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Muslim lobbies fully mobilized since Sept. 11

Terror attacks make groups more active, goals more difficult

Sunday, February 10, 2002

By Rachel Smolkin, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Yahya Basha eagerly awaited his 3 p.m. meeting with President Bush. The White House had postponed it once already, and his wife had teased him that it probably would be delayed again.

But Basha was confident the meeting between Bush and U.S. Muslim and Arab American leaders would proceed as planned. As he waited in the opulent Hotel Washington near the White House, he flipped on his television, unaware that unfolding events would again postpone his meeting.

Major U.S. Muslim advocacy groups

Related article:
Protecting civil rights, curbing backlash groups' prime aims

It was Sept. 11, 2001.

One plane, then another, plowed into the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit at 9:03, Basha knew it was no accident. As an American, he felt devastated. As a Muslim, he felt fear. His mind raced back to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when initial and inaccurate reports incited a backlash against Arab Americans and Muslims.

Then Basha thought of his responsibilities as president of the American Muslim Council, a relatively new political lobbying group. "I felt a huge load, almost like a mountain, come down and sit on my head," said Basha, a native of Syria who is now a radiologist in suburban Detroit.

Basha was not the only leader to recognize the repercussions of Sept. 11 for the nascent American Muslim lobby. The major national Muslim advocacy groups, all less than 15 years old, have confronted vastly elevated challenges as they strive to portray their people in a positive light and to gain clout and credibility in U.S. politics.

The most prominent groups are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the American Muslim Alliance (AMA). The oldest group, MPAC, started in 1988; the two most recent, CAIR and the AMA, began in 1994.

"The challenges are more than we ever thought we'd be facing in such a short time," said Hassan Ibrahim, MPAC's national director.

These groups have mounted an aggressive defense of Muslim civil rights, lobbied against the use of secret evidence against people suspected of terrorist activity and opposed racial profiling. They have rallied around prominent Muslim charities, including the high-profile Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, and argued that Bush's decision to freeze their assets violates due process and could create the impression that "there has been a shift from a war on terrorism to an attack on Islam."

At the same time, the U.S. Muslim lobby has encountered increased scrutiny from liberal and conservative media outlets, including the New Republic and Insight magazine, for statements by some U.S. Muslim leaders about the Middle East. Relations with major American Jewish groups, strained even before Sept. 11, have been inflamed by the collapse of the Middle East peace process and by the U.S. war against terrorism.

Despite the criticism, the growing U.S. Muslim population represents an increasingly important political constituency and virtually ensures that Muslim lobbying and political action groups will continue to gain strength.

Just how many Muslims live in the United States is disputed. The U.S. Census does not track religion. Major Muslim groups estimate 6 to 7 million Muslims live in America. But a recent study commissioned by the American Jewish Committee came up with a much lower figure of 1.9 million to 2.8 million.

Muslims are heavily concentrated in big cities, including New York, Detroit and Chicago and Southern California. Pollster John Zogby estimates that U.S. Muslims are roughly 30 percent African-American, 20 percent Pakistani, 15 percent Arab American and 13 percent Indian. Another roughly 20 percent come from Iran, Turkey, Africa and Asia.

The national political parties have awakened gradually to the growing potency of the U.S. Muslim voting bloc.

More numbers; more clout

Toward the end of Bob Dole's sagging 1996 presidential campaign, his aides contacted Agha Saeed, national chairman of the AMA, a group that tries to involve Muslims in mainstream politics.

Dole's aides sought Saeed's endorsement, which he agreed to give if Dole would support Muslim civil rights, repeal the use of secret evidence, pursue an "even-handed" Middle East policy, and acknowledge the nation's heritage is not only Judeo-Christian but encompasses Islam, as well. Dole agreed in a letter but declined to do so publicly. Saeed refused to endorse him.

"After he said no, I was sort of relieved," said Saeed, a 53-year-old African-American studies lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley. "I did not have the ability to deliver him [even] three votes because no one had given me the authority to negotiate with him." Saeed realized that U.S. Muslim leaders needed a mechanism to enlist the community's opinions and translate consensus into a formal endorsement.

After two years of discussions with other groups, Saeed formed the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC), an umbrella organization composed of the four major Muslim groups -- the AMA, AMC, CAIR and MPAC. The new council established a political action committee, which raised little money but permitted national Muslim groups to make their first presidential endorsement.

They chose Bush in 2000 over Al Gore, praising Bush's "initiative" in meeting with U.S. Muslim leaders and his challenge of secret evidence at the second presidential debate.

Bush has continued to earn praise for his post-Sept. 11 appeals on Muslims' behalf. In a televised conference call two days after the attacks, Bush urged listeners to "treat Arab Americans and Muslims with the respect they deserve." On Sept. 17, Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington; nine days later, Muslim leaders finally had their delayed White House meeting.

Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who has helped connect Muslims with administration officials, said Bush has successfully appealed to the Muslim community as both an immigrant group and a religious minority.

In 1998, Norquist helped Muslim activist Khaled Saffuri found the Islamic Institute, an advocacy group that draws Muslims into the GOP. The institute makes the case that Islam and the Quran are consistent with democracy and economic conservatism. American Muslims tend to be conservative on social issues such as abortion and the "sanctity" of marriage, as well, Norquist said. "Their political profile is similar to members of the Christian Coalition."

