Leaving Islam



Muslims aim to challenge critics in America

Convention seminar focuses on best ways for followers to respond when their faith is attacked.

By Robert King 


ROSEMONT, Ill. -- In the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many American Muslims were fearful about leaving their homes.

Months later, many remained reluctant to respond to critics who made derogatory comments about Islam or Muslim communities.

Now, almost four years after the attacks, American Muslims are being urged by their leaders to answer back.

As the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America hosts nearly 40,000 Muslims this weekend near Chicago at its 42nd annual convention, there is plenty of talk here about how Muslims must answer their critics and, if need be, get tough with them.

At a Saturday morning seminar attended by more than 200 people, the discussion included how to apply pressure on politicians who smear the faith, the benefits of corporate boycotts and what constitutes legal grounds for defamation suits.

"The key," Corey P. Saylor, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the audience, "is to not just sit back and take it."

Aisha El-Amin, who sat in on the lecture, agreed with the need to be proactive. She was especially interested in a Web site that tracks contributions to political candidates.

"We can only fight for ourselves," said El-Amin, a New Orleans resident who was visiting relatives in Chicago when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

Already fighting on behalf of American Muslims is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, as it is commonly known. The organization, playing a prominent role at ISNA's convention, has developed a reputation for being something of a pit bull in protecting the civil rights of Muslims.

CAIR, for example, sued a North Carolina congressman after he accused the organization of acting as a fundraising arm for Hezbollah, a militant Palestinian group. The council also organized a boycott against a radio station until it fired a disc jockey who called Islam a terrorist organization. CAIR also brought considerable pressure on a Colorado lawmaker who asserted that America should take out Islam's holy sites in the event of another terrorist attack.

Arsalan T. Iftikhar, the national legal director for CAIR, said Saturday it was time for everyday Muslims to "defend the image and reputation of the community and Islam in general."

"I am here to teach you how the American Muslim community can legally empower itself to protect itself in the American courts," he said, as he went into the nuances of the limits of the First Amendment.

Sayyid Syeed, the secretary general of ISNA, a group generally less vocal than CAIR, earlier in the weekend said his organization is considering filing defamation lawsuits against some of its sharpest critics.

Although he declined to name the potential targets of such suits, one of the critics most often cited by Muslim leaders is Steven Emerson.

Emerson's 1994 documentary, "Jihad in America," about radical Islamic groups operating in the United States, won a prestigious journalism award. But his credibility suffered after his on-air commentary about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. He was among the first pundits to say the bombing had the earmarks of Middle Eastern terrorism. It turned out to be the product of homegrown terrorists.

Via phone Saturday, Emerson said ISNA's interest in using defamation law amount to an effort to stifle free speech. "They are apologists for militant Islam," he said.

Iftikhar said such comments are exactly the reason Muslim groups are becoming more vigilant in responding to their critics. "That's his mantra," he said of Emerson. "He used innuendo, conjecture and defamation."

The conference, focused in part on efforts to repair the image of Islam, began Friday with presentations on how Muslims can do more to counter extremists who cite the religion to justify violence and terrorism.

The convention comes little more than a month after U.S. Muslim scholars issued a fatwa, or religious edict, condemning terrorism. The edict came shortly after the London bombings in July. 


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