Thursday, September 30, 2004

A coalition of national, fledgling Muslim groups will speak tonight in the District against terrorism and Islamic radicalism in an effort to create a more pluralist Islamic faith.

“Many people use Islam as a reason to [kill] innocent people,” said Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, a Cambridge, Mass., group started after the September 11 attacks. “Many of these people are, in fact, Muslims, unfortunately. What we are doing is trying to address these problems.”

Some of the larger Muslim groups — including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — were not invited to tonight’s meeting at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel. However, organizers said they plan to include the groups in future events.

A CAIR spokesman said members would have attended if invited, though they disagree with the hosting groups’ point of view.

Ibrahim Hooper, a CAIR spokesman, said groups such as the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism and the American Islamic Congress do not represent mainstream American Islam.

“They’re free to reflect their viewpoint,” he said. “We have our views, and we believe our views reflect the mainstream of the American Islamic community.”

The disagreement highlights the schism between Muslims who want to practice a more secular version of Islam that espouses a separation of church and state, and Muslims who interpret their religion more strictly.

A major difference between secular and nonsecular Muslims, Ms. Al-Suwaij said, is that groups such as the Islamic congress are proactive about terrorism, while the council and similar groups are more defensive.

“We’re not saying, ‘No, we don’t have a problem,’” Ms. Al-Suwaij said of the Muslim community. “In fact, we have these problems. And we’re working on trying to find a solution.”

Mr. Hooper, however, pointed to the council’s “Not in the Name of Islam” petition drive, an attempt to distance the Islamic religion from terrorism.

“Those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives; they are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent,” the petition states.

The council had collected 685,639 endorsements as of yesterday.

However, Muslims such as Kamal Nawash, of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, said the council and similar groups condemn terrorism on the surface while endorsing an ideology that helps foster extremism.

He said the ideal of theocratic rule — the unification of church and state — is the driving force of that ideology.

“Almost all of their members are theocratic Muslims who reject secularism and want to establish Islamic states,” said Mr. Nawash, who founded the coalition this year. “The heart of the extremism and terrorism in the Muslim world is the idea of political Islam. … Terrorism and extremism is a natural result of theocratic rule.”

Mr. Hooper said CAIR has “no problem with the separation of church and state in America. In Muslim societies, there’s difference of opinion … but that’s for those societies to determine.”

The coalition and the Islamic congress will co-host tonight’s dinner event with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Center for Islamic Pluralism and more than a dozen other Middle Eastern American groups of different faiths and countries of origin. The dinner event begins at 5 p.m.

The council will hold its 10th anniversary banquet tomorrow night at the hotel. Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader will address the banquet guests.

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