In the wake of Sept. 11, Muslim leaders criticized for statements on terrorism

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2001

In the days after Sept. 11, Imam Fawaz Damra of the Islamic Center of Cleveland represented Muslims at interfaith gatherings. When someone rammed a car into his mosque, Christian and Jewish clergy rallied around him.

Then local TV stations broadcast a tape of Damra from 1991. He was raising money for a Palestinian holy war, and said Muslims should be ''directing all the rifles at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews.''

Known for reaching out to other faiths, Damra quickly found himself ostracized by other religious leaders -- and he's not the only U.S. Muslim leader to come under scrutiny since the hijackers struck.

Suddenly sought out by their neighbors, and on a national level by President Bush, some Muslims are also gaining attention for statements they made before Sept. 11, particularly regarding Israel and terrorism.

These same leaders have condemned the suicide attacks, and raised money for the terror victims. But many Jewish organizations see the outpouring as a cynical attempt at reinvention, hiding true beliefs.

''Is there real change or has it simply been done with an eye on the camera?'' asked David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

American Islamic organizations argue the criticism is part of a long-standing campaign by pro-Israel groups to discredit them. The Muslims say backing Palestinian resistance to Israel does not mean they support terrorism.

''Anyone can play this kind of 'gotcha' game, going back to things, taking them out of context,'' said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. ''Why are they motivated to do this? It's usually the representatives of the extremist wing of the Zionist lobby who are afraid of growing political influence of the Muslim lobby.''

Just as in the Middle East, there is a long-running conflict in America between Jewish and Muslim groups. It usually focuses on support for Hamas, a radical Palestinian group, and Hezbollah, a guerrilla group. Both have claimed responsibility for suicide bombings against Israelis and been called terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

Jews have condemned Muslim lobbyists for failing to renounce Hamas and Hezbollah. Hooper's council and other Muslim groups say part of the reason for their refusal is that Jews are using the issue as a litmus test for picking which Muslim leaders are acceptable.

''Taking one statement or two statements and then saying they don't have a right to any political discourse, I think those claims are not right,'' said Zahid Bukhari, who researches Muslim civic participation at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Yet some Muslim leaders have urged colleagues to tone down their statements as the nation recovers from the attacks. However, Hooper expects America will soon be ready to hear about the roots of Muslim anger at the United States.

''As people settle down, people will have to re-examine why there's the resentment out there,'' he said.

Harris has urged the Bush administration to seek out moderates, instead of Muslim leaders he calls apologists for terrorism. Asked to suggest some alternative representatives, Harris declined. ''It's not for us to say,'' he said. ''It's for us to sound a warning.''

Harris' group also released a report Monday that estimated the number of Muslims in the United States is 2.8 million at most, compared to the 6 million figure used by many researchers and Muslim organizations.

Muslim leaders said the AJC study, by an analyst at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, was an attempt to undercut their growing influence.

Yet another controversy erupted when it was learned that Imam Mohammad Gemeaha, spiritual leader of New York's largest mosque, moved his family back to Cairo after Sept. 11.

Known for his interfaith work, Gemeaha was quoted by an Arabic-language Web site as saying Jews planned the attacks and Muslims were being poisoned by Jewish doctors in American hospitals.

Mohammad Abdullah Abulhasan, Kuwait's ambassador to the United Nations, who heads the mosque's board, said he had spoken to Gemeaha by phone and Gemeaha said he was misquoted.

In Ohio, Damra confirmed he made the comments about Jews on the tape, initially saying that his statement was meant as a criticism of Israelis who hurt Palestinians, not all Jews.

But a few days later, he apologized. The remarks were made before he had any interaction with Jews and Christians, he said.

Damra, in a more recent interview, called the broadcast of the tape ''outrageous'' and argued someone was trying to discredit him, although he could not say who. Damra described himself as a ''champion of interfaith and interreligious dialogue'' and said he was working to win back the trust of local religious leaders.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, also has come under criticism. In a Sept. 11 interview on KCRW-FM in Los Angeles, when little was known about the hijackers, Al-Marayati became upset by suggestions that Muslims were likely behind the attacks.

''If we're going to look at suspects, we should look to the groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents,'' he said. ''I think 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.''

Al-Marayati, who was among the Muslim leaders Bush has invited to the White House since Sept. 11, said he was trying to argue that jumping to conclusions about an entire religion or group was counterproductive.

David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles, who has been part of a Jewish-Muslim dialogue with Al-Marayati, rejected the explanation.

''I've personally had it,'' Lehrer said. ''They've become radicalized and more subject to extremist elements in their community.''


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