Islam's flawed spokesmen

Some of the groups claiming to speak for American Muslims find it impossible to speak out against terrorist groups.

Published September 26, 2001 11:59PM (EDT)

Less than a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush appeared at the Islamic Center in Washington, standing with various leaders of Muslim groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American Muslim Council (AMC) to make a public show of support for American Muslims, as ugly acts of violence and intimidation were made against Muslims and Arab-Americans

"It's a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth," Bush said. "And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They're outraged, they're sad. They love America just as much as I do."

CAIR and the AMC have emerged as possibly the two most outspoken U.S. Muslim organizations in the wake of the tragedy, protesting "hate crimes" against Muslims and Arab-Americans, explaining why increased security need not preclude civil liberties for those from the Middle East and Near East, and trying to put a moderate face on a religion Americans only seem to hear about when it rears up in its most extreme incarnations.

USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Fox News Channel and Salon -- as well as hundreds of media outlets throughout America in search of expertise, information and a moderate face for Islam -- have sought out CAIR and AMC executives in recent weeks. When CNN's Bill Hemmer tackled the question "What do we really know about Islam?" it was Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan, executive director of CAIR, to whom he turned. And it was Aly Abu Zaakouk, executive director of the AMC, who explained to the San Francisco Chronicle how the term "Infinite Justice," the Pentagon's initial name for a U.S. military strategy overseas, would be "offensive to some in the Muslim community."

But reporters are learning it's not easy to find leaders who can authentically speak for Muslim Americans, who represent a wide variety of ethnicities and languages, sects and political views ranging from completely secular to Islamic fundamentalist. CAIR and AMC in particular would not be chosen as representatives by many Muslims. In fact, there are those in American Muslim communities as well as law enforcement who consider CAIR and the AMC to be part of the problem, because both have been seen as tacitly -- if not explicitly -- supportive of extremist groups guilty of terrorism.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of CAIR, refuses to outright condemn Osama bin Laden. "We condemn terrorism, we condemn the attack on the buildings," Hooper said. But why not condemn bin Laden by name, especially after President Bush has now stated that he was clearly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks?

"If Osama bin Laden was behind it, we condemn him by name," Hooper said. But why the "if" -- why qualify the response? Hooper said he resented the question. And what about prior acts of terror linked to bin Laden? Or that bin Laden has urged Muslims to kill Americans?

Again, Hooper demurred, saying only that he condemns acts of terror.

Both groups also refuse to outright condemn Islamic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. In fact, leaders from both groups have, in recent years, been quoted defending or exhorting organizations that the U.S. State Department classifies as "foreign terrorist." Steven Pomerantz, former FBI assistant director and chief of the FBI's counterterrorism section, once charged that CAIR's activities "effectively give aid to international terrorist groups." Other American Muslim leaders have raised questions about their possible alliances with radical groups, and many academics are disturbed by the groups' prominence.

But CAIR and AMC strongly disagree with such criticisms, blaming an anti-Muslim bias -- or a pro-Israel one. When asked Friday about accusations from other Muslims that his group may be extremist, Aly Abu Zaakouk, the executive director of the AMC, said, "You are trying to blemish our reputation. Get the heck out of here," and hung up the phone. "This kind of thing has been going on for years," said CAIR's Hooper. Asked about Muslim clerics who have complained that his organization is extremist, Hooper said, "The pro-Israel lobby hooks up these guys to be their Muslim front men."

An even more basic problem for many Muslim academics and some clerics is the presumption that these organizations represent their views. "There is general concern among Muslim intellectuals about how not only CAIR but some of these other organizations are claiming to speak in the name of the Muslim community, and how they're coming to be recognized by the government as spokespeople for the Muslim community in the U.S.," says Ali Asani, professor of Islamic studies at Harvard University. "That troubles people."

Neither CAIR nor the AMC divulge their membership numbers, though both seem to be, as AMC executive director Aly Abu Zaakouk says, "working to be the voice of American Muslims in Washington, D.C., in state capitals and local governments, from PTAs to Pennsylvania Avenue."

