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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A youthful voice raised in defense of Islam

A youthful voice raised in defense of Islam  Adeeba Al-Zaman, 23, speaks for Muslims as the only staff person at the local Council on American-Islamic Relations.  
Kristin E. Holmes is an Inquirer staff writer  
The place where Adeeba Al-Zaman works daily is a spare gray office with a conference room that doubles as a place to pray.
  Al-Zaman works phones, sends e-mails, and stuffs envelopes - all in an effort to lift the voice of the local Muslim community. She is the one-woman staff of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). At the age of 23, she is in the middle of a whirlwind.
  The publication of cartoons, first in a Danish newspaper, has angered Muslims around the world, prompting protests that in some cases have turned violent. That issue touched even closer to home for local Muslims on Feb. 4, when The Inquirer published one of the cartoons, a caricature that shows Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.
  Since then, Al-Zaman has been at the forefront of much of the local Muslim community's response to the issue. Al-Zaman has set up news conferences and film screenings. She has moderated panel discussions, met with Inquirer editors, and written an op-ed piece for the newspaper.
  "We were offended and hurt and think they shouldn't have done it," Al-Zaman said of The Inquirer's publication of the cartoon. CAIR has condemned the violence that has resulted.
  A note accompanying the drawing said that the paper meant no disrespect to readers, but The Inquirer published the cartoon because the newspaper's mission is to inform readers even in cases when that information is "troubling," said Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett.
  Since the publication, CAIR Philadelphia has been working toward "building bridges" with local media and becoming a resource for information, Al-Zaman said. The work has also helped trigger a personal transformation.
  "You can't defend someone else's rights if you don't do it for yourself, know yourself and know God," Al-Zaman said. "I've been developing a relationship with God and I do it by reading the text."
  CAIR has only been in Philadelphia since September 2004. Its founding is part of an effort to build an infrastructure of Muslim groups and develop leaders who can advocate Muslim causes and be a part of interfaith dialogue, said Sofia Memon, vice chairwoman of CAIR Philadelphia's board of directors.
  When the 13-member board decided to hire a staffer, the new organization could not afford a veteran of nonprofit groups, so it went for someone young "who would make the position about more than just a job," Memon said. Al-Zaman and her activism were a known quantity. Her stepfather, Mohammad Aziz serves on the organization's board.
  "When I think of myself coming out of undergraduate school," Memon said. "The idea of being a sole staff person and being put into the limelight as a result of a controversy I had no control over that tests skills I was just beginning to develop? I'm not sure I could do what Adeeba does."
  Al-Zaman joined CAIR last April. She had finished her course work for an undergraduate degree in political science at Rosemont College and was considering her next move. She abandoned her usual deliberate decision-making and plunged right in, perhaps signaling the change that was to come.
  Al-Zaman's family - her parents and four siblings - moved to Paoli from Texas when she was 14. She entered Conestoga High School and began to become an activist. There was the Human Rights Club and volunteering at the local medical clinic. Then at Rosemont, there was Amnesty International and internships with the World Affairs Council.
  But with all her activities, there was a reserve and a quietness, said her friend Laura Scales.
  Her dorm room walls were lined with artwork from the children in her Sunday School class at the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge mosque. She wrote quotations from favorite poems on index cards and hung them on her walls for inspiration.
  "She is a very caring individual, and you'd rather your children have it, than not have it. But how much of it?" Aziz said. "I don't want her to be so giving that people walk all over her."
  Al-Zaman is a wisp of a woman with the kind of welcoming countenance she says is a magnet for "old people on the bus."
  "I'm always the one they talk to," she said.
  During her freshman year at Rosemont, the attacks of Sept. 11 occurred. They were a personal turning point.
  "I saw a need for moderate Muslims to stand up and be engaged in the process and represent the real Islam, which is about peace and has a rich history and culture," Al-Zaman said. Her opinion piece about the cartoons said the same.
  A trip to Cuba for a Rosemont study project became another step in the transformation. Al-Zaman conversed freely in the Spanish that she had learned, chatted with Cubans about history and politics, invited a newspaper photographer to have lunch and talk about his work, and even learned a few steps of salsa.
  "I learned not to underestimate myself," Al-Zaman said.
  At a recent panel discussion, she was poised as she greeted panelists and was interviewed by television reporters. She kept a firm handle on the panel discussion as diverse opinions about the overseas protests and media intent were at times forcefully expressed. Yet, when one interchange between a panelist and a questioner got increasingly heated, Al-Zaman's protestations to move on went unheeded until Memon stood up and insisted that the next questioner be heard.
  "I know it's stressful to her sometimes because it's a lot of work for one person. But I've seen how it's changed her. She is more self-assured and outgoing," Scales said. "It's 'this is what I think and this is how it should go.' "
  Al-Zaman says she has learned to stand up for herself.
  Al-Zaman is not sure that nonprofit groups will be her life's work, but she is sure that she will always be involved with Muslim causes. For now, she is touting CAIR Philadelphia's education initiative on Islam and the life of the prophet. Al-Zaman will teach in a series of classes which will begin Thursday at the Paoli Presbyterian Church.
  Before she joined CAIR, Al-Zaman said she did not know whether she was a leader.
  "As a communications director, I could be a leader," Al-Zaman said. Then, after a second, she added, "Yes, I guess I am."
  Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or kholmes@phillynews.com.


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