IT was the 13th night of the holy month of Ramadan, of dawn-to-dusk fasting by Muslims and of rigorous prayer. On this night, hundreds of Muslims streamed into the gleaming, marble mosque called Al Hegira in Falls Church, Va., 20 minutes from the United States Capitol.
Although there was an air of solemnity, the talk between prayer sessions was of the continuing police investigation into the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center that left five people dead and more than 1,000 injured.
At least two suspects, both Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, have been arrested in connection with the bombing. As the search for additional suspects in the case continues, Muslims at mosques like this one are expressing mixed emotions.
They are shocked at the twin-towers attack but also concerned about a possible backlash against the Muslim religion and its followers in the US. Some Muslims say a battle is brewing between defenders and critics of Islam.
"This is the biggest crisis for us since the Gulf war," says Abdur Rahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, an umbrella group in Washington, D.C. "The fear in our community is of reprisals. It's not that we are not terribly sorry. We are. But now we are faced with the demonization of a religion."
"This is an act of terrorism that all Arab-Americans deplore," says Albert Mokhiber, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, speaking of the World Trade Center bombing. "But the fact that we've arrested two people doesn't mean that due process should be thrown out the window. And if [Mohammed] Salameh is convicted, there's no basis to convict the whole community."
There are between 5 million and 7 million Muslims living in the US, according to current estimates. The American Muslim Council says that about 15 percent of them are immigrants from the Middle East. During the Gulf crisis and subsequent Gulf war, Mr. Mokhiber says, hate crimes in the US against Americans of Arab origin escalated from five for the whole of 1990 to more than 60 in the first month of 1991.
Nevertheless, after Mr. Salameh's arrest on March 4, Muslim leaders in the US were slow to react. Mr. Alamoudi says that he and other Arab-American leaders were not prepared to hold a press conference immediately, but, after criticism of Islam spread through the news media, they held one in Washington on March 5.
At the news conference, they condemned the bombing and cautioned US officials and the press against vilifying Islam. "The media have been saying that Islam is the enemy that is being nurtured here," Alamoudi complains, referring to reports that Hamas, a fundamentalist Palestinian group, is using the US as a base of operations.
While Muslim leaders are quick to condemn the perceived anti-Islamic slant in the US press, some observers say they have hurt their own cause by trying to offer explanations that sometimes border on justification for violence committed by Muslims.
For instance, Alamoudi says, it is important to understand the conditions that may lead a Muslim immigrant like Salameh, the alleged twin-towers bomber, to fall under the influence of radical Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The sheikh, who preaches death to Islam's enemies and is a driving force behind Egypt's violent Muslim groups, has been in the US since 1990.
The sheikh's followers come from the New York-New Jersey Muslim community and are mainly recent immigrants who were persecuted in their countries of origin, including Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, because they are fundamentalist Muslims, Alamoudi says.
"Sheikh Omar has a small following in New York," Alamoudi says. "The newcomers pass through New York and they come with their memories of the governments in the Middle East. They haven't fit in yet. For them, the sheikh is someone standing up against the establishment in Egypt, a glimpse of hope and salvation for them."
The sheikh's followers and other Muslims, Alamoudi says, have been frustrated and outraged by many recent world events, including Serb attacks on Bosnian Muslims, Israel's deportation of 400 Hamas activists, and continuing Arab-Israeli violence in the West Bank.
"The Muslim community is frustrated by international politics," Alamoudi says. "Is this a reason to act in this way? No. But there's a buildup of pressure on the Muslim community."
Similar sentiments - understanding extended to the alleged bomber and condemnation aimed at media portrayals of Islam as well as at the twin-towers attack - were evident at Falls Church's Al Hegira mosque.
"The real disease is the oppression that Muslims live in [in the Middle East]," said one worshiper, speaking of the crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists by many regimes. "Setting bombs is just a symptom."
"Islam, of course, strictly prohibits such an act," said Hisham Abdallah, an employee of the Food and Drug Administration, speaking of the New York bombing. "[But] there is a feeling of unfairness. We don't see the IRA labeled as Catholic terrorists."
"The media have gone out of their way to put Islam in focus," said Anwar Hajjaj, a Palestinian-American educator. "The West is not giving Islam a chance. Even if Salameh is found not guilty, the damage to Islam is done."