A round of soul-searching among Muslims

After British Muslims bombed their homeland, some tough questions in US about extremism.

If it happened in Britain, could it also happen here?

That question has preoccupied American Muslims in the month since four bombs wreaked havoc in downtown London - three of them carried by men who were born and raised in a tolerant and multicultural Britain. The attacks challenged the assumption, widespread in the Islamic community, that terrorism is largely an "import" brought by radicalized Muslims from nations outside the West, not something that could entice homegrown Muslims.

Muslim Americans from all walks of life say the question has resonated through their community - in mosques, around dinner tables, in chat rooms online. While the discussions have led some to ask whether their community has been too tolerant of extremist speech, it has prompted others to warn that the US may inadvertently stoke any latent extremism by treating its Muslim citizens with suspicion or dislike.

"We are actively engaged in this ideological war ... [and] it's healthy these debates are taking place," says Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (M-PAC). "They're certainly not comfortable, but they are necessary."

For the most part, the soul-searching has not changed the widely held view that Muslims raised in America - and those who've chosen to make their home here - are very unlikely to attack their own country.

Many US Muslims say America does a better job of integration than does Europe. There, some groups rage against the current immigration wave, which is largely Muslim, and parliaments debate women's right to wear hijabs. Moreover, the European Muslim community is generally not as well-off as Muslims in the US.

"In England there is more of a class structure. [Muslims there] came from less educated backgrounds and brought their less educated imams with them," says Omer bin Abdullah, editor of Islamic Horizon magazine.

But the terrorists behind Sept. 11 - including Osama bin Laden - came from educated, well-off families. Their ideology isn't rooted in the cast-off frustration of the poor, but rather in a feeling of solidarity with fellow Muslims fighting the West, whether they're Palestinians in Israel or insurgents in Baghdad.

Many American Muslims feel that solidarity as well. Often, this means they disagree with US policy, such as support for Israel, the Iraq occupation, and post-9/11 domestic security measures they see as aimed at their community. "The US has placed itself in a corner: It insists that other governments stop, prevent, and even help it to fight terrorism, and yet [it] arms such practitioners of state terrorism as Tel Aviv," wrote Mr. Abdullah in The American Muslim Online.

Although that article roundly condemned terrorism, some worry the case it presented against America and Israel dangerously parallels the arguments Al Qaeda and other groups use to justify their attacks. Furthermore, American Muslims recognize that non-Muslims may see such views as proof of a fifth column in their midst.

That climate of suspicion, when coupled with a sympathy to terrorists' pet political causes and a perception that the US is clamping down on civil liberties, might nudge a few young American Muslims into extremism, some suggest.

Mohamad Ahmad, a senior at the University of California at Los Angeles and president of Muslim Student Associations-West, cites the post-9/11 arrests of some Muslim leaders accused of having ties to terror groups. The arrests of these imams, whom he characterizes as moderates, left a void in the community - and may have made Muslim youths more susceptible to actual extremist preachers and websites, he says. Young people may turn to someone whose "whole platform is ignorance," says Mr. Ahmad. "They don't impact a community. But they can get to a few individuals."

In the past two years, law officers have picked up mosque leaders in Albany, N.Y., Anaheim and Lodi, Calif., Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Some await trial; others have been deported. A few have been sacked by their own congregations.

Ahmad acknowledges that the "ignorant" leaders try to gain credence by building on a perception of US persecution of Muslims. Notably, each of the 11 Muslims interviewed for this article felt their community is unfairly linked to terrorist actions - and wondered why Muslims are asked to account for every terrorist event.

Why, they ask, are they so often associated with "deranged loners," a label Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, applies to the London bombers.

Mr. Hooper, for one, does not agree that Muslims in the US have now become more vigilant against extremism. "First you have to examine the premise of 'Are there extremists within the Muslim community?' If we knew they were there, of course we would point them out. I haven't seen preaching of hatred in any mosque I've been in," he says.

Ahmad allows that extremism may exist here, but says the suspicion that his faith equals guilt is vexing. "It's kind of like pulling someone over every day and saying, 'Were you speeding?' and being, like, 'No.' "

To combat that suspicion, some younger Muslims have rallied behind a fatwa, or religious injunction, issued July 28 by North American Muslim leaders. They say it's significant that the fatwa not only denounced terrorism, but extremism too - a term that could include, to a degree, support of political movements that call for the annihilation of Israel, or of Middle Eastern regimes that marginalize women.

"The voice of American Muslim youth is essential at this tenuous time, and we will rise to the occasion of making our values heard.... We seek to cultivate a culture of pluralism, tolerance, and coexistence for the advancement of all people," says a July 21 statement from M-PAC and Islamic Society of North America.

"This has been played [in the media] as a fatwa against terrorism," says Ms. Lekovic. "But it points out that extremism is also outside the norms of Islam. Calling into question these other issues is much more significant."

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