Sunday, November 28, 2004

The head of a California-based Muslim organization accused of being soft on terrorism dismisses his critics and says Muslim Americans should be nurtured as a key intelligence asset capable of fingering potential terrorists in their midst.

“We need the Muslim community, especially the immigrant community, to help us get that tip that would prevent the next terrorist attack,” said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

A relationship should be established with law-enforcement authorities in which Muslims “don’t fear any repercussions when they come forward,” he said in a recent interview with The Washington Times.

MPAC is promoting its National Grassroots Campaign to Fight Terrorism. While it calls for more positive interaction between police and Muslims, Mr. al-Marayati says another of the campaign’s priorities is to amplify Islam’s criticism of terrorism.

Despite his remarks, Mr. al-Marayati often is criticized by some pro-Israel organizations and terrorism analysts who say he publicly condones terrorist acts and promotes too radical a view of Islam.

The Zionist Organization of America calls him an “extremist” who has attempted to “blame Israel for the September 11 attacks.”

Another outspoken critic is Steven Emerson, author of “American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us,” who calls MPAC “a militant group masquerading as a civil rights or moderate group.”

“They’re not moderate at all,” said Mr. Emerson, who appears regularly on NBC as a terrorism analyst.

MPAC has traded insults with Mr. Emerson and dismissed him as a critic who “brings to mind the most paranoid anti-communists of the 1950s.”

In January, MPAC accused Mr. Emerson of using “out-of-context quotes” and “his own heavily biased editorial slant” to label MPAC an “Islamist” organization.

During his meeting with The Times, Mr. al-Marayati described MPAC as part of the emerging landscape of “moderate” Muslim groups and said his comments often are taken out of context.

Asked about his views on suicide bombing and terrorism, he aggressively condemned both. He also defined a moderate Muslim as someone who, among other things, “rejects terrorism as an instrument of change.”

Further, Mr. al-Marayati says al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “is not practicing Islam if he believes that killing children and civilians is legitimate Islamic action.”

MPAC’s campaign to fight terrorism also advocates more transparency in the American Muslim community, such as clearer guidelines for mosques.

“No speech, no fund raising should take place in any mosque without the board knowing what’s going on,” Mr. al-Marayati said.

But he also says the onus is not exclusively on the Muslim community.

Some are quick to label as radical any Muslims who speak publicly, regardless of their views, Mr. al-Marayati said.

Muslims “are treated almost like the plague right now. That’s probably the factor that is creating a lot of anger in Muslim communities right now,” he said.

Mr. al-Marayati stressed the need for a comfortable relationship between law enforcement and Muslims, citing as an example the “Lackawanna Six” case, in which an al Qaeda sleeper cell was broken up near Buffalo, N.Y., shortly after the first anniversary of September 11.

The tip that led authorities to the six Yemeni-Americans who had attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan came from a source close to the MPAC.

Rabia Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest U.S. Muslim group, said her organization also advocates more interaction between the law-enforcement authorities and leaders of Muslim-American communities.

Dialogue and cooperation “does happen, but it doesn’t happen enough,” Ms. Ahmed said.

Federal authorities, meanwhile, have worked with organizations such as MPAC since September 11 but have not officially endorsed the group’s programs.

In July, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said they “recognized the importance of MPAC’s anti-terrorism initiatives and encouraged similar efforts to educate the Muslim community about federal counterterrorism efforts.”

Ed Koggswell, an FBI spokesman, said authorities are aware of the group’s anti-terrorism plan but are not going to help implement it.

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