Twelve girls sat in rows at the front of the community room in Silver Spring’s Muslim Community Center, calming their nerves with giggles and girl talk. In their sweaty hands, they held prepared speeches. On their heads, they wore scarves in a rainbow of colors: pink, brown, gold, white and lavender.

The seventh- and eighth-graders were competing in a debate on this question: Is a segregated, all-Islamic upbringing key to protecting your Muslim identity?

Eight of the dozen argued yes, using variants of the theme offered by Fatimah Waseem. Young Muslims “join with the non-Muslims, copy them and look up to them. This is hurting our identity. . . . Sometimes, we turn way from Islam,” she said. “In conclusion, . . . we cannot sway in the wind and become weak. We need to be protected . . . by segregation.”

“Takbeer!” shouted some in the audience of proud, clapping parents as each girl concluded her case. “Let us praise God!”

Like Fatimah, most of the debaters attend Al-Huda School in College Park. It is run by Dar-us-Salaam, one of the Washington area’s most conservative Muslim congregations. Many of its members believe that, in order to be true to their faith, they should live apart from secular society as much as possible. The congregation’s Web site describes how it hopes one day to become a self-contained Islamic community.

The kind of Islam practiced at Dar-us-Salaam, known as Salafism, once had a significant foothold among area Muslims, in large part because of an aggressive missionary effort by the government of Saudi Arabia. Salafism and its strict Saudi version, known as Wahhabism, struck a chord with many Muslim immigrants who took a dim view of the United States’ sexually saturated pop culture and who were ambivalent about participating in a secular political system. It was also attractive to young Muslims searching for a more “authentic” Islam than what their Westernized immigrant parents offered. . .

Salafi Society D.C., a group of mostly African American Muslims who worship in an unadorned white brick building in Northeast Washington, has a prominent disclaimer on its Web site stating that “we are free from . . . car bombings, highjackings [sic], suicide killings, and all forms of terrorism.”

Nihad Awad, executive director of the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Salafis increasingly are prepared to participate in the U.S. political system instead of shunning it. “I have been invited [by Muslims] to talk about election strategy, whereas I would not have been invited before,” he said.


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