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American Muslims Comment on 'State of the Union' Speech - 2002-01-30

With the United States at war, many Americans took more than passing interest in President Bush's State of the Union Address - including American Muslims. At a mosque just outside Miami, some 50 Muslims watched Mr. Bush's speech on a big screen television.

As usual, the evening began with prayer at the Miami Gardens Mosque. But the focus quickly turned to politics once. President Bush's State of the Union Address began.

Many South Florida Muslims say they feel they have been living under a microscope since September 11. They say they are subject to greater public scrutiny and, at times, ridicule. Many have been questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of the Justice Department's continuing investigation of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Khurrum Wahid directs the civil rights office of the Council on American Islamic Relations. He says President Bush's speech left him somewhat reassured.

"I do believe the president is trying to balance the civil rights of Americans - and non-citizens, as well - with the need for security. He is trying to do that. I think it is a tough balance. He mentioned the secret police of [the former Taleban rulers in] Afghanistan knocking on someone's door in the middle of the night. And, quite frankly, I know that the FBI has knocked on the doors of many Muslims in the middle of the night over the last four months," he said.

Many at the mosque make a clear distinction between U.S. foreign and domestic policy. For the most part, they say they understand the need for enhanced security at home. But they bitterly criticize U.S. foreign policy, saying President Bush employs a heavy and uneven hand when dealing with other countries. This man's comments were typical.

"When he talks about ridding the world of terrorism or fighting for freedom and ridding the world of oppression and brutality, obviously he [Bush] is not talking about Israel. He is not talking about Kashmir. So, he is not really talking about freedom. It is a hypocritical statement, as I see it," he said.

Most who watched the State of the Union Address remained silent throughout - even when President Bush made direct references to Islam. One attendee said he feels less comfortable speaking out now than he did just a few months ago.

"Obviously after 9/11, most Muslims are reluctant to voice their opinions. But, in reality, I think most Muslims, American Muslims, feel a strong anger about U.S. foreign affairs. Unfortunately, in this nation, if we are [politically] active, we might be suspected of being terrorists or fundamentalists. We are very reluctant to say what we really feel," he said.

Discussion was not limited to President Bush's remarks. A few at the Miami Gardens Mosque expressed an interest in reaching out to their Muslim brethren in other countries. They said - just as many Americans are unfamiliar with Islam - many Muslims in other countries are ill-informed about the United States - and that American Muslims can serve as a go-between.