Largest US Muslim center targets spike in Islamophobia

AFP , Thursday 19 May 2016

Sitting on a red and green carpet inside a mosque in a suburb of Washington, Nabill Abdulle describes an invisible force. You can't see it, he says, but "it's there."

Islamophobia haunts the Muslims of Lanham, Maryland -- 30 minutes north of the US capital -- as the country's divisive election campaign fuels fears already heightened by Islamic State group attacks in Brussels and Paris.

So hopes are riding high on the inauguration of the town's new Islamic center, and its ability to help win over Americans' trust.

The Diyanet Center of America is the largest such facility in the country, a massive complex surrounding a mosque built in 16th-century Ottoman style.

The Turkish government financed and built the $110 million center.

At its inauguration last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan devoted half his speech to denouncing the "anti-Muslim atmosphere" in the United States during an election campaign dominated by the rhetoric of Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who has proposed banning all Muslim visitors.

The new center, Erdogan promised, could reverse the trend.

Abdulle has never visited the complex in person, but hopes the Turkish leader is right.

"Christians in general don't know a lot of Muslims personally," says the 24-year-old. "It's just a lack of understanding."

His own mosque, five minutes from the new center, opened in 1994 in a single-story red-brick building that also houses the Prince George's County Muslim Association and still serves the majority of Lanham's Muslim community.

"We talk about Islamophobia a lot because this is an escalating issue," the association's religious director Ahmad Azzaari says from his office facing the prayer hall, his thick salt-and-pepper beard flowing down his chest.

He blames Trump's "incessant" diatribes against Islam. "The issue of Islamophobia is one of the main points of our agenda for six months now."

Azzaari aims to teach Muslims to practice Islam "in a way that will tell American people that we are American like you, that we love this land, we respect the laws of this land, we love this soil," he says.

He says Muslims in the United States -- who are estimated to number around 3.3 million according to the Pew Research Center -- have to constantly prove themselves to be patriotic.

The new Islamic center could help, he says, by acting as a bridge between communities.

It's had a promising start.

In a residential area surrounded by expensive houses, construction of the Diyanet Center prompted no hostility in an area known for strong reactions to much less ambitious projects.

Built by the Turkish government, the new center is "completely different" from other mosques in the United States, which are typically built by local Muslims, Azzaari says.

Decorated with gardens designed for tourists as well as locals, the center includes a museum of Islamic art, Turkish bath, Olympic-sized swimming pool, sports fields and a library, all aimed at attracting visitors.

The fight against Islamophobia is "one of the objectives," says Diyanet secretary general Ahmet Aydilek at the entrance of the mosque whose marble pillars, inlaid gold writing and stained glass recall the splendor of the Ottoman Empire's golden era.

To that end, the center has hosted no fewer than 400 visits by groups representing various beliefs in the past six months.

It also hosts "inter-religious activities," inviting local synagogue and church members to use the center's extensive facilities.

All that "maybe has sent the right message," Aydilek says.

"All these messages about Islamophobia and the bigotry and hateful messages especially brought by the politicians are happening during the election cycle," he says. "We are thinking and hoping that these are all temporary."

Residents living near the center agree.

"This is wonderful for tourism and also to have an interfaith type of situation where people can learn about each other," Louise Werner says.

Were Trump to visit, Aydilek says, he would be welcome. His presence would "send the right message to the Muslims in this country," and provide an opportunity to bury the hatchet.

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