December 23rd, 2006 05:51 EST
American Muslims Go on Hajj
Larger numbers of pilgrims expected from United States in 2006 than in 2005
“It is very special. There are 8 million Muslims in America, and if you get to make it, it is really very special,” Sa’ad, a State Department employee about to leave for the hajj, told USINFO. Preparation is essential. He said American mosques offer instructions for the hajj, using PowerPoint presentations to explain the ritual steps of the pilgrimage and the requirements for making a good hajj.
Tarik al-Lagany, information officer at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, told USINFO that the number of American pilgrims has been increasing. “Last year, about 15,000 went from the U.S.,” he said. He attributes this to the growth of Islam in the United States. He said about 2.5 million people from around the world attend the hajj each year.
“Logistically, it is a huge challenge to be able to accommodate all these people,” he said. “As the number of Muslims in the world continues to grow exponentially, we will have to keep expanding those facilities.” In pre-oil days the hajj was a major source of income for Saudi Arabia, but today, he said, “we see it as an obligation of ours to host all these people and we try to bring as many as we can over, provide them with airfare and everything.”
Travel agencies offer hajj tour packages, but a pilgrim cannot just get a visa and go. To keep the vast numbers manageable, a quota is set for each country by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an independent international organization concerned with Muslim issues.
Abdullah M. Khouj, imam of the Islamic Center of Washington, said: “I’ve never encountered any difficulties. … Everything is facilitated as we want,” when going on hajj from America. “This is one of the greatnesses of this country … people do practice their religion freely,” he told USINFO. He encourages interfaith dialogue at the Islamic Center, a jewel of Islamic architecture built in 1947. “Communication is the key to understanding,” he said.
“What I really believe is what the Quran teaches us: if you are in another country or another culture, you have to respect the culture that you are in. And before you go to that place you have to have an understanding of what you are supposed to do,” he said. In America, he said, “one of its basic foundations is the freedom of religion, and they have to be honest that as long as you are within the boundaries and don’t make people feel suspicious about you, then nobody will bother you.”
Khouj has ministered to a diverse congregation for 23 years and has seen much community acceptance. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, he recalls: “It was amazing if you came that day. I was shocked myself that the courtyard was full of roses and flowers from all the neighbors. They just wanted to show their support and that they are with us.” President Bush paid a visit to the center at that time, emphasizing the importance of the Muslim community in America.
Al-Lagany said, “For the most part Americans have been open-minded people.” He has noticed a curiosity about Islam, which he says is a good thing. “In the Quran there are several verses that say all believers in God, specifically Christians and Jews, must be respected. There is nowhere in the Quran that these people shouldn’t be respected, let alone hated, attacked and killed. … If people take the time out to learn about it, they’ll discover a lot of the untruths that have been said about it,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim at the Department of Justice told USINFO about the U.S. commitment to "protecting the civil rights of all Americans, including those of the Muslim faith." He said his department "has been aggressive in prosecuting hate crimes ... and incidents of discrimination against Muslims." Regular meetings among senior U.S. officials and Muslim, Arab and South Asian leaders help address discrimination complaints quickly. "All issues of concern to these communities, including issues of profiling in airports, are regularly addressed at these meetings," he said.
Muslims not going on hajj mark the days leading up to Eid-ul-Adha at the end of December with acts of generosity. Syed Hafeez of the Montgomery County Muslim Council in Maryland told USINFO his group will distribute gift food baskets to 500 local needy families and toys to 1200 children before Christmas.
After Eid, when animals are sacrificed to commemorate Ibrahim’s readiness to sacrifice his son Ismail to God, the tradition of sharing the meat with friends and family will include the less fortunate. The council, coordinating with the county, will donate hundreds of kilograms of meat to the needy.