The Philadelphia Inquirer
December 19, 2005
a challenge for Muslims
VA. -- Ahmed Omar Abu Ali sat at
the defendant's table in a small federal courtroom last month, a youthful
man with a sparse beard accused of a serious crime - conspiring to kill
Several dozen supporters chanted softly
in Arabic, drawing a rebuke from a security officer. A veiled woman
explained that they were merely praying for the 24-year-old American
student, who had confessed that he aspired to hijack and crash an airliner
into "the leader of the infidels."
To Abu Ali and his supporters, the trial
that ended a few days later with the young man's conviction was not about
terrorism. "It's a Muslim thing," Abu Ali told federal
investigators. "You wouldn't understand."
Indeed, Islam is very much on trial -
but not in the courtroom. The world's second-largest religion is
undergoing a trial by Muslims themselves as they struggle to confront
extremist tendencies, such as the ideology that motivated American-born
Abu Ali to travel to Saudi Arabia and join al-Qaeda.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims are
under growing pressure to take action against jihadist strains of the
"The transformation we're going
through now, it could take Islam to enlightenment, or it could take Islam
to the dark ages for a long time to come," said Khaled Abou El Fadl,
a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an
outspoken critic of Islam's extremists.
"We are at a crossroads," he
The struggle taking place in America is
a microcosm of a worldwide battle over the direction of Islam, which
claims up to 1.3 billion followers - approximately six million in the
United States. At its core, the confrontation is over the influence of
militant, theocratic varieties of Islam, such as Wahhabism, the Saudi
Arabian Islamic movement that inspired Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's
Moderate American Muslims, who had
quietly squirmed as militant rhetoric crept into their mosques and
discussion groups, are becoming more willing to confront the radical
ideology that they say dishonors Islam's core message of compassion and
"Before 9/11, people were not
focused on the struggle against the authoritarianism and the despotism of
the Wahhabis," said Abou El Fadl, author of a recently published
book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists.
Radical leaflets, once openly available
in Islamic libraries in America, have become more difficult to find.
Recruiters for holy wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, formerly welcomed in
many mosques, are now turned away.
"My sense is that people feel the
extremist ideology needs to be countered, and we [Muslims] are the only
ones who can effectively counter it," said Salam Al-Marayati,
executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
A big issue facing many mosques is how
much to cooperate with authorities. Many Muslims are recent immigrants and
believe the worst things they have been told about the government. The
clergy are under great pressure not to report suspicious activity.
"Some imams are open about
cooperating with the FBI," Abou El Fadl said. "Other imams say,
'This is a religiously inspired administration, and it is immoral to bring
attention to fellow Muslims who are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.'
Many Muslim advocates say they have
repeatedly condemned terrorism since Sept. 11, yet they are still
criticized because their denunciations are insufficient or overly
"We're speaking up, but people
aren't hearing us," Al-Marayati said. "The problem is not in the
message, but in the reception."
The July suicide bombings in London's
transit system shocked many of the faithful because the attacks were
carried out by Muslims born in Britain, rather than foreign operatives who
infiltrated with the aim of carrying out a strike.
"People here in America realized
that anger with the U.S. could translate into something more," said
Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at the University of Delaware.
After the London bombings, the Fiqh
Council of North America, an advisory committee on Islamic law, issued a
fatwa denouncing violence against civilians. And several advocacy groups
stepped up campaigns to urge young people to beware of radical preachers.
But some critics said the fatwa was more
show than substance. They say it did not denounce specific extremists and
still left room for Muslims to justify attacks, particularly in Israel.
"The condemnations are never fully
throated, they're not specific," said Daniel Pipes, executive
director of Philadelphia's Middle East Forum and one of the nation's most
controversial campaigners against radical Islam.
Muslim advocates express exasperation
with Pipes, who has long been at odds with such groups as the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization that models
itself after the NAACP.
"We have consistently disassociated
Islam from terrorism," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the
council, which last year organized a yearlong antiterrorism publicity
campaign called "Not in the Name of Islam."
Much of the debate centers on who is
defined as a moderate and who is an extremist.
