- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

Several thousand Shi’ite Muslims are gathering in downtown Washington this weekend to counteract what they perceive as universally negative impressions of them portrayed by the world’s media and other Muslims.

“The misrepresentation of these images from September 11 have to be corrected,” said Naser Shamsi, spokesman for the Universal Muslim Association of America, which sponsored the gathering. “The Shi’ites want to distance themselves from the extremism.”

But the battle is uphill, said speakers at the first convention of Shi’ite Muslims in North America. The convention was held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where the 1,200 attending yesterday were expected to increase to more than 2,000 today.

Not only have Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims opposed the U.S. occupation in massive street demonstrations, but their compatriots in Iran — where Shi’ite Islam is dominant — are still remembered for the plundering of the U.S. Embassy there in 1979.

In the United States, Shi’ites see themselves as a “minority within a minority,” a vilified portion of the country’s 4 million to 5 million Islamic adherents, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. American Shi’ites, who say they number at least 1.5 million, complain that they are not represented on the boards of American Muslim groups, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America.

“We sit here and ruminate and say we have the true path, but what happened to us?” asked Hasnain Walji, president of the World Khoja Shia Foundation in Dallas.

But there may yet be a place in the United States’ religious and political melting pot. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is scheduled to speak today at a closing banquet, along with Abbas Mirakhor, executive director of the International Monetary Fund.

Several speakers said Shi’ite Muslims must become more involved in American politics and culture.

The Shi’ites were demonstrating their strength at the event, scheduling an interfaith dialogue Friday that was standing room only. Yesterday’s lectures sounded like primers in basic democracy. Capitalism and voter registration were held up as means of empowerment.

One speaker called the U.S. Constitution a “great document” worthy of study, and he emphasized the benefits of community organizing.

Another cited the Bahai faith, a Shi’ite sect founded in Iran in the 19th century whose adherents have prospered in the United States, as an example of what a small religion can do to gain acceptance. Bahaists are still persecuted in Iran.

Robert Crane, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain who converted to Shi’ite Islam and leads the Center for Understanding Islam in Somerset, N.J., said Shi’ites should lobby in Congress, found a top-notch Islamic university in North America and take part in Washington think tanks that help draft legislation.

“Muslims used to think big,” he said, “but the problem is they don’t anymore. We aren’t going to lead in America until we do those things.”

Several groups in the United States are dogging Muslims, he added. He included among those groups “radical evangelical” Christian leaders who have spoken on the evils they see in Islam.

“They pose a superficial threat,” Mr. Crane said. “This is fringe talk, and I think most people know that.

“Moderate evangelicals” are more promising he said, referring to a May 9 meeting where 40 evangelical leaders distanced themselves from Christians who criticize Islam.

Most dangerous, Mr. Crane said, are “extremist neoconservatives” in think tanks such as the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Michael Cromartie, the center’s vice president, and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute question Islam’s right to exist because of a lack of human rights and direct relation with God.

“Muslims have a bad record,” in human rights, Mr. Crane said. But he added that Shariah, or Islamic law, should be revived because the religion was more tolerant in earlier centuries and, in theory, still is.

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