But unlike, say, the Catholic Church, Islam in the U.S. doesn't have an organized hierarchy. That is, Asani says, "something the American Muslim community has been struggling with." There are moderate-seeming groups like the Islamic Institute and others that will likely gain greater visibility as this crisis continues. But with Muslims coming from so many different countries, with so many different sects within those countries, often the loudest group -- or the ones who lobby Congress -- are the ones the U.S. government turns to as representative of the estimated 6 million to 8 million American Muslims.

When leaders of these groups speak to the media, Asani says, "Very often whoever's speaking for them represents a very homogenized global form of Islam that refuses to recognize diversity of opinion.

"One of the things I have noticed as a result of this crisis is that there are so many people -- this imam and that imam -- and everybody is claiming they represent the Muslim community," he says.

Particularly problematic is the attitude of CAIR and AMC toward Islamic terrorist groups. CAIR was critical of the prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, whom U.S. authorities deemed the ringleader of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and who was convicted with nine followers in October 1995 of conspiring to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel along with other New York City landmarks.

CAIR went so far as to list Abdul-Rahman's lawyers' criticisms of the trial as "far from free and fair" on a 1996 list of "incidents of anti-Muslim bias and violence" in a book called "The Price of Ignorance" which dealt with the "status of Muslim civil rights in the United States." And CAIR's founder, Nihad Awad, wrote in the Muslim World Monitor that the World Trade Center trial, which ended in the conviction in 1994 of four Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, was "a travesty of justice." According to Awad -- and despite the confessions of the terrorists from the 1993 attack -- "there is ample evidence indicating that both the Mossad and the Egyptian Intelligence played a role in the explosion." (Awad -- who met with President Bush last week -- has been more circumspect in his comments after this World Trade Center bombing.)

Leaders of the AMC also have expressed concern for the 1993 World Trade Center terrorists who, it should be remembered, differ only from the Sept. 11 bombers in efficiency. "I believe that the judge went out of his way to punish the defendants harshly and with vengeance, and to a large extent, because they were Muslim," Abdurahman Alamoudi, then the executive director of the AMC, wrote to his members on Aug. 20, 1994.

Last year, questions about Alamoudi and the actual moderation of the AMC came to light when both Gov. George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton returned $1,000 given to their respective campaigns by Alamoudi, no longer the executive director but still a board member of the organization, according to the AMC. Last year, however, Clinton and Bush expressed concern not with Alamoudi's claim that the 1993 World Trade Center bombers were the victims of anti-Muslim bias, but because of his support for other terrorist organizations.

At a November 2000 rally against Israel in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, Alamoudi said to the crowd, "Hear that, Bill Clinton! We are all supporters of Hamas. I wish they add that I am also a supporter of Hizballah. Anybody support Hizballah here?" The crowd cheered.

According to the State Department, Hamas engages in "large-scale suicide bombings -- against Israeli civilian and military targets, suspected Palestinian collaborators, and Fatah rivals." A pro-Hamas Web site proudly lists the organization's various acts of violence, against both Israeli military and civilians. Hezbollah, the State Department says, is "known or suspected to have been involved in numerous anti-U.S. terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 and the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in September 1984. Elements of the group were responsible for the kidnapping and detention of U.S. and other Western hostages in Lebanon. The group also attacked the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992."

But neither CAIR nor the AMC or other Muslim American organizations -- much like several of the Arab nations Bush is trying to bring into the anti-terrorism coalition -- appear to consider Hamas or Hezbollah terrorist organizations. Nor does it mean that Israeli civilians -- especially those who live on settlements in disputed territories -- are necessarily considered "innocent civilians" to these groups, either.

But Azar Nafisi, a culture and politics professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, says the support of certain terrorist groups poses a fundamental problem for any organization that hopes to speak for American Muslims. Even if they condemn bin Laden, "Different Muslim organizations in the United States support Hamas," she says. "Are some acts of terrorism valid and some not?"

