On Sept. 26, two weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, President George W. Bush met with 15 American Muslim leaders at the White House. The event was a watershed moment. Suddenly, a cause for which the men had long toiled--Muslims' civil rights--had captured the public's attention, and the president was calling on them to help with the national crisis.
Five of the men who attended the meeting--Maher Hathout, Muzammil Siddiqi, Agha Saeed, Salam al-Marayati and Omar Ahmad--are from California. They have started to become familiar as the faces of an emerging American Muslim political movement at a time that one of them describes as a "Muslim moment."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday November 2, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Muslim magazine--In an article in Monday's Southern California Living, the title of the Los Angeles-based Muslim publication Minaret was spelled incorrectly.
The American Muslim community had already begun to make itself felt as a political presence. As a presidential candidate last year, Bush had impressed many American Muslims when he spoke in inclusive terms about America's religious communities and when he decried the use of secret evidence in deportation cases--a provision in U.S. immigration law that has been employed almost solely against Arabs and Muslims. On the strength of that, Muslim leaders made their first presidential endorsement. Word quickly circulated through the American Muslim community. When election day came, 72% of Muslim voters chose Bush, according to polls conducted by Muslim organizations.
During the Sept. 26 meeting, discussion touched on the need to protect the civil rights of Muslims in the wake of the attacks, and the importance of avoiding insensitive terms when describing U.S. retaliation, said Hathout. "Muslim" need not describe "terrorist," they advised. And "crusade," which was used by the president to describe the U.S. response to terrorism, they pointed out, has a negative connotation for Muslims.
Hathout said the meeting had immediate results. Not only did the language of public statements change, he said, but "we noticed a drop in hate crimes after that."
His take on the meeting's impact might seem overstated to some. After all, in a televised speech, the president had already made a point of distinguishing between the Muslim religion and acts of terror. And White House spokesman Ken Lisaius described Bush's meeting with the Muslim leaders as "routine." Nevertheless, for Muslim leaders, the trip to Washington represents a giant step forward. "It was a meeting of substance," Hathout said in a recent interview. "We have worked years for this."
Several other events had brought the Muslim contingent together with the president in the days leading up to their White House meeting. Some Muslim leaders had stood with the president at a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. And some of the same men were present later, when Bush visited a mosque near his office as a show of support.
At the moment Bush needed to make a connection to the Muslim community, the community's leaders were poised to claim a broader platform for long-held goals: They want the government to include Muslims in discussions that lead to public policies, especially on matters involving Muslim and Arab communities. They advocate an "evenhanded" approach in Middle Eastern policies; many American Muslims disapprove of sanctions on Iraq and see America as favoring Israel in the peace process there.
And there is a new level of confidence on the part of Muslim leaders that their message is getting across to a broader audience. This is particularly apparent in California, where some 500,000 of the estimated 2 million to 6 million American Muslims reside.
Three of the Californians who met with Bush last month were well established as elder statesmen within the Muslim community. Hathout, 65, is senior advisor of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, which advocates fair treatment of Muslims in the news, movies and in textbooks. He is often described as a strategist.
Saeed, 53, who tends to approach matters from an analytical--rather than rhetorical--standpoint, is director of the American Muslim Alliance in Hayward in Northern California. The alliance is a national organization that registers Muslims to vote and backs political candidates. Saeed was among the first to announce the Bush endorsement.
Siddiqi, 58, is director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. He has just completed four years as president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the U.S.