Saturday, May 14, 2005

A local Islamic group led a rally in the District yesterday afternoon against terrorism, which organizers said was just the beginning of their crusade against extremists.

About 50 people converged on Freedom Plaza for the “March Against Terror,” an event organized by Free Muslims Against Terrorism, supporters of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and the entire Muslim community.

“We have to be honest; we have a problem with extremism, and the Muslim leadership in this country has totally failed us,” said Kamal Nawash, leader of the year-old organization.

“While [the leaders] themselves don’t support terrorism, they share the ideology of the terrorists, which is this delusion about creating a theocratic Muslim state. … We’re here to offer an ideological challenge to extremism and the ideology that causes extremism and terrorism.”

Mr. Nawash, 35, a Palestinian-born lawyer who has become a U.S. citizen, is a former candidate for the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. He and his organization, which promotes a secular interpretation of Islam, has generated a national profile in the past year by participating in hundreds of radio and television interviews.

More than 70 groups signed on in support. Speakers at the event said it was a success despite the sparse attendance. Mr. Nawash had hoped more than 1,000 people would attend.

“It starts with just a few people, so I’m not worried about the number” in attendance, said Mr. Hashim El-Tinay, founder and president of the Salam Sudan Foundation. “It’s more about the quality of leadership.”

Aldo Leiva, director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said terrorism is a human problem, not a Muslim, Christian or Jewish problem.

“Together, we can solve it,” he said.

Some Muslim groups have criticized Mr. Nawash, questioning whether his cause is motivated by his political agenda. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Virginia offices. Others say his actions stereotype and discriminate against American Muslims.

Mr. Nawash said the criticism is steeped in envy of his organization’s status.

“Unlike [extremist groups], we are able to communicate with mainstream America,” he said. “Most of them are recent immigrants to the country who don’t understand America and have no idea how to live in this country. We’re a Muslim group that’s well-received by mainstream America, and they’re jealous of it. So they’re making every accusation in the book.”

Mr. Nawash said that extremists and the leaders of established Muslim organizations have been “an obstacle every step of the way.”

“They’re saying we’re small and insignificant,” he said. “If that’s the case, how come they’re so worried about us? Why are they talking about us? Why are they spending so much time writing press releases and attacking us? If we’re so small and insignificant, then just ignore us. But they’re scared, because we’re breaking their monopoly over our community.”

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