Muslim Community Working to Engage Howard Community
By Pete Pichaske  

Howard County's Muslim community might be tiny _ perhaps a few thousand people, barely 1 percent of the population. But it is becoming harder to ignore. In recent months, local Muslims have held political fund-raisers, collected and donated a van-load of food for the poor, interviewed and endorsed candidates for public office and organized monthly networking sessions. They are now planning a health fair for the poor, scheduled for Oct. 20 at the Columbia Medical Building in Columbia. The increased activity is no coincidence. Quite the contrary, it is a calculated, concerted campaign to raise the profile of Muslims in the community _ and to help erase any negative conceptions about Muslims that sprang from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Even before 9/11 there were negative, distorted views of Muslims," said Anwer Hasan of Clarksville, president of the new group, the Howard County Muslim Council. "Because a few people have done something wrong, you can't base an opinion on that. "We felt we had to work collectively on projects, to show others who we are and what we are about. We all live in this place. We want to build relationships with the community." The efforts have not gone unnoticed. "I think it's a wonderful idea," County Executive Jim Robey said. One of the council's first projects was an April fund-raiser for Robey, which the executive said raised some $5,000 and gave him the opportunity to meet local Muslims. Since then, Robey has talked to the group's leaders about their hopes of increased community involvement and, as a result, appointed a Muslim to the county's Local Children's Board: Dr. Nareem Khan, a pediatrician in Ellicott City. "They realize Islam took a hit because of extremists ... and they want to show the community that's not what they're about," Robey said. The Muslim Council was established early this year. About 100 to 150 individuals from the estimated 800-1,000 Muslim families in Howard County are involved. While the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks served as a catalyst for founding the organization, Muslim involvement in the community is not new, the council's organizers say. "It's just now we have someone beating the drum," said Irfan Malik, who heads the council's public policy committee. "We're getting more organized." The organization effort is fueled in part by anger over negative opinions of Muslims. Law enforcement officials and local Muslims say Howard County has avoided the hate crimes that occurred elsewhere, especially after the terrorist attacks. But Muslims here still say they often are viewed with suspicion. "Our feeling is we should not need to prove our loyalty every time we meet someone," said Malik, who lives in Ellicott City. "We feel our people are as American, as patriotic, as anyone else. I was born in Pakistan, but this is my country of choice. That means a lot." The council has loose ties to Dar Al-Taqwa on Route 108 in Ellicott City, the county's only mosque. Those ties led to unwelcome headlines this spring, when it was revealed that the mosque's Web site had links to an Islamic news site that carried incendiary, pro-al Qaeda stories. The link was removed and Hasan said recently the incident was "blown out of proportion." He conceded, however, that the link was "an oversight on our part." Hasan declined to discuss his feelings on al Qaeda or the terrorist attacks other than to say local Muslim feelings on the issues were "the same as any American citizen's. Our focus is on Howard County, not international politics." In an interview with this newspaper seven months ago, Hasan said the local Muslim community was "100 percent behind what the Bush administration is doing." Since April, the group has managed to avoid controversy and at the same time pick up supporters, both political and otherwise. Nearly two dozen local candidates appeared at the council's political forum Sept. 14. Malik said two more fund-raisers are planned, one on Oct. 16 for school board candidate Courtney Watson and another for an as-yet-unnamed candidate. A food drive in August won friends at the Howard County food bank, which received a generous load of canned goods collected from hundreds of households. "It was a good donation for us," said Robert Johnson, a community worker at the food bank. "And it came at a time when there weren't many [food] drives going on." The Oct. 20 health fair will offer educational booths on a wide range of subjects and a variety of medical screening tests, including mammograms and blood tests. The tests will be free to low-income residents with no health insurance. The Muslims are not the first minority or ethnic group to organize in Howard County _ and not likely to be the last. The African American Coalition of Howard County has been active for nearly a decade, and political figures say other groups are becoming more politically involved. State House candidate Mary Beth Tung, a Clarksville Republican whose husband was born in Taiwan, said a local Asian political action committee is "in the planning stages." Robey compared his contacts with the council to recent meetings he has had with representatives from other ethnic groups, including Koreans, Hispanics and Indians. During the 1990s, according to the Census Bureau, the black population climbed from 11.8 percent of the total population in 1990 to 14.4 percent in 2000, the Hispanic population doubled from 1.5 percent to 3 percent, and the Asian and Pacific Islander population soared from 4.3 percent to 7.7 percent. Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition, said his organization welcomed the new Muslim Council and plans to work closely with the group. "We share a lot of the same concerns," said Howell, noting that blacks make up a significant part of the Muslim community _ as high as 30 percent in some areas. "We want to work with them and we recognize they have legitimate concerns."