CAIR's Hooper repudiates the charge wholeheartedly, arguing that no one can point to any example of the major American Muslim organizations supporting Islamic extremism. He says that they are faulted for "sins of omission, not sins of commission," and that criticism comes their way from other Muslims for not speaking out against terrorist organizations or human rights abuses in Muslim countries, not for necessarily voicing support.

Hooper's comments about Hamas and Hezbollah are even more qualified than they were about bin Laden. "If someone carries out terrorist acts, they should be labeled as a terrorist," he says. "If they don't, they shouldn't." Pressed to address these two terrorist groups by name, Hooper said, "If Hamas kills innocent civilians we condemn them. But I'm not going to condemn legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation."

CAIR, Hooper continues, has never even mentioned the word "Hamas" as an organization, so why should they start now? But that, of course, doesn't include all the mentions of Hamas that CAIR's leaders have made -- including CAIR founder Awad's 1994 declaration that before the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority he "used to support the PLO," but that now he was "in support of the Hamas movement more than the PLO."

Hamas, meanwhile, has claimed credit for the murders of countless Israeli civilians. Middle East scholars believe that Islamic fundamentalists don't consider many victims of terrorist attacks "innocent," which is how they can defend Hamas as not killing innocent people. Hooper, however, refused to answer questions exploring that theory.

"What you're trying to get me to say is the Palestinians don't deserve to live in peace and freedom," Hooper says -- though neither the Palestinians nor Israel had been mentioned. Questions about whether CAIR would condemn organizations by name unequivocally, instead of qualifying the condemnations, were just "word games from the pro-Israel lobby," Hooper said. Instead, Hooper said that the very questions were the problem, and part of a Zionist conspiracy. "This is a game they play," Hooper said, referring to the pro-Israel lobby. "They give me a long list of people to condemn and if you don't give sufficient condemnation you're a terrorist. We would condemn any person or any group that kills innocent civilians. But it's not my duty that when the pro-Israel lobby says 'Jump' I say 'How high?'"

Hooper says that his attitude about whoever is behind the attacks is "go get 'em," but his job is to preserve the rights of Muslims in this country and be vigilant in that task. He criticizes the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that when law enforcement refers to "associates" of the terrorists, they're stretching the term. Law enforcement is using the term "associates" too loosely, he says, in a way to target Muslims. "It's like the 'Six degrees of Kevin Bacon' game," he says. "No Muslim is more than six degrees away from Osama bin Laden."

Hooper then ended the interview, and refused to discuss questions about a series of 1994 meetings that CAIR coordinated for Bassam Alamoush, a Jordanian Islamic militant who told a Chicago audience in December of that year that killing Jews was "a good deed." Nor could he be asked about CAIR board member Siraj Wahaj. Wahaj, the imam of the Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, decried on TV the Sept. 11 attacks as "criminal" and "wrong." But Wahaj also had invited convicted terrorist Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman to speak at his mosque, and even testified on his behalf. Before then, in 1991, speaking to the Islamic Association of North Texas, Wahaj called Operation Desert Storm "one of the most diabolical plots ever in the annals of history," and that the war was "part of a larger plan, to destroy the greatest challenge to the Western world, and that's Islam." Just as the USSR fell, so too will the U.S., Wahaj said, "unless America changes its course from the new world order and accepts the Islamic agenda."

Long before the Sept. 11 horror, one of the most bold critiques of Muslim American organizations came on Jan. 7, 1999, in a speech to the U.S. State Department by Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, another nonprofit organization for American Muslims. Kabbani spoke critically about the ideology of the major Muslim American organizations. Warning that too many Muslims in America were supporting terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in a variety of ways, and that too many mosques in the United States were becoming havens for Islamic extremists, Kabbani said that some Muslim American organizations were a big part of the problem.

"There are many Muslim organizations that claim to speak on behalf of the Muslim community but that in reality are not moderate, but extremist," Kabbani said. While Kabbani made no direct references to any group in his speech, it is with AMC and CAIR that he has publicly feuded.

