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American Muslims Find Their Voice - 2001-10-16

Leading American Arab and Muslim leaders met with President Bush in the aftermath of last month's attacks by Islamic extremists. They condemned the terrorist acts carried out in the name of religion, and outlined longstanding concerns among Muslim Americans.

Political scientist Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance was a member of the group invited to meet with President Bush September 11. Major Muslim organizations had endorsed Mr. Bush in last year's presidential election, and they were meeting to discuss progress on two longstanding concerns: The targeting of Arabs during security screenings, and federal rules which allow the use of secret evidence in immigration hearings on cases related to national security.

September 11 was the day of the terror attacks in New York and Washington, and the meeting was postponed. But White House officials invited the Muslim leaders to Washington's National Cathedral for a memorial to the victims later that week. One Muslim leader, Muzammil Siddiqi, offered an Arabic-language prayer from the Koran during the service.

The rescheduled meeting with President Bush took place September 26, when the Muslim leaders restated their abhorrence of the killing of innocent people in the name of their religion.

The United States and its allies say the al-Qaida organization of Osama bin Laden, a dissident Saudi-exile, is behind the attacks. U.S. officials say al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan are at the center of a worldwide terrorist network.

The bin Laden organization claims to act in the name of religion. And Mr. Saeed notes the group has attracted a following by using themes that Muslims respond to, such as concern that Palestinians receive a fair settlement in their dispute with Israel. "Osama bin Laden now is trying to use some of the most important Muslim issues to wrap himself in them, to seek sympathy and support. But he has absolutely nothing to do with the issue of Palestine," said Mr. Saeed. "He has never done anything. And actually his association with the cause is harmful for the cause, so I reject his efforts to get involved with that, completely and comprehensively."

Mr. Saeed is an outspoken and sometimes controversial supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Like Osama bin Laden, the Taleban faction in Afghanistan claims to act in the name of religion. Islam is the faith of nearly all Afghans, except for a tiny minority of Hindus. But political scientist Saeed says Islam, as practiced by most Afghans, is a moderate form of religion unlike the radical ideology of the Taleban.

In the Afghan community of Fremont, California, 25-year-old Deana Haya agrees with that assessment. She says her Muslim heritage is important to her, as it is to most Afghan immigrants here. But she says the faith of the Afghan community is tolerant. "There are obviously people who believe in fundamentalist Islam, but they do not make it compulsory for other people to follow their ideas," she said. "And within the mosques you have a wide array of beliefs, a spectrum of Islam, and that is the diversity that is missing within the Taleban regime, the understanding that people are different and that they are allowed to practice Islam in all its diversity."

Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance says that Islam as practiced in most of the world fosters hope, not despair and anger. He says Islam thrives in an open political system, which addresses the needs of Muslims and non-Muslims. "And one way of doing that is to provide legal and moral alternatives," he said. "For example if, and in this case I want to emphasize American Muslims, are able to find their way into the American political system as equal partners and citizens, and learn to work in open societies and have a model whereby they can defend their rights and fulfill their needs, then they set up a model for Muslims all over the world."

Mr. Saeed recalls that after the national prayer service in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks, former President Jimmy Carter extended his hand to Mr. Saeed's colleague, Muzammil Siddiqi. Mr. Carter offered a greeting in Arabic, meaning "peace on you."

Mr. Saeed says the gesture was rich in symbolism at a time when American Muslims are starting to find their voice and participate more fully in American politics and public life.