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Detroiter makes an impact on U.S. Muslim

Detroiter makes an impact on U.S. Muslim



He first felt the urge to convert religions when listening to the rhetoric of hip-hop lyricists such as south Bronx native KRS-One and the fiery-tongued Chuck D of Public Enemy.

The rhythmic Islamic references in those seminal raps, mostly asides, caught his attention, he says, and inspired him to dig further.

And so the black kid born in Detroit and raised in the South did convert from a southern Baptist to a northern Muslim.

He's now a spokesman for Islamic causes of every shade.

Dawud Walid's search for spiritual direction saw him skipping from college to college as a 20-something until he read Malcolm X's best-selling autobiography. The work traces Malcolm X's journey from Michigan to Mecca.

Walid's journey, though of course less celebrated, is not too far off from that one.

The 35-year-old is just over a decade removed from his conversion to Islam, and just 3 1/2 years from his first hajj, or religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet he's swiftly becoming a powerful presence in U.S. Muslim leadership.

For two-plus years, Walid has been the executive director of the Michigan office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Southfield; CAIR is headquartered in Washington, D.C., has 32 offices in the United States and Canada and is considered the leading civil rights group in the United States for Muslims.

Walid is everywhere, it seems. His eloquence and charisma have him speaking throughout metro Detroit and even nationwide, including appearances on CNN and C-SPAN.

In the spring, he was at Harvard University talking about the importance of getting out the black vote. This summer, he was on Free Press staffer Mitch Albom's radio show talking about a government raid of two Islamic charities, and in Kalamazoo speaking to thousands at a rally meant to promote diversity.

On Tuesday, he spoke before Hamtramck's City Council about an anti-racial profiling ordinance being voted on there.

He's tentatively scheduled to travel in October to Darfur in western Sudan with a delegation of African-American Muslim leaders from Detroit. The genocide-wracked region is all over Washington and Hollywood's geopolitical radar.

He speaks regularly at one of Detroit's largest mosques, Masjid Wali Muhammad, where he is an associate imam. The mosque was the first Nation of Islam temple in the country ever built, according to Walid.

"This job is 24-7," said Walid, a husband and a father of three, of his position with CAIR, which takes pride in highlighting potential injustices against practitioners of Islam in the United States. "There's never a break."

Walid is a moderate Muslim, but he doesn't like the term. He says mainstream tenants of the faith consider the religion inherently moderate.

Founded in 1994 by Sunni Palestinian immigrants, CAIR was initially perceived as more of a Sunni group. But the Michigan branch has made increased efforts to bridge the divide between the Sunnis and Shiites, which often spill blood in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East over their differences.

"Islam makes life easier, and it makes sense to me. In Islam, we have very clear directives and prohibitions," he said, pointing to the prohibitions against gambling and drinking as examples. "Having those frees the mind to contemplate other things."

For Walid, that means hours poring over books, often rereading them (recently, "King Leopold's Ghost," about the Belgian genocide in colonial Zaire, and "Emotional Intelligence," a book about alternatives to the IQ test). He listens to talk shows while at his desk at work or while driving between engagements, including those on which Muslims are often criticized.

"You may not agree with every perspective out there, but you always gain something small from listening to opposing views," said Walid.

It's a vision he says he lacked when he was young, though it was the diversity of his upbringing -- he recollects fondly the ethnically and racially mixed classrooms of his public school education in Richmond, Va. -- that grounded him firmly in moderate Islam.

He represents a swath of black American Muslims who've transitioned from the extremes of the Nation of Islam to the moderation of orthodox Islam over the past three decades, becoming part of America's growing and increasingly vocal Muslim minority.

"He represents the true image of a Muslim, which is always internationally tuned in," said Abdullah El-Amin, a 62-year-old African-American Muslim activist and Detroiter who also converted to Islam as a youth and has known Walid for years.

"Walid just naturally fits into that mold of Islam" that embraces diversity, El-Amin said. "He lives it and he believes in it, and he's doing a great job of bringing that part of the religion to life."

Najah Bazzy, a descendant of Middle Eastern Muslims and a Canton resident, recalls meeting Walid 8 years ago at a youth ministry and being taken by his enthusiasm.

"He's extremely media savvy," said Bazzy, 47 and a mother of four, who says she often finds herself sharing a podium with him at speaking engagements.

Bazzy, a Muslim, is the director of Zaman International, an interfaith charity that does work throughout metro Detroit. "He's a really good bridge builder between Sunnis and Shiites, too," she said.

But CAIR does have its detractors. The group has sometimes come under attack in recent years for its Muslim advocacy and criticized as being terrorist apologists.

Walid won't give out the names of his wife or children, and says he received credible death threats this summer. The FBI is investigating.

He sports a rounded, trim beard and looks vaguely reminiscent of darker-skinned Middle Eastern men. That makes him stick out as a target for anti-Muslim extremists, he admits.

"As an African American, I think we have to break out of the victim mentality -- and Muslims, too," he says.

"I don't think there's any contradiction between me being an American and me being a Muslim, either," said Walid, who says the assumption on that point is common. "I've been formed totally by the American experience."


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