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Extremism a challenge for Muslims

BY ANDREW MAYKUTH

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The 24-year-old American student, . . .confessed that he aspired to hijack and crash an airliner into “the leader of the infidels.”

To Abu Ali and his supporters, the trial that ended a few days later with the young man’s conviction was not about terrorism. “It’s a Muslim thing,” Abu Ali told federal investigators. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Indeed, Islam is very much on trial – but not in the courtroom. The world’s second-largest religion is undergoing a trial by Muslims themselves as they struggle to confront extremist tendencies, such as the ideology that motivated American-born Abu Ali to travel to Saudi Arabia and join al-Qaida.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims are under growing pressure to take action against jihadist strains of the faith.

“The transformation we’re going through now, it could take Islam to enlightenment, or it could take Islam to the dark ages for a long time to come,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California , Los Angeles , and an outspoken critic of Islam’s extremists.

“We are at a crossroads,” he said.

The struggle taking place in America is a microcosm of a worldwide battle over the direction of Islam, which claims up to 1.3 billion followers – approximately six million in the United States . At its core, the confrontation is over the influence of militant, theocratic varieties of Islam, such as Wahhabism, the Saudi Arabian Islamic movement that inspired Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan ‘s Taliban.

Moderate American Muslims, who had quietly squirmed as militant rhetoric crept into their mosques and discussion groups, are becoming more willing to confront the radical ideology that they say dishonors Islam’s core message of compassion and mercy.

“Before 9-11, people were not focused on the struggle against the authoritarianism and the despotism of the Wahhabis,” said Abou El Fadl, author of a recently published book, “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists.”

Radical leaflets, once openly available in Islamic libraries in America , have become more difficult to find. Recruiters for holy wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan , formerly welcomed in many mosques, are now turned away.

“My sense is that people feel the extremist ideology needs to be countered, and we (Muslims) are the only ones who can effectively counter it,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles .

A big issue facing many mosques is how much to cooperate with authorities. Many Muslims are recent immigrants and believe the worst things they have been told about the government. The clergy are under great pressure not to report suspicious activity.

“Some imams are open about cooperating with the FBI,” Abou El Fadl said. “Other imams say, ‘This is a religiously inspired administration, and it is immoral to bring attention to fellow Muslims who are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.'”

Many Muslim advocates say they have repeatedly condemned terrorism since Sept. 11, yet they are still criticized because their denunciations are insufficient or overly qualified.

“We’re speaking up, but people aren’t hearing us,” Al-Marayati said. “The problem is not in the message, but in the reception.”

But some critics said the fatwa was more show than substance. They say it did not denounce specific extremists and still left room for Muslims to justify attacks, particularly in Israel .

“The condemnations are never fully throated, they’re not specific,” said Daniel Pipes, executive director of Philadelphia’s Middle East Forum and one of the nation’s most controversial campaigners against radical Islam.

Muslim advocates express exasperation with Pipes, who has long been at odds with such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization that models itself after the NAACP.

“We have consistently disassociated Islam from terrorism,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the council, which last year organized a yearlong antiterrorism publicity campaign called “Not in the Name of Islam.”

Much of the debate centers on who is defined as a moderate and who is an extremist.

“There are telltale signs about an extremist,” said the University of Delaware ‘s Khan. “When critics start speaking of a Zionist conspiracy, a Christian crusade, and when those things justify violence, that’s scary stuff.”

AN ISLAM PRIMER

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion – and growing fast. The word in Arabic refers to peace through submission to God.

Followers, known as Muslims, believe in one God and that the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) is his messenger. The religion’s sacred text is the Koran, or Qur’an.

Practitioners must declare their faith, pray five times a day, give to charity, fast from dawn to dusk in the holy month of Ramadan, and, if possible, make a pilgrimage to Mecca during their lifetimes.

Muslims believe that on the Last Day the world will come to an end, and the dead will be resurrected and judged. Salvation will be acquired through good deeds.

Islam has no overarching authority, and the status of a preacher is equal to that of the laity. If one believes and declares oneself to be a Muslim and behaves in a manner befitting a Muslim, one is accepted into the community of believers. . . .