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October 20, 2001
Talk about it E-mail story Print

Bombing Carves a Rift Among Muslims in U.S.
* Reaction: Antiwar sentiment grows amid concerns about civilian casualties and the prospect of a wider war.

 
 
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By TERESA WATANABE, Times Religion Writer

American Muslim leaders who have endorsed the war on terrorism are facing a growing backlash from community members concerned about the impact on Afghan civilians and broader U.S. war aims.

The concerns have led the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization with a large grass-roots base, to draft a statement calling for an end to the bombing in Afghanistan.

Other Muslim groups so far have declined to sign the statement, prompting the council to debate whether to issue it.

Some Muslim leaders hesitate to sign for fear of provoking a backlash in the wider population and projecting an image of being unpatriotic. Others fear alienating the Bush administration at a time the community has made great strides in gaining political influence in Washington. Several prominent Muslim organizations in the U.S. backed George W. Bush over Al Gore in the presidential campaign last year, seeking to create a unified Muslim political position for the first time.

The debate over the antiwar statement illuminates the divisions within the American Muslim community. Leaders until now have tried to portray a united front in support of U.S. policy. But significant opposition to that policy exists in the community.

"The Muslim leadership is in a real dilemma," said Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Minaret, a Muslim magazine in Los Angeles. "If they oppose the war, people will point their fingers and say they are soft on terrorism. But if they support it, they may be speaking against their conscience."

Abdullah, a board member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has opposed the attacks on Afghanistan from the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign, but was unsuccessful in persuading his organization to adopt his view.

Instead, in a statement issued Oct. 7, the day the air campaign began, the council said it wholeheartedly endorsed the campaign on terrorism without explicitly addressing the military action.

Local representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said they received e-mails from members disappointed by what they perceived as a timid stand and de facto support of an attack on a Muslim country. Kaukab Siddique, editor of New Trend, a Muslim newspaper based on the East Coast, circulated a call for leaders of the council and other "bootlicker organizations" to resign if they wanted to be considered Muslim.

Such strains are likely to grow as antiwar sentiment mounts among Muslims concerned about civilian casualties and the possibility of a wider war aimed at toppling regimes in Iraq and other Islamic nations.

U.S. officials have disputed charges by Afghanistan's Taliban leadership about the number of civilian casualties in the bombings, but have said that some civilians have been killed and that the number has increased as the military action continues.

Islamic opposition to the Afghan campaign is also hardening overseas. Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a popular Muslim religious authority in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, has called on Muslims worldwide to resist the U.S. effort. Al-Qaradawi previously condemned the terrorist attacks on America as a perversion of Islam.

Mizgon Zahir, editor of the San Francisco-based Afghana Journal, said many Afghan Americans accepted the airstrikes initially in the hope that "America would smoke the Taliban out of their holes and maybe another government could be installed." But now, she said, a growing number of people are changing their minds as word filters back of relatives still stuck in Afghanistan, villages and medical facilities being destroyed and Osama bin Laden still at large.

"As civilian casualties grow, people are asking, 'If there were terrorists in America, would you bomb the whole country?' "

In an online poll by Web site www.IslamiCity.com, 73.8% of 1,435 respondents said they oppose the airstrikes. The poll is by nature unscientific, but it provides some evidence of the attitudes of the Web site's users.

Please see REACT, A11

REACT: Debate Among U.S. Muslims

Continued from A10

Altaf Husain, president of the national Muslim Student Assn., said some of the differences within the community are generational. The student group was one of the few Muslim organizations in the country to explicitly call for a cease-fire after the bombing began, which Husain attributed to the younger generation's greater confidence in their identity as Americans and their right to be in opposition.

"It's a fairly distinct separation," said Husain, whose organization represents 100 of the 500 Muslim student groups on college campuses nationwide. "The second generation has no problem speaking out and still being seen as patriotic. The elders sense we've made such political gains in the American public sphere, and they are concerned about how American we appear in the stands we take."

As community resistance to the military campaign grows, however, some Muslim organizations--as well as some Christian groups--are beginning to oppose it.

In drafting its statement to end the bombing, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, stressed that his organization fully supports efforts to bring the terrorists to justice. But he said the bombing campaign is starting to inflame Muslim public opinion.

In Los Angeles, Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council said his organization had asked the White House for greater disclosure about such issues as bombing targets, damage and the expected length of the campaign.

But, despite "strong sentiment" in the community to stop the military campaign, Al-Marayati said his group is not planning to call for a halt because of fears of a backlash that could target Muslim individuals, schools and mosques.

"Our primary concern is the security of the American Muslim community," Al-Marayati said. "There is strong sentiment throughout the nation that you're either part of them or us."

In Washington, Aly Abuzaakouk of the American Muslim Council said he continues to support the airstrikes because they have not yet achieved their objective to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, opposition to military action is surfacing in some other religious communities.

Christian evangelical leader Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, now says the U.S. bombing campaign has become "counterproductive." And the influential Roman Catholic magazine America published an editorial challenging whether the U.S. military campaign was adhering to Christian "just war" principles.

Other religious leaders, however, continue to back the U.S. campaign. Asked if the airstrikes were inflaming Muslim public opinion, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said: "Who cares? If the Islamic community can't police its own nut cases, we will."

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