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American Muslims express fear, frustration after Ft. Hood shootings

The news that the suspect is one of their own brings up familiar feelings. Besides fears of retribution, they're tired of sensing pressure to apologize for someone else's 'maniacal brutality.'

November 07, 2009|Duke Helfand and Richard Fausset

LOS ANGELES AND ATLANTA — The news made Nihad Awad sick to his stomach.

Like the rest of the nation, Awad, who heads the Council on American-Islamic Relations, learned this week that it allegedly was a Muslim who opened fire at a U.S. Army base in Texas, killing 13 people and injuring many more. According to witnesses, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan issued the great, exalting cry of his faith before opening fire:

"Allahu akbar!" God is great.

Hearing the story, Awad too would invoke his maker -- but with a weary lament that is echoing coast to coast among American Muslims.

"I said, 'Oh God, here we go again,' " Awad recalled. "We know what will come when a Muslim name flashes across the [television] screen. What will come is guilt by association."

In response to Thursday's shooting, mosques around the U.S. denounced the violence and implemented a range of overt and subtle security measures. In the Los Angeles area, Islamic groups contacted law enforcement officials, who stepped up patrols of mosques and Muslim community centers.

USC sophomore Janan Al-Henaid said that her mother called Friday, asking her to come home to Claremont and to be careful when going out. "And she's never done that before," Al-Henaid said.

Muslim groups participated in a conference call Friday with federal agencies -- including the Homeland Security and Justice departments -- to discuss Muslim Americans' safety.

Eight years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, mainstream Islam remains a subject of suspicion to some Americans -- a perception fueled by prejudice and fear, but also by recent allegations of foiled terrorist plots hatched by homegrown Muslim radicals.

Despite eight years of post-9/11 education campaigns, the suspicion and the scrutiny remain a source of deep frustration for Muslim American leaders.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said that the Ft. Hood massacre would be exploited "by groups like Al Qaeda that will use it as a card to justify more religious extremism and violence, and by Muslim-haters who will use it to divide our country and foment fear and hatred."

Al-Marayati said he first prayed for the victims. Then he offered another prayer.

"We prayed," he said, "that it was not a Muslim."

Hasan, a Virginia-born psychiatrist, was in many ways a product of the American mainstream. But among some observers, the rampage freshly stoked long-standing fears that even moderate Muslims may have divided loyalties.

The right-wing news site WorldNetDaily said that according to an "explosive new book," Hasan was "just the tip of a jihadist Fifth Column operating within the ranks of the U.S. military." Lt. Col. Lee Packet, an Army spokesman, called that assertion "total speculation."

Muslim leader Maher Hathout addressed such fears head-on in a raw, emotional sermon at the Friday afternoon prayer service at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Speaking to 2,000 quiet worshipers, Hathout told of a call he had received after the shooting. The caller posed a question: Could any Muslims be trusted now?

"This is the question on the minds of your co-workers, on the minds of your neighbors -- this is the trust, and we have to do something about it," Hathout said.

He implored his fellow Muslims not to hide in the wake of the shooting, but to speak with their neighbors about any lingering misperceptions.

Muslim groups that say they represent the mainstream rushed to denounce the Texas shooting in the most forceful terms -- much as they did after Sept. 11 and after the breakup of other foiled terrorist plots.

Awad's Washington-based group, known as CAIR, noted that it had launched an anti-terrorism petition drive and a TV ad campaign against religious extremism, and coordinated an anti-terrorism fatwa, or religious ruling, condemning extremism and terrorism.

Some Muslim leaders worry that Americans ignore such messages, because the messages either appear to be a matter of form or are overshadowed by news of isolated terrorist plots.

Complicating their efforts are some outsiders' suspicions about the motives of CAIR, one of the most prominent Muslim civil rights groups. In a letter last month, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and three other members of Congress asked the House sergeant-at-arms to determine whether the group was a "security threat." The representatives alleged a relationship between CAIR and terrorist groups, citing that as a basis for the FBI's recent decision to cut ties with the group.

Meanwhile, Islamic leaders find themselves again denouncing a crime hundreds of miles from their communities.

At Masjid Omar ibn Al Khattab, a mosque near USC, retired professor Fathi Osman spoke about how some people misinterpret the Koran to fit their twisted thinking. But afterward, college student Tasbeeh Herwees of Cypress expressed frustration over having to hear another sermon that she felt was apologizing for someone else's actions.

"I think it's kind of tiring to have to do these sermons over and over again, and I think the general public should understand that Islam is not synonymous with violence," she said.

In Dearborn, Mich., home to a large Arab and Muslim community, Kassem Allie received a call Friday from a TV news reporter. Allie, a member of the board of trustees at the Islamic Center of America, called the shooting an act of "maniacal brutality."

The reporter said he was trying to "gauge" Allie's reaction to the news in Texas. Allie became rather annoyed.

"I said, 'What do you mean by gauge? That we condemn this strongly enough? What do you want me to do -- stand on my head and say I'm sorry?' "

Allie said a few hours later: "It was probably a poor choice of words on the reporter's part. But that's what we're faced with."

--

duke.helfand@latimes.com

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Raja Abdulrahim contributed to this report.

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