UCLA's Abou El Fadl, who calls himself a
moderate, says he is unwelcome in many mosques because of his opposition
to the Saudis. But Pipes has called him a "stealth Islamicist"
because he supports Islamic law.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, an Islamic
convert and Pipes ally who heads the Center for Islamic Pluralism in
Washington, complains that many Muslims judge one another's faith based on
political ideology, rather than theological issues. "It's about being
an angry, oppressed minority," he said.
In a recent report, the U.S. Government
Accountability Office acknowledged the disagreements over terminology. It
defined "Islamic extremism" as an ideology that denies the
legitimacy of nonbelievers and other forms of Islam and promotes hatred,
intolerance and violence.
"There are telltale signs about an
extremist," said the University of Delaware's Khan. "When
critics start speaking of a Zionist conspiracy, a Christian crusade, and
when those things justify violence, that's scary stuff."
For better or worse, the aggressive
government prosecutions of Islamic extremists have helped frame the
debate. Even unsuccessful cases, such as the acquittal this month of
Florida professor Sami al-Arian for supporting Palestinian jihadists, send
a message that there is less space in which extremists can maneuver.
But some Muslims say the antiterrorism
campaign is only driving extremist sentiments underground and reinforcing
Muslims' sense of victimization.
"I don't think government
monitoring would change people's ideology," said Khurrum B. Wahid, a
civil rights lawyer who worked as Abu Ali's attorney. "It's just
Wahid said Muslims were more wary about
expressing even protected free speech because they know their words can
haunt them. He complained that the government's surveillance methods were
"getting more extreme."
The evidence against Abu Ali included
wiretapped phone conversations between the student and his family, as well
as e-mail messages recovered from an Internet service provider.
In his research before the trial, Wahid
also sought fruitlessly to locate a copy of a book by Ayman al-Zawahiri
that prosecutors alleged had influenced Abu Ali. Before 9/11, he said, the
book was easy to find.
"This was an impossible book to
find nowadays," said Wahid. "Nobody will admit to owning
But other Muslims say Abu Ali's trial
also demonstrated why they must be careful with whom they associate.
A year ago, Muslim advocacy groups and
civil libertarians rallied around the detention of Abu Ali, who contended
that he had gone to Saudi Arabia in 2003 to study Islam. Abu Ali's
supporters claimed his confession was coerced under torture supervised by
But as the trial moved forward, the jury
found the claims of torture and American involvement were unsubstantiated.
Abu Ali's statements, in which he expressed admiration for the terrorists
who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, were incriminating.
By the time of the verdict, all but his
immediate friends and family had become mute.
According to Khan, the lesson most
Muslims took away from the trial: "If you say stupid things, then you
have to pay the price for your stupidity."
and Basic Tenets
An Islam Primer
Islam is the world's second-largest
religion - and growing fast. The word in Arabic refers to peace through
submission to God.
Followers, known as Muslims, believe in
one God and that the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) is his messenger. The
religion's sacred text is the Koran, or Qur'an.
Practitioners must declare their faith,
pray five times a day, give to charity, fast from dawn to dusk in the holy
month of Ramadan, and, if possible, make a pilgrimage to Mecca during
Muslims believe that on the Last Day the
world will come to an end, and the dead will be resurrected and judged.
Salvation will be acquired through good deeds.
Islam has no overarching authority, and
the status of a preacher is equal to that of the laity. If one believes
and declares oneself to be a Muslim and behaves in a manner befitting a
Muslim, one is accepted into the community of believers.
Islam by the Numbers
Estimates of the worldwide Muslim
population range from 900 million to 1.3 billion people. In the United
States, accurate figures are hard to come by because the U.S. Census does
not ask about religious belief.
Only 18 percent of Muslims live in the
Arab world. Other large concentrations are in sub-Saharan Africa;
Pakistan, India and Bangladesh; China; Europe; Russia; and Central Asia.
The largest single Muslim population is in Indonesia.
In the United States, the estimated
number of Muslims is six million. As of 2000, there were 1,209 mosques in
this country, 62 percent of which had been founded since 1980. Thirty
percent of the worshipers are believed to be converts. American Muslims
are a diverse group, made up of Asians, African Americans and Arabs. In
fact, only 7 percent of U.S. mosques are attended by a single ethnic