Muslim community reaches out

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Robert Friedman
Anwer Hasan, pictured at the Dar Al-Taqwa mosque in Ellicott City, helped found the Howard County Muslim Council, which works to build bridges between area Muslims and non-Muslims, holding food drives, health fairs and forums for political candidates.
Photo by Frank Klein

Raghid Shourbaji, who was born in Egypt, moved to Howard County 29 years ago.

“After we lived in several other states, the example [of racial and religious tolerance] in the county definitely attracted us. We started a family and wanted our four kids to be raised in such a community.”

Anwer Hasan, 56, born in Pakistan, also tried communities in other states before settling in Howard County in 1998 with his wife and three children.

Like most of the growing Muslim community, Hasan started his stay in Howard County “focused on the American dream, on making a good livelihood.”

Then came 9/11.

Despite the fact that the crime was committed by ultra-radicals from halfway across the world, American Muslims felt they were under siege, especially from the national media and its reports of the “Muslim menace.”

The terrorist attacks “changed our perspective,” Hasan said. “We realized that we had to reach out to the [larger] community. We had to show that Muslim-Americans are as American as other hyphenated Americans. We had to act for the sake of our children who were born and raised in America.”

So, some months after the terrorists struck, he and about a dozen other Muslims from the community, including Shourbaji, met in the basement of Hasan’s Clarksville home, where they formed the Howard County Muslim Council.

“When 9/11 occurred, I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to think,” said Shourbaji, also a Clarksville resident. “This was a heinous crime that has nothing to do with religion, committed by misguided individuals who were out of their minds,” said the 60-year-old owner of a home and office cleaning company.

“Everyone felt the pain of what happened at New York’s Twin Towers,” Hasan said. “Muslims also died there.”

Building bridges

From the council’s foundation to the present, Muslims in Howard County have worked in many ways “to change people’s perspective” about what their community believes in and stands for, Hasan said.

The council has initiated local food drives, health fairs, blood drives, dinners to show appreciation for teachers, and forums for political candidates.

The food drive brings in four to five tons of food annually for the county food bank. The council, meanwhile, has pledged to raise $50,000 for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

“We wanted to make sure that Muslims have become an integral part of the society, not retreating or retrenching, but engaging in the community for the interest of the county,” said Hasan, the senior vice president of the Louis Berger Group, an international engineering, construction and infrastructure management company.

A sign of their success: In November, some 400 people, including several top Howard County officials, turned out at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville for a banquet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the council.

While trying to change the views of non-Muslims, the council also aims to modify the way the community perceives itself, Hasan said.

“Instead of us being on the defensive, we want to make it a more interactive and respectful environment for everyone,” he said. “We are all in this together, engaged at different levels, fighting for American interests.”

The group has spurred the formation of eight more Muslim county-wide councils in Maryland, as well as a council on the state level, Hasan noted.

Muslims also have started moving into official government positions. Hasan is chair of the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Janet Siddiqui sits on the Howard County Board of Education. Hassan Ali El-Amin is a circuit court judge in Prince Georges County. Sam Abed from Jordan is the governor’s Secretary of Juvenile Services.

Altogether, Muslims sit on some 50 county and state boards, Hasan said.

The Howard County Muslim community has grown to about 10,000, and about 200,000 Muslims live in the state, according to Rizwan Siddiqi, the current president of the Howard County Muslim Council. Many of its members are professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers and educators.

New plans spark controversy

But not all is quiet on the Howard County front for area Muslims.

A controversy has arisen over plans by a conservative Muslim community in College Park to buy land in Cooksville to locate a school, an Islamic center and a mosque there.

The school would be situated on the 66-acre property where the Woodmont Academy, a Catholic school, had been located before it closed in June 2011 due to low enrollment.

Area residents insist that the development of the property could cause serious traffic and environmental problems, and that the size and scope of the plans could change the rural face and character of the area on the western end of Howard County.

Dar-us-Salaam wants to relocate its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Al-Huda school and other activities to the Cooksville site. About 600 students are currently enrolled in Al-Huda.

The Muslim Link newspaper said the proposed move could “change the Islamic demographics of the greater Baltimore-Washington metropolitan region.” The Muslim families in College Park with school-age children most likely would move into the area if the school relocates to Cooksville.

The Dar-us-Salaam community in College Park has agreed to purchase the property for some $8 million but, as of this writing, neither the sale nor the plans have been finalized.

A 10- to 15-year development drawing that appeared on the Dar-us-Salaam website called for three seven-story buildings, a large five-sided mosque, walking and bike paths, a 10-acre farm, a stream, a lake and underground parking. But that concept has been scaled down, said Dar-us-Salaam board member. Minhaj Hasan.

“That was just a concept drawing before we had any engineering or traffic study.” he said. “Since we’ve gotten further into the project with zoning engineers, it became obvious that the [Cooksville] community couldn’t support that type of project.

He indicated that the extensions to the school and the construction of the mosque will now be the project’s principal goals.

“There will be no seven-story buildings, no lake, no underground parking. The mosque will serve as a center for community functions,” Minhaj Hasan said. “We would like to share the walking and bike paths with our neighbors,” he added.

Looking for a compromise

Those opposing the plan have formed Residents for Responsible Development of Woodmont, which is described as a coalition of communities and property owners in the area.

David Yungmann, a local realtor and resident of the nearby Carriage Mills Farms, said he opposed the Muslim development because of his concern that one more rural conservation site in the county would disappear.

If the project were scaled down, “people might be all right with that,” Yungmann said. But, he said, the tendency is for such proposals to keep growing once they are given the go-ahead.

A 39-year resident of the area, Yungmann noted there also had been “significant opposition” to the Woodmont Academy project before it got approval in 2003.

“This is a zoning battle where we have to put our foot down and say ‘no,’ that we want this part of the county to stay rural,” said Yungmann. “We’re just not equipped to deal with the amount of people” that the project would bring into the area, if it is approved, he said.

Yungmann said that while the group intends “to hire counsel” to get its points across, it also plans “to seek a meeting” with the Dar-us-Salaam members.

Such a meeting “of people and their families from both sides could be very positive,” said Mark Haney, a federal employee who has lived in the area since 1977. He also opposes the Dar-us-Salaam development because of its seemingly large scale and the traffic problems it could cause.

Haney said he would feel “the exact same way” if the Woodmont Academy had wanted to expand to the size of the early Dar-us-Salaam plans. He, and other opponents of the project, seemed to go out of their way to assure that they attached no religious significance to their opposition.

“It’s very important for children to experience all cultures,” he said. “All people should be allowed to express themselves. But this is a matter of environmental impact. Too much density is planned for the 66 acres.”

County awaits application

County Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin told the Beacon on Nov. 30 that the Dar-us-Salaam group has made no official application for the purchase and development of the property yet, though she has met with members twice to discuss the approval process.

She said there was no deadline for filing an application. If and when it is filed, her department would make a recommendation on the project to a hearing examiner, she said.

The examiner considers effects to the neighborhood and compliance with the Howard County General Plan before a decision is made. A public hearing will be held as part of the process.

Minhaj Hasan, meanwhile, said Dar-us-Salaam would begin the official application process for the project within the next three months, and hopes to be able to open the Al-Huda school there by the summer of 2013.

He hopes Howard’s tradition of tolerance will prevail. He would like to see all parties come to the table.

“We definitely would like to meet” with the project’s opponents, he said, adding: “We want to preserve the rural area. That is what appealed to us.”