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American Muslim groups react to views presented in controversial hearing

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 12:10 AM

Standing before a throng of cameras after his high-profile hearing on Muslim radicalization, Rep. Peter T, King (R-N.Y.) once again attacked major Muslim American organizations and their leaders, whom King described as soft on extremism.

Asked to identify better leaders, the Long Island Republican pointed to the wavy-haired man beside him, Arizona physician Zuhdi Jasser. Jasser, the head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, had just been his star witness atThursday's hearing.

"To me, a group like Dr. Jasser's would be ideal," King said, calling the forum "the most compatible" with American values.

It was a remarkable moment in the spotlight for an organization that until a few years ago had an annual budget of less than $20,000 and a few volunteers.

If King's hearing was about anything, it was about trying to empower a different group of Muslim leaders, people King and other conservatives view as more patriotic, more cooperative and more focused on rooting out terrorists, rather than on Islamophobia.

The difference can be summed up by contrasting part of the mission statement of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - an advocacy group King and other GOP lawmakers bashed repeatedly Thursday - and that of a coalition of groups of which Jasser's is a part.

CAIR says it seeks to "monitor local, national and international media in part, to challenge negative stereotypes, but also to applaud and encourage positive representations of Islam and Muslims." The mission statement of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition is to "come together to defend the U.S. Constitution" and to "protect American security."

The clash involving some of the larger and better-known Muslim American organizations and Jasser's rapidly developing coalition is complicated - and heated. It includes differences in tone, ways of viewing religion in public life, and foreign policy.

The hearing "wasn't about a desire to empower anyone; it was about a desire to shoot the messenger" of criticism, said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

Jasser, 43, who said he has received letters in recent days calling him an "Uncle Tom," and like-minded groups have said the best-known Muslim organizations have made an industry out of the falsehood that Muslims are victims in the West.

He is quick to raise his voice when speaking of large organizations such as CAIR, which has a $3 million annual budget, and the Islamic Society of North America, which says 30,000 members and non-members participated in its programs last year.

To Jasser, the people running those groups are "Islamists" for not focusing more on the anti-Democratic aspects of Islamic scripture. He also believes leaders should more unequivocally condemn groups such as the militant Palestinian organization Hamas.

"The lens through which I look at groups is not the interfaith work they do. It's what are they doing to bring Islamic law and the concept of the Islamic state and put it in the dustbin of history?" he said.

Jasser's critics question why someone with no explicit constituency was the only one held up as a community leader. Jasser's small group is growing, however. In 2007, a major GOP donor,Foster Friess, gave it $100,000, which Jasser developed by last year into a $400,000 operation with four staff members.

In his opening statement Thursday, Jasser listed an alphabet soup of major U.S. Muslim groups and criticized them for trying to separate terrorism from certain basic aspects of Islam. Jasser said he is a "devout" Muslim but that the faith harbors an "insidious supremacism" that is at odds with Jeffersonian democracy.

Manda Zand Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women and an ally of Jasser's, said the difference between groups such as theirs and the ones King doesn't like is that they are more explicitly pro-Western, secular and come from countries that haven't produced any of the recent American jihadists. Jasser's family is originally from Syria.

"I don't want to be talked about all the time as a Muslim," she said. "I don't want to make an issue of my religion. I just want to be another American."

Common among the major Muslim America organizations is a blend of work defending Muslims - statements and activities highlighting Islamophobia and how to counter it - and programs meant to help Muslim Americans succeed. They range from training college go-getters to find jobs on Capitol Hill, to helping small-business owners, to forming interfaith networks.

Haris Tarin, D.C. office director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council - one of the groups Jasser and King have criticized - said his organization and others regularly hold events about radicalization and how to deal with issues such as the status of women and non-Muslims in the Koran.

"The average American Muslim is having these talks on a daily basis, just in mosques and Muslim community centers, while Jasser is having them with Peter King," Tarin said. Jasser, he said, is part of the "lucrative fear industry" and is outside the organized Muslim community for a reason.

Straddling the two extremes are groups such as the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. Although it has only about 20,000 members in the United States, the group was so concerned about Muslims' image that it spent a half-million dollars on an ad campaign called "Muslims for Loyalty." The group leafleted in 70 cities and funded an electronic billboard in Times Square.

Harris Zafar, the group's spokesman, agreed with Jasser that the major groups focus too much on civil liberties and sometimes "turn a blind eye" to radicalization.

"It's like a political correctness police - you can't say anything bad about Muslims," he said.

But he said Jasser goes too far in using the inflammatory label "Islamist" when there is much common ground among Muslim leaders on radicalization and the need for reform.

"This 'us versus them' thing is not beneficial," he said.

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