America is the land of opportunity and freedom, but often Muslim-American leaders inaccurately depict a prejudiced, repressive society, their moderate brethren say.
Muslims "have more opportunity in America to practice Islam than anywhere else in the world," said Muqtedar Khan, director of International Studies at Adrian College (search) in Michigan.
Some community leaders say Muslim-Americans need to take advantage of that freedom to send a moderate message about terrorism, Israel and other issues to their co-religionists in the United States and abroad. Spurred to speak out since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, these leaders are emphasizing moderation, in both ideas and public representatives.
"The most important message is that we condemn all kinds of hate speech including anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism and that we come out as boldly as possible against violence committed by Muslims in Iraq, in Israel, in Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia, and that we do all that we can in this war against terrorism," said Ahmed al-Rahim, a founding member and former chairman of the American Islamic Congress (search).
AIC was established after Sept. 11 because of a feeling that moderates had been silent for too long in the face of Muslim extremism.
"The mainstream, official voice of Islam in America wasn’t forceful enough in condemning the violence and the acts of terror on 9/11. There was some hesitancy, and there was more concern with hate crimes against Muslims, which I think were relatively low, and there was more focus on that than actually looking at the violence and the hate speech that has been committed in the name of Islam," al-Rahim said.
Khan said moderate views are more widely accepted since Sept. 11. In the past, only "conservative or narrow-minded" speakers would be allowed to speak at mosques and community centers. But after the terror attacks, moderates felt it was worth fighting to have more moderate views aired, he said.
"You can see that the agendas are changing."
Mateen Saddiqui, vice president Islamic Supreme Council of America (search), said some extremist groups — those he described as organizations dominated by the Wahhabi strain of the faith — have "hijacked the mic. They are the ones who are trying to put out a negative message, to politicize the religion and use it for their political focus, which is often not related to the United States, but to a political cause overseas."
Saddiqui declined to identify those groups, but the ISCA Web site zeroes in on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (search), Benevolence International Foundation (search) and the American Muslim Council (search).
CAIR has frequently been cited by moderates as an organization that should not speak for the American-Muslim community, and the group has long been accused of being funded by Saudi Arabia and having ties to Palestinian terror group Hamas. But CAIR's spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, brushes off those charges, and says the accusations are to be expected.
"As an advocacy group, that’s one of the things that you have to deal with. Inevitably, you are going to be focusing on the negative because that’s your job," Hooper said.
CAIR, which claims 30,000-40,000 members, sends out regular updates about Muslims who have been discriminated against in the United States, and almost daily sends out an e-letter featuring positive and negative news stories about Muslims around the country.
Hooper said CAIR seeks to educate Americans about Islam and portray the religion in a positive light. He added that CAIR has condemned every terrorist attack on Western targets.
"We try and actively search out positive stories and positive issues, and whenever we're able, we put those forward," he said. "Unfortunately, positive stories are becoming few and far between."
Khan disagreed, saying claims of victimization in the United States are overblown, and extremist groups try to paint concerns about civil liberties as an all-out affront on Muslim-Americans.
"Whenever a Muslim is arrested, he is innocent," Khan said of the extreme groups' automatic cries of rights violations. They "instantly assume that the guy is innocent."
Khan said he believes the story of Muslims in America is positive, and success among members of the Muslim American-community is proof of "America's benevolence and tolerance of Islam."
"American Muslims really have no reason to feel they are victims of anything," he said.
Moderates say it is up to them to make sure their message is not drowned out by extreme groups.
"We have to get our voices heard because our voices are being drowned out by the extremists," said Asma Afsaruddin, a professor in the classics department at Notre Dame (search). "Extremism, militancy and violence all in the name of Islam are gross betrayals of the Islamic tradition."
An Islamic studies expert, Afsaruddin added that scholars must explain the religion so that extremists do not have a monopoly.
"In academia, there has been more of a readiness of intellectuals, who generally do not engage in the media, to speak up and make their voices heard," she said. "We have to point to historical and textual evidence that we can marshal that sometimes the ordinary person does not have access to."
One non-Muslim who has worked to give a platform to moderate voices in the Muslim community is Hillel Fradkin, director of the Hudson Institute's Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World (search). He said that while he worries that extremists are working to silence the moderates, he is hopeful that the foundations of American culture will nourish moderates and a more modern form of Islam. "I do think that there's a good chance that the experience of the country will lead to, over the longterm, to a moderation of the community."
Asked whether moderates can export abroad the ideas developed in the United States, Fradkin replied, it's a "genuine prospect" but it will take an understanding of the real experience of democracy, "which is basically an abstraction in most of the Muslim world."