Muslim extremism is dangerous, Kabbani cautioned, and the media needs to learn the difference between Islam and extremism. "What I am seeing, unfortunately, are those that are advising the media, or advising the government are not the moderate Muslims," Kabbani said. "Those whose opinion the government asks are the extremists themselves."

And in a January 1997 letter to a Muslim Web site, Seif Ashmawy, an Egyptian Muslim and peace activist who published the "Voice of Peace" newsletter about Muslim affairs, slammed both CAIR and the AMC for defending Islamic extremism. "It is a known fact that both the AMC and CAIR have defended, apologized for, and rationalized the actions of extremists groups," Ashmawy, who died in a 1998 car accident, wrote. "The real challenge for moderates like myself is to prevent my Muslim brethren from [being] deceived by extremist groups that pretend to represent their interests." The groups' defenders argue that groups like CAIR and the AMC are naturally and rightly critical of the Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. And they make no apologies for vigorously defending the civil rights and civil liberties of Arab-Americans and Muslims, which sometimes leads them to butt heads with U.S. law enforcement. CAIR's Hooper says Kabbani represents just a small group of Muslims. Law enforcement officials who make charges such as Pomerantz's are "anti-Muslim bigots."

But the views of the more radical American Muslims will continue to face increased scrutiny, and in some cases, condemnation from the American public. Until early last week, for instance, the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, Fla., posted on its Web site an openly anti-Semitic essay that referred to Jews as being "known for their treachery and corruption" and quoted from a Muslim text that read, "O Muslim! There is Jew behind me, kill him!"

Dan McBride, spokesman for the Boca Raton mosque, said the essay, titled, "Why can't the Jews and Muslims live together in peace?" generated three e-mail complaints, so they took it down.

"As fellow Americans, we're all a little sensitive right now and we don't want to increase any tensions," McBride said. "So we're trying to be a little politically correct right now."

Which is not to say McBride disagrees with anything in the essay. In fact, he defends it word for word, including passages that Art Teitelbaum, the southern area director of the Anti Defamation League, calls "filled with poisonous anti-Semitic bigotry." McBride defends the assertion, for instance, that Jews are "usurpers and aggressors, who have oppressed and persecuted others, and who are known for their treachery and corruption throughout the world, historically and in the present age." And that Jews have "carried out chemical and radiational [sic] experiments on their prisoners, and taken organs from them for transplant into Jewish patients." McBride says "that's all documented," though he could not provide any documentation.

"This is the kind of ranting and ravings that you get out of -- I would like to say fanatics, but it's not just fanatics, it's people who are ignorant," says Johns Hopkins' Nafisi, who was raised Muslim in Iran. "It's one interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that has been encouraged by many Muslim leaders around the world. But it's not the Islam I was raised on."

Ultimately, as the American public requires more knowledge of Islam, the challenge will be in finding leaders who can explain the faith, while being free of their own ties to the religion's fundamentalist sects. But for any American Muslim leader, in trying to appeal to a wide variety of people, there may easily be examples of, or acceptance of, Islamic extremism in their past.

During the national day of prayer and remembrance Sept. 14 at the National Cathedral, attended by Bush and other U.S. dignitaries, Muzammil Siddiqi, imam for the Islamic Society of North America, read from the Quran, saying that "Those that lay the plots of evil, for them is a terrible penalty; and the plotting of such will be not abide."

But, as columnist Charles Krauthammer wondered in the Washington Post, one has to ask "who are the layers of plots of evil" to whom Siddiqi refers? "Those who perpetrated the World Trade Center attack? Or America, as thousands of Muslims in the street claim? The imam might have made that clear. He did not." It was not the first time Siddiqi was disturbingly noncommittal. In 1989, after the fatwa death sentence issued against author Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses," Siddiqi's view on whether Rushdie should be killed was difficult to assess. "Asked whether he personally thinks capital punishment would be appropriate in Rushdie's case," wrote the Los Angeles Times, "Siddiqi was non-committal, saying that would have to be determined in the due process of Islamic law."

This story has been corrected.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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