty or half full. She’s choosing the latter.