Arab-Americans stay clear of Moussaoui

They fear if they question his treatment, federal agents might come after them too.

Zacarias who?

That's pretty much how American Muslims are responding to the strange case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, who faces a potentially historic trial in a Virginia federal courtroom in late September.

Rather than rallying to his cause, many Muslims and Arab-Americans are keeping what they see as a safe distance from the self-proclaimed Osama bin Laden loyalist and Al Qaeda member.

Federal prosecutors are seeking to have Mr. Moussaoui executed for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. Although some critics have questioned whether he can receive a fair trial, the Muslim community in the US has remained largely silent about the case.

Analysts say that American Muslims do not identify with Moussaoui's extremist political views and radical interpretation of Islam. In addition, these analysts say, many Muslims are fearful that if they speak up and question whether Moussaoui is being treated fairly, they, too, might become targets of federal agents.

"Just asking the question is now tantamount to being seen as betraying the country," says Eric Erfan Vickers, executive director of the American Muslim Council in Washington. "There is a reluctance to express support for those who have been detained or charged, or to raise questions about whether the government has solid evidence."

Mr. Vickers adds, "We are in an environment now where an accusation is the equivalent of a conviction."

Limited access

Moussaoui is being held in solitary confinement pending his trial, and the trial judge has barred him from meeting with the only lawyer he says he trusts. All his limited contacts with the outside world are monitored by federal agents under new terrorism trial rules authorized by the attorney general.

To the US government, the Moussaoui trial represents an opportunity to hold someone accountable for the massive death and destruction on Sept. 11. Moussaoui admits that he came to the US on an Al Qaeda mission, but he denies any involvement in or knowledge of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Instead, Moussaoui says the FBI knew in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks and allowed them to go forward. He says he wants to tell his story to Congress, to a grand jury, and eventually to a 12-member jury at his own trial.

In addition to spawning conspiracy theories, the coming trial may undermine years of effort by Arab-American and Muslim civil rights workers seeking to overcome anti-Arab bias and stereotypes. A Moussaoui trial could "reinforce in people's minds the identification of Arabs and Muslims with violence and danger and extremism," says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.

Mr. Ibish says there is almost no concern within the Arab-American community about Moussaoui's treatment and his prospects of receiving a fair trial. "Even if he had a jury of 12 Arab-Americans, I don't think he gets a more sympathetic hearing from our community," Ibish says. "There is just no sympathy, none at all."

Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, agrees. "He is just so outrageous in his statements that no one wants to be associated with him," she says. "He is almost like a 'Saturday Night Live' parody."

Dr. Mattson says the Muslim community is deeply concerned about the erosion of American civil liberties since Sept. 11. But no one is willing to raise the issue in Moussaoui's case. "That is not something the Muslim community feels secure or interested in doing, overall," she says.

A cautionary tale

Mattson adds that the April indictment of New York defense attorney Lynn Stewart for allegedly facilitating messages between her imprisoned client Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his supporters in Egypt sent a chilling warning to many Muslim-Americans. "If that could happen to a white American woman who is a non-Muslim, what could happen to a Muslim?" Mattson says. "There is so much suspicion about Muslims in America I think it would be hard to find the average American giving a Muslim lawyer the benefit of the doubt that what they were doing is defending constitutional principles rather than just trying to defend Muslims, no matter what they did."

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says certain right-wing and conservative Christian groups are using the current atmosphere to demonize and marginalize American Muslims in an effort to undercut criticism of Israel within the US.

"It is much easier for people of other faiths to discuss these issues than Muslims, because we are under the microscope," Mr. Hooper says.

He adds, "There is a perception of a double standard in relation to the Muslim community. The atmosphere is such that if you question the standard of justice, you are perceived as being sympathetic to the terrorists or being disloyal."

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