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Muslims' Unheralded Messenger
Antiterrorism Group Founder Hopes To Rally a Crowd

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."

"This has become almost an obsession for me," says Nawash. He now works only enough hours at his immigration and personal-injury law practice to help fund the Free Muslims. Unmarried, no children, he says he has nothing better to do.

"I can think of almost nothing else. What we are fighting is an ideology. I call it political Islam. Others call it religious fascism. Whatever you call it, it is a threat," says Nawash.

Muslim American leaders hesitate to come down hard on terrorism, he says, not because they support the violence, but because they share with terrorists the dream of a theocratic Islamic state.

He is unapologetic for his homilies on the subject, unaware that his voice rises excitedly with fervor until he is speaking too loudly, in his office, or while walking along L Street NW, or in a restaurant, attracting glances from passersby. "Yes, many Muslims may be oppressed in the world. We understand that," he says. "But there can be no justification for attacking civilians. Even if Muslim civilians are being attacked -- and they are -- that doesn't justify going into a restaurant and blowing it up."

Bethlehem to Big Easy

At Bacchus, a Middle Eastern-Lebanese restaurant near Dupont Circle, Nawash speaks fluent Arabic with owner Munther Tellawi, who takes his order of meze -- an assortment of hummus, tabbouleh, grilled chunks of chicken and lamb.

A recording of Fairuz plays in the background. Decades ago, Nawash says wistfully, the popular Lebanese singer put Arabic words to the music of Beethoven and Mozart. After his family fled the Palestinian refugee camps for New Orleans in 1979, he heard Mozart on the radio and thought someone had copied Fairuz.

Growing up, Nawash helped his parents operate their grocery store in a New Orleans ghetto. His first taste of media attention came in grade school when, every Christmas, he was interviewed on local TV and in newspapers. "Because I was born in Bethlehem!" he says.

The alluring and even corruptive narratives of Louisiana's history-- from Huey P. Long to Edwin Edwards -- beckoned Nawash to study business and international politics at Southern Louisiana University. He got a law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan, and earned a master's in law at American University. In Washington, he worked for a couple of years as an attorney for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Following a failed campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2001, Nawash, a resolute Republican, ran in 2003 for the Northern Virginia seat in the state Senate. He lost 40 pounds campaigning door-to-door at 11,000 homes, he says. "Because I'm a Palestinian refugee, it would automatically have given me an international audience. I would have had a forum for doing things for good."

In fact, being a Muslim posed fewer problems for him than being a Republican in heavily Democratic Arlington County. "They'd slam the door in my face," he says.

And he found it frustrating that while he wanted to address issues such as roads, traffic and taxes, many people wanted him to talk about Arab-U.S. issues. One Muslim PAC, called Platform for Active Civil Empowerment, was ready to make a contribution, and Nawash says they sent questionnaires to him and his opponent, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple. Nawash says the PAC asked Whipple the usual candidate questions, but asked him only one: "Do you pray five times a day?"

When he responded that his relationship with God is private, the PAC endorsed his opponent, he says.

But Mukit Hossain, the PAC's founder, says they never asked Nawash about his religious devotion. "That's nonsense. Being Muslim is not the only condition. He did not add up as a candidate," Hossain says.

"Most of our organizations are run by fanatics," Nawash says. "I pray differently than what the average imam says I have to pray. I like to take a walk and talk to God." (A month before he launched his Senate campaign, Nawash went on hajj -- the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia required of all Muslims once in their lifetimes, if possible.)

He lost his state Senate bid in part due to his friendship with American Muslim Council founder Abdurahman Alamoudi, who, as the campaign got underway, was arrested on charges of money laundering and ties to terrorist organizations. "That has really been a dark cloud over me," says Nawash, adding that everybody who was anybody knew or at least had met Alamoudi -- from Hillary Clinton to President Bush. Alamoudi is now serving a 23-year plea-bargained sentence.

Nawash's agenda has gotten the support of Ahmed Subhy Mansour, an Egyptian-born political refugee and a noted Islamic scholar once jailed in Egypt for defending moderate Islamic causes. The former Harvard visiting fellow is now based in Northern Virginia and has joined the Free Muslims advisory board. "Kamal is very concerned about terrorism," says Mansour. "We have the same ideas. . . . We believe in human rights and free speech for everyone."

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, bridles at Nawash's characterization of CAIR and other Muslim American organizations as doing practically nothing to denounce terrorism. Hooper lists dozens of anti-terror actions, from a small rally held in Dallas in October 2001 to condemning specific acts as they've occurred.

"The American Muslim community has consistently condemned terrorists both before and after 9/11, but unfortunately that's one of the criticisms we have the most -- that we haven't done enough -- and it just isn't true," Hooper says.

Backlash

In last Sunday's MuslimWakeUp!, an online Muslim newspaper, an article titled "New Muslim Groups: The Ugly, the Bad and the Good" castigated the Free Muslims as "the ugly" and called Nawash's charge that mainstream Muslim organizations haven't spoken out against terrorism "a damned and odious lie."

The author is Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, and onetime colleague of Nawash at the anti-discrimination committee.

During Nawash's state Senate campaign, Ibish called him "a hard-working and patriotic American" just to be "vaguely supportive," he says. "No one really had any problems with him until he decided to launch a campaign within the community in the guise of being the only one to be against terrorism."

But now Ibish considers his former colleague to be "a sham for the ultra-right." Ibish says the list of seventy-some supporting groups for tomorrow's march and rally includes numerous borderline Islamaphobes: "There are organizations that are plainly hostile to Muslims, like the right-wing fundamentalist Council of Volunteer Americans and RightTalk.com, a Web site that streams stridently anti-Muslim content. The United American Committee is absolutely hostile as are the Vietnam Veterans for Academic Reform," says Ibish, who anticipates all mainstream Muslim groups to boycott the rally. "No respectable organization can accept this."

Told of his critic's attacks, Nawash says it is "certainly not surprising. . . . They hate us now more than they hate the biggest enemies of Islam. They despise us because we're the biggest danger to them. They had a total monopoly over what Islam was and now we are providing an alternative to Muslims. . . . Everyone sees that most of the terrorism in the world is done by Muslims. I mean, people are cutting people's heads off while reading the Koran! When are they going to realize we have a problem? When are they going to speak up against it?"

Nawash is undaunted, and is still hoping for a big crowd tomorrow. He has been planning the rally for two months. Estimating the turnout on the Park Police permit application, he wrote 12-1,200 but hopes for more. A rent-a-rally company is set to deliver a stage, podium and PA system for the 15 scheduled speakers. Vinyl banners touting "March Against Terrorism" and "Free Muslims" are at the ready. He says he's got major TV, radio and print media coverage lined up. Yesterday all that worried him was a 30 percent chance of rain -- and the numbers that would show.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company