Muslims' Unheralded Messenger

Kamal Nawash:
Kamal Nawash: "Someone described me as the Martin Luther of Islam." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

Kamal Nawash would like to see tens of thousands of Muslim Americans join his March Against Terrorism tomorrow morning at Freedom Plaza, but he likely won't. Only a few hundred showed up to another group's anti-terrorism march in Phoenix last April, and on his permit application, Nawash has tapered his dreams to 1,200 people -- and four portable toilets. Still, he longs for something like the 2002 Palestinian-rights rally at the Ellipse, which drew several thousand -- all those abayas, chadors and headscarves sprinkled among the crowd.

Nobody's expecting a Million Muslim March, not even close, and more than a few critics think it's the right message, but Nawash is the wrong messenger.

"We may not draw a lot of people, who knows?" says Nawash, 34, the outspoken president of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, which he founded last year. "But the point is that it is done."

Promoted as the first Muslim-led public demonstration against terrorism in the nation's capital, this rally is seen by some as an overdue response to the nagging public perception, right or wrong, that American Muslims have been too hushed in their criticism of Islamic extremists.

Nawash's office is four blocks from the White House, and the lobby directory doesn't list the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. No Kamal Nawash law office listed. No Nawash, period. "We don't put our name down there in case bin Laden comes looking for us," says Nawash, emitting an uneasy laugh that suggests this might be funny, if only it were. "You can't be too safe," he says, insisting he isn't really afraid, though his parents beg him to find a different job.

"I like to see myself as a leader of a Muslim reformation," Nawash says. "For certain people, I'm a hero. For certain people, I was sent by God. I get calls from the Middle East saying thank you for doing this. . . . Someone described me as the Martin Luther of Islam. To me, that's not bad."

In many ways, Nawash is a study in a certain kind of Washingtonian -- the niche organizer, the self-appointed spokesleader. He refers to the coalition and Saturday's march in the plural sense -- an incessant "we." Numbers-wise, he says he's up to 9,000 members, with 14 people on his directors and advisory boards. And a full-time staff consisting of . . . Kamal Nawash. He says he represents a new generation of Muslims worldwide who are hungry for democracy, equality for women and separation of religion and state.

He's a visibly patriotic, mediagenic Muslim American. He says he made 300 TV and radio appearances last year, including on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," where he called on Muslims to reject extremism after the arrest of mosque leaders in Albany, N.Y., who allegedly agreed to launder money for use in terrorist acts. If a reporter needs a Muslim to say the United States has good reason to keep Yussef Islam, the former Cat Stevens, from entering the country, Nawash was and is available. When a Northern Virginia imam was convicted last month for inciting followers to train overseas for violent jihad, some Muslim leaders called it a witch hunt. Not Nawash, who announced he was pleased with the verdict.

"We are the first Muslim organization to take the lead and do the right thing, basically," he says. "You never know who is going to find that intolerably offensive."

In fact, many do.

"People in the Muslim community are all for raising their voices against terrorism," says Mahdi Bray, a spokesman for the Muslim American Society, based in Falls Church. "It is just sad this is being led by the wrong person. . . . Unfortunately, Mr. Nawash doesn't have credibility within his own community."

A Palestinian who came to the United States with his parents and six siblings when he was 9 years old and didn't know a word of English, Nawash today looks the standard K Street lawyer. He sports hip eyewear and has a receding hairline. Seated behind his desk in a cramped office, he leans back toward its big-window view of the downtown skyline. He likes that. This is where he issues news releases, applauds convictions of Muslims found guilty of terrorist ties, and hammers out online diatribes against fundamentalists for turning his religion "into a killing machine."

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