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Minority Muslim group reaches out

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Faysal Sohail was implausibly cheerful as the crowds streamed past him on Market Street, most people completely ignoring the pamphlets he was trying to pass out. “Can I give you a message of peace?” he repeated over and over, getting mostly blank stares in return.

Occasionally, someone would accept one of Sohail’s brochures — the ones with the words “Muslims for Peace” printed next to a white dove and a red slash mark striking out the word “Terrorism.”

For about a month now, Soheil and other Ahmadi Muslims across the country have been taking their anti-terrorism message to the streets. It’s their way of fighting back, they say, both against the radicals who have “hijacked” their religion and the anti-Islam sentiment many observers say has become especially strong in recent months.

For Soheil, a venture capitalist from Hayward, and the nine others who recently stood on the corner of Market and Stockton streets in The City armed with hundreds of fliers, the anti-terrorism message is more than a convenient slogan. Ahmadis, a tiny Islamic sect with roots in South Asia, are routinely targeted by extremists who see them as heretics for following teachings that fall outside the bounds of mainstream Islam.

Of course the shoppers spilling out of Old Navy and the tourists buying pretzels from Annie’s Hot Dog stand knew none of this, and the Ahmadis really weren’t there to explain their own troubled place in the Muslim world. Their mission was to hand out as many brochures as possible — Soheil says they’ve already passed out 100,000 so far nationwide — and to tell those who would listen that their faith has nothing to do with the suicide bombers so ubiquitous on the evening news.

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They may have a tough road ahead. A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center found 38 percent of Americans believe Islam is more likely to promote violence than other religions. That wariness is evident in cities across the country, played out in the frenzied emotional opposition to proposed mosques — including one near ground zero in New York City — and even on the sides of buses. A group called Stop Islamization of America recently purchased dozens of ads in the Bay Area and elsewhere implying some Muslims are trapped in the faith against their will.

The Ahmadi Muslims have their own bus ads, though — they read “Love for All — Hatred for None” — and say they refuse to get discouraged. “I think we’re having an effect,” said Taariq Khan, a soft-spoken 14-year-old wearing a bright red shirt with the words “Increase the Peace” scrawled in white letters.

But the group acknowledges it is an uphill battle. One man in a navy windbreaker accepted a pamphlet from Soheil and stared at it intently. “We’re Muslims,” Soheil explained. The man stared at Soheil with an expression that was something less than friendly. “We’re opposed to terrorists,” Soheil offered. The light changed, and the man crossed the street without saying a word.

A block away, a tourist from the East Coast who refused to give her name was reading the brochure as she stood in the line for the Powell Street cable car. Asked if she thought the peaceful message was genuine, she said, “It’s hard to tell. I watch the news, and I see a lot of things.”

Soheil and the other men who spent two hours on the overcast Sunday handing out roughly 500 brochures say they know that repairing Islam’s public image will take time.

“You’ve got to have patience,” said Yakub Khan, an upbeat customer service representative from Hayward who came to help pass out the pamphlets. “That’s what peace is all about.”

Ahmadiyya Muslim Community spokesman Waseem Sayed said the group will continue the brochure campaign, already a year old in the U.K., both on the streets and by going door to door in the Bay Area and across the country. There are also plans to bring the organization’s bus ads, currently running only in New York, to San Francisco, Sayed said.

Often persecuted by other Muslims, Ahmadis have some distinct traits

Who are Ahmadis?

Ahmadi (or Ahmadiyya) Muslims are a controversial minority sect originally from South Asia who follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century reformer Ahmadis believe to be the Messiah other Muslims are still waiting for. According to Ahmadi teachings, Ahmad preached against violent jihad and advocated moderation and peace.

Vocal in their opposition to violence and extremism, the traditions of Ahmadi Muslims are essentially the same as other Muslims in day-to-day practice, such as prayer rituals and fasting during Ramadan. But Ahmadis, a tiny minority of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims, are also sometimes called heretics for following a prophet who came after Muhammad and are frequently persecuted in their home countries.

Since 1974, Ahmadis have been banned by the Pakistani government from calling themselves Muslims, referring to their places of worship as mosques and even using the traditional Muslim greeting “Salam aleikum,” or “Peace be upon you.”

Beyond following a prophet not recognized by the Muslim majority, there are some key differences in historical beliefs. While all Muslims believe Jesus Christ was a mortal prophet who managed to escape crucifixion, Sunni and Shia Muslims believe Jesus ascended to heaven while still alive after eluding the Romans. Ahmadi teachings say Jesus journeyed to Kashmir, today a disputed region between Pakistan and India, where he died a natural death and was buried.

Partly because they are often targeted by extremists — a recent attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Pakistan killed dozens of worshippers — well-educated, affluent Ahmadis have immigrated to the U.S., Britain and elsewhere in large numbers. The group is recognized by many as one of the oldest Muslim communities to establish roots in America — the U.S. chapter of their organization, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, was founded in 1921.

For more information on Ahmadis and their Muslims for Peace campaign, visit MuslimsForPeace.org.

— Stephanie Rice

Ramadan facts

Ramadan, the month that commemorates the revealing of the Muslim holy book, began Wednesday and will last into next month.

WHAT? The holy month in which observant Muslims fast during daylight hours and perform acts of charity.

WHY? Similar to Lent or Yom Kippur, Ramadan is intended to be a time of reflection and self-restraint out of devotion to God. Muslims are encouraged to think of the less fortunate who go without all year round and to do charitable acts or give money to the poor.

HOW? Fasting Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke or have sex from sunrise to sunset. Some wake before dawn to eat a large breakfast before the sun rises to sustain them throughout the day. At dusk, the fast is traditionally broken by eating a date.

WHEN? Since Ramadan is practiced according to the Islamic lunar calendar, it falls on a different Gregorian calendar date each year. This year, Ramadan began Aug. 11 and will last through Sept. 9.

Ramadan open houses

Several Bay Area Muslim groups are hosting Ramadan dinners open to the general public. All are free but some require an RSVP:

Islamic Society of San Francisco*

  • 20 Jones St., San Francisco
  • 6:15 p.m. Aug. 29

Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California*

  • 1433 Madison St., Oakland
  • 7 p.m. Aug. 21

Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam

  • 459 West MacArthur Blvd., Oakland
  • 8 p.m. Aug. 21, 22, 28, 29; Sept. 4, 5

Muslim Community Association*

  • 3003 Scott Blvd., Santa Clara
  • 6:30 p.m. Aug. 21

* Requires an RSVP. Visit ca.cair.com/sfba/campaigns_and_events.

Muslims in the U.S.

The U.S. government does not gather data on religion, so reliable statistics on religions, including Muslims, are scarce. National figures range from 2 million to 7 million, a tiny fragment of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center:

65% Roughly 65 percent of U.S. Muslims are immigrants, mostly from Arab and South Asian countries.

35% Of the 35 percent who are U.S.-born, more than half are converts.

50%+ More than half say being Muslim in America has become more difficult since 9/11.

25% Roughly a quarter of U.S. Muslims have a college degree (about the same as non-Muslim Americans).

36% Some 36 percent say they are concerned about the potential for Islamic extremism in the U.S.

The entire report: pewresearch.org/pubs/483/muslim-americans

Ethnic breakdown: Regular participants at U.S. mosques

33% South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Afghani)

30% African American

25% Arab

3.6% Others

3.4% African (Sub-Saharan)

2.1% European (Bosnian, Tartar, Kosovar, etc.)

1.6 % White American

1.3% Southeast Asian (Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino)

Source: Survey by Council on American-Islamic Relations

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