FAC News -
Thursday, February 14, 2002 8:49 AM
Between U.S. Muslim Groups Goes Public
Richard H. Curtiss
Report on Middle East Affairs
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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
H. Curtiss is the editor of the Washington Report on Middle