Democrats have focused their outreach efforts on ethnic constituencies with many Muslim members rather than religious organizations per se, working with Arab Americans, Pakistanis and others. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat elected last November, enlisted Arab Americans to work on his campaign and even produced campaign brochures in Arabic.

U.S. Muslims initially reluctant to participate in national politics now demand even more activism from their leaders. Many have told Saeed that making the 2000 presidential endorsement was a good idea, but that AMPCC should get involved earlier in elections and permit more community debate.

Controversies over Israel

The four major Muslim political groups wasted no time mobilizing on Sept. 11 and in the frenzied days that followed. They quickly released a joint statement condemning the attacks and urged lawmakers not to trample civil rights in the name of national security.

They also hastened to quell a backlash against Muslims through public education and coordinated activities with lawmakers and administration officials. The groups have fielded thousands of calls from Muslims afraid to walk to mosques or wear religiously mandated head scarves to meetings with immigration officials.

CAIR has played an especially high-profile role, sending its communications director, Ibrahim Hooper, to counter opponents on CNN and other networks. CAIR also supported Walied Shater, the Secret Service agent barred from an American Airlines flight. Shater, traveling to Texas to protect Bush, says he was targeted because he is Arab American and Muslim.

The Muslim lobby's increased prominence has prompted closer scrutiny and criticisms of statements by some Muslim leaders, especially about Israel and about Hamas and Hezbollah, militant anti-Israel groups the State Department identifies as terrorist organizations.

Upset by immediate suggestions on Sept. 11 that Muslims had directed the attacks in New York and Washington that day, Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC's executive director, said during a Sept. 11 radio interview in Los Angeles, "We should put the state of Israel on the suspect list because I think this diverts attention from what's happening in the Palestinian territories."

Abdurahman Alamoudi, founder and former board member of the American Muslim Council, had told a rally outside the White House in October 2000 that "We are all supporters of Hamas... I am also a supporter of Hezbollah."

Bush, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Rep. John Sununu, R-N.H., returned campaign donations from Alamoudi. Rep. David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat vying to be governor, has been criticized by his Democratic rival for keeping Alamoudi's $1,000 donation to his 2000 House campaign.

Last month, Bonior's campaign released an apology by Alamoudi for his "intemperate and divisive remarks" spoken "in the heat of anger and frustration." Bonior himself disavowed any comment "by anyone that suggests that violence is a legitimate means to achieve political goals." He accused his opponents of trying to exploit the situation and said Alamoudi's apology "should end this matter."

But even U.S. Muslim leaders who do not publicly support Hamas and the Hezbollah generally decline to condemn them.

"We're not in the business of condemning," CAIR's Hooper said. "This is the hot button issue, the gotcha question, that the extremist wing of the pro-Israel lobby always gets reporters to ask. And we're not playing that game."

Other Muslim leaders offer more measured responses, saying they condemn terrorism and violence against civilians but prefer to focus on domestic issues.

Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, which works closely with the Muslim lobby, said he condemns terrorism and suicide bombers but that Hezbollah and Hamas also perform needed services. "You want to ban Hamas, fine," he said, "but what are you going to do about widows and orphans and social services and health services?"

Such positions have not endeared the Muslim lobby to major Jewish organizations, which contend Muslim groups lack political maturity because no dissenting voice among the leadership criticizes Palestinian leaders or policies.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the ADL supports U.S. Muslim advocacy groups when Muslims are subjected to discrimination but does not accept them as full partners.

"We have no litmus test for us condemning any bigotry or prejudice or racism directed at them for who they are, how they dress, where they come from," Foxman said. "We have not stood in any coalition with them in terms of going beyond that. It would be hypocritical for us to stand with them when they differentiate good terrorism and bad terrorism."

The Muslim lobby's heightened post-September activity has not gone unnoticed by Jewish leaders. David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that Jewish groups must work even harder to explain their own stances.

"We simply cannot afford complacency," Harris said. "The stated goals of a number of these groups include trying to redefine the definition of terrorism, trying to end sanctions against Iraq, trying to call into question the U.S.-Israel relationship. Those are not our goals, quite to the contrary."

In December, MPAC urged the U.S. government to make Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cease the "escalation of violence" against Palestinians: "It is in American security interests for Israel to withdraw immediately from the Occupied Territories -- it is time for Israel to show it is serious about peace, not territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing."

A widening agenda

While critical of Israel and U.S. Jewish groups, the Muslim lobby has modeled itself after Jewish and other successful racial and ethnic advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League (founded 1913), the NAACP (founded 1909) and the National Council of La Raza (founded 1968).

Like these more established and generally better financed organizations, Muslim groups track incidents of discrimination. They encourage grassroots participation, soliciting donations and urging members to contact their elected representatives. They are joining coalitions and becoming active in a widening range of issues.

The AMC's legislative agenda seeks to improve the way healthcare insurers accommodate patients of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds, and it endorses repeal of the "marriage-penalty" tax, which it says penalizes many married couples and frustrates efforts to build strong families. The council also recommends U.S. sales of food and medicine to Iraq and urges recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The AMC's broad agenda reflects a growing participation in the political process. And as U.S. Muslim groups attempt to establish themselves as national players, some leaders believe Sept. 11 has catalyzed activism within the Muslim community.

"It got the people involved, feeling like they have to stand up and participate," the AMC's Basha said. But he expects community involvement to increase gradually. "We are at the beginning of the march, the beginning of the road, and you have to convince people with small successes."

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