The first Holy War

It was the fall of 1187, and an emissary from the besieged city of Jerusalem had come to beg Saladin, the sultan of Egypt, for mercy. After barely four days of assaults, the Christian defenders saw that Saladin had
them hopelessly outmatched. Waiting in his tent outside the city's walls, the Muslim ruler knew both sides had a lot riding on the outcome of this battle.

For the city's defenders, the prospect of Saladin's wrath loomed. The last time Jerusalem was sacked by an invading army--a Christian one--its narrow streets ran red with blood. For Saladin, his honor depended on capturing Jerusalem. All summer his armies had battled their way north through the Holy Land, sweeping through the Christian fiefs like an angry desert wind, with only one goal: recapturing the holy city that had been occupied by European invaders for 88 years.

Now the sultan stood on the hills north of Jerusalem. But the Christian emissary trudging toward him had no prize to offer, only surrender. For days Saladin's men had bombarded the city from the heights to the north,
finally breaching St. Stephen's Gate. The few defenders who remained knew that prolonging the fight would only worsen the consequences of defeat. And so a triumphant Saladin entered Jerusalem on Oct. 2, 1187. For the sultan's army, it was a moment of both joy and sadness.

Christians had profaned some of Islam's holiest sites. The al-Aqsa mosque had been used as a stable for horses. Pieces of the rock from which Mohammed was said to have ascended to heaven had been chipped away to sell in Constantinople.

But the victorious Saladin forbade acts of vengeance. There were no more deaths, no violence. A token ransom was arranged for the thousands of residents. Saladin and his brother paid for hundreds of the poorest themselves and arranged guards for the caravans of refugees.

Sound familiar? If not, don't feel bad. Saladin doesn't get much play in Western history books…

More than nine centuries after Urban II called the first Crusade, the legacy of misunderstanding and animosity is still with us today. In the West, many of the most lasting misperceptions of Islam stem from that time. In the Arab and Muslim world, the Crusades have made an unfortunate rhetorical comeback. "Such analogies are really not very helpful to understand the Crusades or present-day realities--they obscure rather than clarify," says Kedar. "People get so obsessed with . . . the past that they don't react to the reality but to the reflection." With that reflection distorted almost beyond recognition by rhetoric and misunderstanding, a clearer vision of the past has never been more important.


Young Muslims wear their faith with pride

Mubashir Jamal was different from the other teens he knew in high school.

At a time when many of his peers were partying at clubs and losing their virginity, Jamal, now 18, refrained from drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana.

A practicing Muslim, Jamal spoke of prayer, and engaged in lively debate over religion and western society during English class.

"Religion became a real taboo in high school," he recalled. "When you enter an environment like that it makes it even more difficult when people don't understand." Now a student at Dawson College, Jamal continues to stand out because of his religious beliefs.

He displays them on the black knit tuque on his head, and on his sweatshirt. Jamal is wearing Muslim Gear, a clothing line launched to promote greater understanding of a religion he says is frequently misunderstood.

Sitting in an empty Muslim prayer room at Concordia University, Jamal points to a phrase emblazoned in white on the back of a black T-shirt worn by a friend, Ali Merali.

Just below the Muslim Gear logo, the shirt refers to Islam as "more than a religion."

"The main intention is to raise awareness about Islam," Jamal said. "When we have statements like this…it invokes questions in people's minds…"

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Orphans rumor may be a hoax

The rumor that more than 500 Afghan orphans have been brought to the United States and are ready for adoption has angered and frustrated members of the Afghan community in Fremont who are eager to help but fear it may be a hoax.

"We really want to find out what's the real story," said Rona Popal, executive director of the Afghan Coalition in Fremont. "Everybody's mad."

A U.S. Department of Defense official denied the claim that the United States transported Afghan orphans here, and social service agencies that work with refugees, including the International Rescue Committee, say the rumor is unfounded. "Resettling an orphan is not something someone takes on lightly," said Don Climent, director of the committee's San Francisco office. "It's a good rumor."

Even the Afghan Embassy was unable to confirm the rumor.

"Our investigations from both the embassy side as well as the investigations done by the U.S. government and FBI have turned up no verifiable truth that orphans from Afghanistan were brought to the United States," said Homerya Mokhtarzada, the embassy's humanitarian aid officer.

More than two weeks ago, an e-mail that circulated across the country claimed that 570 orphaned children, from newborns up to age 10, had been airlifted out of Afghanistan by the U.S. government and brought to Southern California, where church organizations were preparing to find them adoptive homes…

Two meetings last weekend in Garden Grove and Northridge for prospective adoptive parents drew about 350 Afghans, according to Rohida Kahn, coordinator for domestic violence for NISWA, a Muslim social service agency in Los Angeles.

Although her organization helped sponsor the meetings, even Kahn isn't sure whether the rumor has merit.

"We are investigating," Kahn said.

The initial e-mail came from Mohammad Daoud Abedi, an Afghan man in Calabasas, about 20 miles northwest of Beverly Hills, who said he met with a social worker at a church in mid-March who told him about the orphans. The woman told Abedi that 45 of the children had arrived in the United States and more were on their way.

However, since the meeting, Abedi has not been able to confirm any of the information and no one has reported seeing the children…

But many Afghans here were quick to believe the orphan story, Popal said, because Afghanistan faced a similar situation during its war with the Soviet Union. Several thousand orphans were taken to the former Soviet Union starting in 1979 -- a mission which spanned about a decade.