Saturday, November 10, 2001

With the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan less than two weeks away, American officials are scurrying to reassure Muslims here and abroad that the United States is not anti-Islam.

There has even been discussion thankfully, abandoned recently that the United States might pause the bombing in Afghanistan out of respect for religious sentiments. Americans are acutely uncomfortable with anything that smacks of religious intolerance. It’s part of our heritage, indeed one of the most noble aspects of our history as a refuge from religious persecution. But has American religious tolerance made us more vulnerable to attacks from those who would exploit such freedom to hide their true purpose?

Since September 11, Americans have learned a lot more about the Muslim population of the United States including the fact that it is one of the fastest-growing in the country. In cities and towns around the nation, mosques are springing up to serve devout Muslims, who must pray five times a day. In addition, some Muslim communities have established their own schools or cultural centers to teach their faith. But some of these institutions by no means all are preaching more than belief in Allah and adherence to Islam. Some prominent Muslim religious leaders and teachers in Muslim schools in the United States preach hatred, even violence, toward other religions and groups, especially Jews. And they make no secret in talking to fellow Muslims of their disdain for the United States.

Just two days before the September 11 attack, a popular imam from the San Francisco Bay area, Hamza Yusef, gave a speech in which he predicted that the United States “is facing a very terrible fate. And the reason for that is because this country stands condemned.” A year earlier, another nationally renowned Muslim leader, Muzammil Siddiqi, warned: “American has to learn. If you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come.” Yet neither of these statements kept the White House from inviting either man to meet with President Bush in a show of support for the American Muslim community in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

When asked why the two were invited, a White House staffer told The Washington Post: “To be honest, it’s been difficult finding someone who is how should I put this? totally clean, or who qualifies as a through-and-through moderate.”

But it’s not just the White House that has been taken in. In Cleveland, the head of the local Islamic Center, Fawaz Damra, was exposed recently for having called on fellow Palestinians in Chicago to donate money to Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group, this despite being the model of interfaith cooperation in Cleveland. Mr. Damra is well-known for inviting Jews to celebrate the end of Ramadan at his Islamic Center, but he has also been videotaped in 1991 asking a group to donate money to kill Jews. “Who will give $500?” he asks on the tape, to kill “12 Jews,” whom he calls “the sons of monkeys and pigs.”

Although some members of the board of Mr. Damra’s mosque wanted him to resign his position after the tape became public, Mr. Damra’s critics ended up being the ones forced out. And this even after the board found out that Mr. Damra had been identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Yet despite their hateful rhetoric and possible connection to terrorist acts, these religious leaders are largely exempt from scrutiny by law enforcement. The FBI has been reluctant to investigate radical Muslim clerics, even when it suspected that their mosques were being used to fund terrorism and recruit terrorists. “The veil of religion that has been draped over mosques,” an FBI official told The Washington Post recently, ” will be tough to move off.”

But religion cannot be an excuse for illegal activity. We may accord great leeway to religious belief but we cannot tolerate clear and present dangers to our very lives. Nothing requires us to tolerate those who would kill in the name of religion, or encourage or assist others to do so.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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