Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Muslim Scouts do their duty
Home News Tribune Online 03/26/06By

SOUTH BRUNSWICK — The boys of Troop 114 hike, canoe and help fix trails at Scout camp in northwestern New Jersey. They earn patches, sing songs and hoist tents in the woods.
Basith Fahumy leads Troop 114 in the Boy Scout Oath at the beginning of a meeting at the Noor-Ul-Iman School in South Brunswick.

"The coolest thing is the camping and all the activities we do," said Scout Atif Salahudeen, 12, of Lawrenceville. "We're independent for a while."
But unlike most other Boy Scouts, Atif and his fellow 35 troop members take time out during camp to pray five times a day. In the mess hall they dine on halal food, and during weekly troop meetings at the Noor-Ul-Iman School off Route 1 they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Boy Scout Oath after a prayer to Allah.
"In the context of the troop we're able to have our own culture," said Saffet Catovic, chair of the troop committee at the Noor-Ul-Iman School.
As members of the first, official all-Muslim Boy Scout troop in New Jersey, the boys mesh their religious beliefs with the values of the Boy Scouts of America, learning first aid, outdoor survival techniques, citizenship skills and earning patches on Islam.
Aly Aziz, 70, a Noor-Ul-Iman board member who was once a Boy Scout in Alexandria, Egypt, founded the troop four years ago. Since then, the school also has chartered a Daisy and Junior Girl Scout troop.
"Being a part of an all-Muslim unit gives a certain level of comfort," said Catovic, adding that pupils are at ease performing daily prayers at Scouting events because they're part of a larger group.
That experience, along with the understanding of the Boy Scouts' regional governing body, the Central New Jersey Council, has helped boys to feel more accepted as Muslim Americans, Catovic said, and more open about their religion.
"The council gave us a lot of support," said Catovic. "They said belief in God is central to Scouting, and if some parts of Scouting are against your religious beliefs you don't have to honor that."
As of 2004, 112 Islamic Boy Scout, Cub Scout, and Venturing Crew groups were chartered in the United States. In 2002, 94 troops were registered; in 2003, 107.
Since Troop 114's inception in 2002, members have held a food drive at the end of Ramadan and organized a mosque prayer service to commemorate the Boy Scouts' 95th anniversary. Catovic led the sermon dressed in a Scout uniform. During Christmas, troop members collected 150 toys from the Noor-Ul-Iman School and distributed the gifts to needy children in Newark.
Alan Rowe, a Boy Scouts of America district director who helped organizers establish the troop, said the boys' presence at Scouting events has inspired cultural dialogue and questions about Islam.
"I think it's wonderful the way they run their Scout meetings," Rowe said about troop leaders. "The 12th point of the Scout law is to be reverent, and they follow that very well."
At a recent troop meeting, Atif and other young Scouts learned rescue breathing and how to approach an unconscious victim with Scoutmaster Ahmadesmael El-Moslimany. The boys, many still in after-school activity clothes — karate and other sports uniforms — bounced in their seats and shouted out answers: "Check for breathing!" and "Do the Heimlich!"
Across the school building, senior Scouts learned about the Religious Emblem, a patch on Islam earned after passing a written test and an oral exam administered by the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey's imam.
"The most important part is to continue to live as Muslims have ordained," Catovic said as he flipped through a copy of the Quran and the Boy Scout Handbook. "And these days, we also have to be able to explain our religion very clearly."
Scouts also must complete religious activities and hours of community service to earn the emblem. Boy Scout troops affiliated with other religions have similar patches: Presbyterians have the "God and Me" emblem and Jews the Maccabee emblem.
Catovic's son, Ibraheem, 15, earned the religious patch last year after writing essays about how he would describe God and what he thought were the effects of prayer.
"I was a little nervous, but I got it," Ibraheem said. "I felt good because it tells you you're on the right track in terms of religion."
Atif, a first-year Boy Scout who said he loves to canoe, recently earned the Do a Good Turn Daily patch through volunteer work both in the community and in the mosque.
"I helped with a turkey drive to give turkeys to poor families and helped clean the mosque," Atif said.
Aziz, who once attended international jamborees in Lebanon and Syria and sailed with fellow Scouts in the Mediterranean, said Scouting helped him become more disciplined and build confidence. He wanted Noor-Ul-Iman pupils to have that same experience.
"Scouting really prepares the youngsters to face any situation," Aziz said. "It makes them independent, more tolerant and more appreciative."
Aziz now teaches troop members how to swim and gives lectures on leadership and drug awareness. The troop participates in all activities required by the Boy Scouts of America in addition to religious events.
"The people at Boy Scouts of America respect our religion," Aziz said. "They're quite understanding."
To close each meeting, the boys of Troop 114 gather in a circle, shake hands and wish each other "salam," peace in Arabic. At a recent meeting, members displayed posters depicting the symbols of the troop's five patrols. Each symbol — a falcon, bronco, panther, bear and lion — is mentioned in the Quran or Hadith, sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, Catovic said.
Looking on, Catovic spoke about the benefits of Scouting, which he says helps boys to grow into responsible, confident men. Scouting also gives members the chance to commune with nature.
"You're not mesmerized by the lights and can actually see the stars," Catovic said. "You're getting back to your origins. You're closer to God."
Deborah Lynn Blumberg:
(732) 565-7264;

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