WASHINGTON-Muslims gathered today at the west front of the U.S. Capitol for traditional Friday prayers, men on one side, women on the other. Several thousand touched their heads to the ground facing east as the prayer call sounded over the lawn. "Allah akbar," the voice began-"Allah is great."
Organizers described the event as a showcase for the "peace, beauty, and solidarity of Islam," but that was overshadowed by criticism concerning one of the main organizers, Hassen Abdellah, who served as a lawyer for several convicted Islamic terrorists who were involved in the 1993 and 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center.
In court, Abdellah defended Mahmud Abouhalima, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and is serving a life sentence without parole. Abdellah also served as a lawyer to Mohamed el-Atriss, a man convicted of selling fake IDs to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"I represent all kinds of people; that is what lawyers do," Abdellah told The Washington Times. "We protect the Constitution by representing the rights of people who no one else wants to deal with."
It's easy to speculate that Abdellah's involvement may be the reason why prominent organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations declined to participate publicly in the event.
Among the Muslims who did attend, there was confusion about its origins. Some asserted that President Obama had organized it.
"How else do you think we could be here for prayer on Capitol Hill?" asked Safiyyah Saadiq, who drove down from Atlantic City, N.J.
A few minutes later, Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach at Dar Al Hijrah, the Washington area's largest mosque, denounced rumors that the president had organized the event. "I wish he had," he said, adding that Obama's campaign had inspired him to "campaign for Muslims."
"This is your country," Malik said to his audience. "They respect you more than you know. You have friends. Allah will make friends for you in high places. . . .
"What we have done here today, you could not do in any Muslim country," Malik declared, to scattered applause and a little uneasiness, as he went on to talk about the American legacy of the separation of church and state. Sheikh Muhammed Jebril, once an imam in Cairo, Egypt, recited portions of the Quran along with Sheikh Ahmed Dewidar, who stood with President Bush at Ground Zero and condemned the 9/11 attacks on behalf of the Muslim community.
The Web site for the prayer event is designed in red, white, and blue, and features an American flag and a call to prayer playing in the background. The slogan, "Our time has come" is on display along with a promise of 50,000 in attendance-a turnout that was not realized. Busloads of people were probably "stuck in traffic," said Saadiq. Scores of Capitol police officers dotted the west lawn, more than usually appear at rallies. The officers were expecting to be dealing with a larger crowd.
Muslim blogger Sheila Musaji of The American Muslim commented that the event was "not well thought out." Very little information was provided about the event itself, she said, adding that the terminology like "our time has come" could be "misleading," and that it was planned too close to the anniversary of 9/11.
Several Christians showed up to protest the prayer-shouting through bullhorns about the evils of Islam. One man stood on a street corner yelling verses from Isaiah. Other quieter demonstrators handed out copies of Romans and John translated into Arabic. "Are you against the Muslims?" asked one man. "No, we're for Jesus," replied the man handing out Bibles.
The National Clergy Council and Christian Defense Fund welcomed Abdellah to the Hill at a Tuesday reception.
"The church should not run from Muslims in America but begin reaching out with God's love," said Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Fund at the reception.
Others disagreed. The prayer was "part of a well-defined strategy to Islamize American society," said Rev. Canon Julian Dobbs, head of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America's Church and Islam project, in a statement.
"Nothing is in our heart to hurt this country," said Malik.