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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

Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 27, 1996
Home Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Metro Desk
24 inches; 825 words

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

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.

Similarly, Hakeem Olajuwon, the National Basketball Assn.'s most
valuable player last year, told Minaret readers that "Basketball, in
Islam, is an act of worship. . . . If I maximize what talents God has
given me, then I will be rewarded by God again."

And yet, underneath all this remains an internalized perception among
many Muslims that, somehow, they are still not authentic Americans.
Somehow, they still view themselves as semi-foreigners in a secular land.

Hamdan, however, sees this duality as another potential source of

Together with Christians and Jews, Muslims share a common ancestor in
Abraham, she said. Perhaps, she suggests, an increasingly political
American Muslim population, together with its Jewish American and
Christian American counterparts, can help renew the push for peace in the
Middle East.

Torres is more secular in what he would like to see accomplished. If
the November election comes down to a horse race between President
Clinton and Bob Dole, Muslims "could well provide the swing vote," he

PHOTO: Jihan Hamdan, who is attending the Democratic Party
convention this week in Chicago, is the first Muslim to serve on the
platform committee of either political party.
PHOTO: Hundreds of people gather at Muslim centers in Southland.
PHOTO: Muslim Center offers programs for children.

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