FAC News - Thursday, February 14, 2002 8:49 AM

Dispute Between U.S. Muslim Groups Goes Public

By Richard H. Curtiss

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

April/May 1999

A smoldering dispute between a Sufi Muslim group calling itself the "Islamic Supreme Council of America," established in California in 1991, and leaders of eight U.S. Muslim groups including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a roof organization providing educational and support services to about 1,100 of the approximately 1,500 North American mosques, burst into public view on Feb. 26.

On that date the group of national Islamic organizations issued a press release denouncing "unsubstantiated allegations that could have a profoundly negative impact on ordinary American Muslims." The joint release criticized remarks by Chairman Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America before some 250 people attending a Jan. 7 U.S. State Department Open Forum entitled "the Evolution of Extremism."

At the forum, open to government officials and invited visitors, Shaykh Kabbani had charged that funds collected by Muslim groups for humanitarian aid were being used "to buy weapons to fight in the name of Islam"; that "extremism has been spread to 80 percent of the Muslims in the U.S."; and that "there are more than 2,000 mosques in the U.S...and 80 percent of them are being run by extremist ideologies."

Shaykh Kabbani also charged that "extremist ideology is getting into the universities through clubs being put around the universities." He alleged that "Iran is hiring nuclear scientists" to miniaturize nuclear warheads. "If these small warheads reach the universities, you donít know what these students will do," Shaykh Kabbani said.

He also told the audience that "extremism can be solved if the West better understands Islam and builds bridges between the U.S. and Islam" but he added that "those advising the U.S. government are extremists themselves." This apparently was a reference to national Muslim leaders. Shaykh Kabbani concluded by telling the U.S. government officials that "You are not hearing the moderates among Muslims...You are hearing the extremists among Muslims."

In the question period following the presentation, the writer asked Shaykh Kabbani if, in his opinion, a public U.S. denunciation of the extremist Likud government of Israel would strengthen moderates in the Muslim world. Shaykh Kabbani replied that he would not characterize the present (Netanyahu) government as extremist.

When American Muslim Council organizer Khaled Turani asked Shaykh Kabbani if he would name the Islamic groups he considered extremist, Shaykh Kabbani said he would, but only in private, "after the program." When Mr. Turani approached Shaykh Kabbani after the program, however, he declined to do so.

Ground rules for the open forum program, which also included talks by Prof. Charles Fairbanks, director of the Central Asian Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, normally would be that remarks are off-the-record. However, moderator Anita Naylor said that since a television camera was present, the remarks could be quoted.

It was when Shaykh Kabbaniís words were quoted outside the State Department that indignation among American Muslim activists began to build, resulting in the joint press release by the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC), American Muslim Alliance (AMA), American Muslim Council (AMC), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Muslim Students Association of USA and Canada.

The joint release, with which additional Muslim groups subsequently associated themselves, charged that "Mr. Kabbani has put the entire American Muslim community under unjustified suspicion. In effect, Mr. Kabbani is telling government officials that the majority of American Muslims pose a danger to our society. Additionally, Islamophobic individuals and groups may use these statements as an excuse to commit hate crimes against Muslims...We therefore ask Mr. Kabbani to promptly and publicly retract his statements, to apologize to the American Muslim community, and to exert his utmost effort to undo the damage these statements have done. The issue is not that of a mere difference of opinion within an American religious community, but involves the irresponsible act of providing false information to government officials. This false information can jeopardize the safety and well-being of our community and hurt America itself by damaging its values of inclusiveness, fairness and liberty."

Shaykh Kabbaniís Islamic Supreme Council (ISCA) responded with a media alert dated March 2 bearing the headlines "National Muslim Organizations Incite Modern Day Lynch Mob" and "CAIRís false allegations create hysteria amongst American Muslims. Death threats, harassment and acts of discrimination ensue."

The ISCA media alert called the Feb. 26 joint release "an attempt to censor the viewpoints of moderate Muslims living in America" and "to stifle the First Amendment rights of Shaykh Hisham Kabbani."

The ISCA media alert also charged that the eight Muslim organizations had "deliberately distorted the words and took phrases out of context from the speech, knowing it would incite furor and hatred toward the council and its chairman."

Interestingly, the outlines of an increasingly acrimonious dispute between Shaykh Kabbani and mainstream U.S. Islamic organizations were described in detail in the October 1998 issue of The Muslim, the ISCA magazine, in a seven-page article by its editor, Dilshad Fakroddin, who is based in the office ISCA opened in Washington in 1998. Ms. Fakroddin described a series of confrontations between various U.S. Muslim groups and the followers of Damascus-educated Shaykh Kabbani, whom she describes as a nephew of the late Mufti of Lebanon, almost since Shaykh Kabbaniís arrival in the United States in 1991.

Fakroddin charged that leaders of other U.S. Muslim organizations were unwilling to participate in Shaykh Kabbaniís ISCA conventions in 1996 in Los Angeles and in 1998 in Washington, DC. She also charged that there were ugly scenes at conventions of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in 1994, 1996, in Chicago in 1997 and St. Louis in 1998, the latter two largest-ever gatherings of American Muslims to date, at which Shaykh Kabbaniís followers were not invited or allowed to participate after it was rumored that he was "a Zionist agent" and that his organizationís magazine "was sponsored by Zionist funding."

She implied that the dispute, which at that time had not been publicly acknowledged by leaders of other national Islamic organizations, was a religious one over differing Sufi interpretations of Islam and the Unitarian or "Wahabi" interpretations of Islam as observed in Saudi Arabia.

Whether or not it started as a sectarian dispute or simply an organizational rivalry, by the time the dispute burst into the open as a result of Shaykh Kabbaniís 1999 remarks at the State Department, it clearly had become a political matter and a serious one. Some Muslims were particularly outraged that Shaykh Kabbani had taken it upon himself to express a purely personal view in their name when he told his State Department listeners that "[regarding] Israel we feel that there is a peace treaty that has been accepted by nearly all Muslims and continues. We feel that fighting is not justified."

The outrage was compounded when Shaykh Kabbani said that "unfortunately it has evolved in many Muslim countries that the way of thinking is that Islam has to be reformed with the mentality of the sword and the gun" and added that "extremism has become more a business than a belief because it is based on drugs."

Ironically, less than three years ago many of the same U.S. Islamic groups that collaborated in this yearís denunciation of Shaykh Kabbani were unable to agree on a bloc endorsement of a presidential candidate in the 1996 U.S. national election. In fact, within the confines of the newly created American Muslim Political Coordination Council, some of the same groups still are debating whether such a national Islamic political endorsement is either possible or desirable.

Whatever Shaykh Kabbaniís original intention, therefore, the spectacle of a lone American Muslim leader expressing strong political views in the name of "nearly all Muslims" may have the shock effect of forcing the majority of national U.S. Muslim leaders to agree on a comprehensive political platform in order to start speaking for themselves.

Richard H. Curtiss is the editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

 

 
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