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American Muslims Rally Against Terrorism

An American Muslim group known as the Free Muslims Against Terrorism Coalition rallied Saturday [May 14th] in Washington, D.C., to denounce radical Islam and Islamic terrorism. Rally organizers anticipated a crowd of many thousands of supporters from the group's 50 local chapters nationwide.*

Kamal Nawash is president of the Free Muslims Against Terrorism Coalition. Mr. Nawash, a Palestinian native raised in the United States, says that most mainstream influential Muslim American groups have not clearly condemned Islamic terrorist violence. "Most of the terrorism in the world is coming from Muslims," he says. "This is a very sensitive and difficult point for Muslims to talk about and admit to it. They'd rather not admit the obvious for the fear that this somehow might make Islam look bad."

But Kamal Nawash says his group is talking about terrorism and trying to deal with it. That's why they organized the rally this Saturday.

"We wanted Muslims to lead a march against terror - again based on the fact that only Muslims can deal with this," the president of the Free Muslims Against Terrorism Coalition says. "Of course, we hope that this march can be covered by Arab media and Muslim media and let the extremists know, 'Hey, we don't support you out here. There are people who oppose you.' The idea is to send a counter message. The idea of using this kind of violence for political change is simply not acceptable to us and we want to begin an ideological battle -- and this is part of it."

Mr. Nawash says most established Muslim groups in the United States tend to sidestep the problem of Islamic violence by focusing on the political and social grievances of Muslims. Those are issues that need to be addressed he says. "But our point is we're going to have to clean our own house first. We're trying to convince Muslims, 'look we have a problem. We have a problem with extremism. Unless we address it, we can't solve any other problem we have."

Kamal Nawash says the answer to extremism is, "a modern, secular interpretation of Islam [that is] peaceful, democratic and compatible with other faiths and beliefs." Mr. Nawash says he has the support of several other secular Muslim groups recently founded in the United States.

But several well-known Muslim-American groups, who claim to speak for the approximately 6 million Muslims in the United States, are withholding support for the rally. And some are openly critical of Mr. Nawash.

Ibrahim Hooper is the director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the oldest and largest Muslim interest groups in the country. While he declined comment on the rally, Mr. Hooper endorsed statements issued by another group called the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, which denies that Muslim Americans are not doing their part to fight terrorism. *

"All of the American Muslims I know feel as attacked by al-Qaeda as any other group of Americans," says Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the Progressive Muslim Union. "There were a couple of hundred Muslim Americans, or Muslims at least -- whether Americans or otherwise -- who were in the World Trade Center who got killed by al-Qaeda on nine-eleven. There were Arab Americans and Muslims among the police and among the firefighters who rushed into the building and got killed as well as people who worked in and around those buildings who died. There are at least eight thousand American Muslims who proudly serve in the American military in Iraq, and in the Middle East and everywhere else around the world. And I apologize like that is to accept the idea that there's something that you could or should have done, something you've done that makes you culpable, and that your community is not pulling its weight in this. And I don't think that's fair at all."

Hussein Ibish says he believes Mr. Nawash is allied with what he calls "right wing" groups trying to make Muslim Americans look bad. "This kind of stance has a utility," he contends, "for people on the far right, other supporters of the extreme right in Israel and other right wing forces, including evangelical [Christian] forces, who want to paint the mainstream Muslim community and mainstream organizations -- whether liberal or conservative, whether secular or religious -- as all sort of disloyal, as having a secret, pro-terrorism agenda. So, I think, Kamal (Nawash) has made himself useful," Mr. Ibish adds. "Mr. Nawash poses as the exception that proves the rule, so to speak."

Mr. Nawash responds that his only agenda -- and the message of the gathering scheduled for this Saturday -- is that Muslim Americans need to speak out against terrorism, adopt a new, secular interpretation of Islam. Only then, he believes, will the violence end. Whether Mr. Nawash's efforts make him a tool of Islam's so-called enemies or a credible voice for Muslim moderation may hinge on the success of Saturday's anti-terrorism march in Washington.

* Original report ran Friday, May 13, before the rally. Report was re-edited Monday, May 16, with some corrections.