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Groups Give U.S. Muslims a New Voice

Four organizations step up efforts to overcome historic obstacles, scattered constituencies.

November 24, 2001|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before the second plane crashed on Sept. 11, Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations was typing out a condemnation of terrorism. By noon, it was ricocheting off faxes and computer screens worldwide.

In the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Maher Hathout and Salam Al-Marayati offered the "Muslim point of view" on the Arab television network Al Jazeera, CNN and Fox News.

A few blocks away, executives at the American Muslim Council called an ally, a GOP stalwart with presidential access. A lot of innocent, hard-working American Muslims could get hurt because of this incident, they told their intermediary. We need the president to say something.

Two days later, during a televised conference call with New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki, President Bush did just that: "We must be mindful that as we seek to win the war, that we treat Arab Americans and Muslims with the respect they deserve," he said.

Those moments illustrated how a bevy of young American Muslim organizations have suddenly risen in visibility. A decade ago many of those groups did not exist. Since Sept. 11 they have mounted a coordinated campaign to contain an anti-Muslim backlash and weigh in on U.S. decisions affecting the Muslim world. They are also telling a fearful and suspicious American public who Muslims are, what they believe--and how they distinguish themselves from madmen with box cutters.

Their evolution has been shaped by historic obstacles and the diasporic character of their constituency. About a third of U.S. Muslims, whose numbers are variously estimated at 1 million to 7 million, are African Americans. Many of the rest are recent immigrants from nations as varied as Lebanon, Nigeria, Malaysia and Mauritania. There are Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. There are Sufi mystics, nonaffiliated Muslims and secular Muslims--who drink, eat bacon and attend mosque only on holidays.

Many American Muslims emigrated from some of the world's most repressive nations. As a result, they have traditionally been reluctant to vote, run for office or speak out in their own defense. U.S. Muslim groups have recently faced those challenges by avoiding fractious doctrinal disputes and focusing on political education and advocacy.

Groups Sprang Into Action Sept. 11

Following the lead of secular civil rights groups such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Anti-Defamation League, U.S. Muslim groups are more likely to fax a news release than issue a fatwa (a religious edict). The new breed of U.S. Muslim groups that surged into action Sept. 11 is ecumenical and media-savvy. They endorse political candidates and lobby Congress on the treatment of Muslims here and abroad. Verified membership numbers are hard to come by, but each of the two largest groups--the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim American Society--have drawn more than 25,000 people to their annual conferences.

"It's really a defining moment for our community," said Aly Abuzaakouk, president of the American Muslim Council, which in recent weeks has held nonstop meetings with officials from Congress, the State Department, the Department of Energy and other agencies.

In a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, David Harris of the American Jewish Council wrote, "the Arab and Muslim populations are growing, mainly through immigration, along with their political savvy and self-confidence. Political candidates come to their organizations' meetings; the media seek their communal views."

From among about 20 national Muslim organizations, four groups have taken the lead:

* In the style of African American civil rights organizations, the American Muslim Council lobbied for symbolic "firsts": The first Muslim prayer during a congressional session. The first Muslim U.S. Army chaplain. The first Muslim holy day celebration at the White House. The first U.S. stamp to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

* The American Muslim Alliance, led by UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Agha Saeed, is focused more narrowly on cultivating U.S. Muslim political candidates and registering voters. Saeed envisioned what he calls "a demographic strategy for Muslims." By 1996, 400 Muslim candidates--many of them trained by the alliance--ran for everything from U.S. senator to school board. Ninety-two Muslims were elected.

That same year, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole came looking for an American Muslim voting bloc. It was a mixed victory--Dole refused to meet publicly with Muslim leaders, so the alliance turned him down. The aborted endorsement of Dole made U.S. Muslims realize how important--and how poor--their public image was.

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