Terror arrests compel US Muslims to talk about their faith

Recent arrests in Chicago, as well as the shooting death of Detroit mosque leader, are forcing many US Muslims to explain how Islam is misunderstood.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago — The shooting death of a Detroit mosque leader who authorities say advocated a separate Islamic state within the US is pointing up a reality for Muslims in America: Such incidents are forcing them to talk about their faith in public – more so than people in other US faith communities talk about their religion.

Luqman Ameen Abdullah was killed in a shootout Wednesday with FBI agents who sought to arrest him and 11 others on federal charges including illegal possession and sale of firearms. According to an affidavit from an FBI agent, Mr. Abdullah was “advocating and encouraging his followers to commit violent acts against the United States.”

The incident follows two recent cases. Two men were arrested in Chicago this month, accused of helping to plan an attack on the offices of a Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. And Najibullah Zazi, a Denver airport-shuttle driver, was charged last month with conspiring to detonate explosives.

Given the high-profile nature of a number of such incidents since 9/11, many Muslims feel compelled to explain their religion, some say.

“Muslims had no other choice: They had to go out and talk about their faith; they had to condemn violence. It’s a matter of survival for them,” says Malika Zeghal, associate professor of the anthropology and sociology of religion and Islamic studies at the University of Chicago.

But because religion is so integrated in American society, Ms. Zeghal says, the dialogue is more natural than it might be in European countries such as France, which has derided some public discussions of religion.

Muslim groups like the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago often find they are forced to play offense whenever news of an arrest is linked to Islam. “The council rejects any association between the alleged plot and Islam,” said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, the council’s chairman, in a prepared statement regarding the Chicago arrests. “The two alleged plotters are not representative of mainstream American-Muslims. There are criminal elements in every faith community, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhists. An entire faith should not be hijacked by the actions of disturbed or maligned individuals.”

The surge in arrests is setting off alarms among both native-born Muslims and immigrants groups. In some cases, these people say, federal authorities have overstepped their bounds.

“The FBI has shown that they consider it prudent from their point of view to be more aggressive with the Muslim community, and I think that’s largely because they can get away with it and there’s not going to be too much of an uproar,” says Ihsan Bagby, general secretary of the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA). Mr. Bagby finds the practice of sending informant agents into mosques without any provocation “well past acceptable.”

According to Zeghal of the University of Chicago, heightened awareness of radicalized Muslims is creating a new wave of Islamic intellectuals on college campuses. These scholars aim to challenge Muslim believers on issues such as Westernization. They also want to promote education among Muslim immigrant groups so “a more reflective vision of their own religion” is encouraged.

While such efforts are often labeled anti-Muslim in conservative mosques, the results of such advocacy will be revealed in the future, Zeghal says: “The people who will tell us how they are doing [are the children of Muslim immigrants] … who are becoming professionals and are completely integrated within American society.”

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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