Muslim Groups Urge Substantive Talks With Bush

President Bush is willing to pose for pictures with American Muslims and publicly praise Islam, but developing a substantive relationship with the Bush administration will take much more work, say some Muslim-American groups.

"We need to see regular, productive, policy-based meetings," Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (search), told

Last month, Bush hosted an Iftaar dinner (search) at the White House to honor the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

The event was attended by much of the Muslim diplomatic community and some Muslim-American leaders, but some critics say notably absent were many of the nation's top Muslim leaders. They say Bush excluded those representatives from the dinner to avoid being broached about lamb-and-potato policies ranging from the Patriot Act to aid for Israel.

"There was almost total exclusion of the national Muslim organizations [from the dinner], as if they were too hot to handle," said Khalid Turahni, executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem (search), one of a half-dozen Muslim organizations that staged a protest outside the White House that night.

Turahni said that since Bush "became president, there has not been one meeting where the president invited Muslim leaders to talk about policy issues."

"We need to see real policy meetings in order to see the Iftaar meeting as credible," added Hooper.

The White House denies the accusations, and Muslim-Americans that did attend the dinner say the president's relationship with their organizations is warm and productive.

"The president meets with leaders of a broad range of groups and he has met with Muslim-American groups on a number of occasions," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. Buchan said such meetings have included Iftaar dinners over the past three years, roundtables with a broad range of Muslim leaders and a visit to a mosque earlier this year.

Jamaluddin Hoffman, director of public affairs of the Islamic Supreme Council of America (search), said that although the guest list at the White House dinner reads like a who's who from Embassy Row's Muslim quarters, his presence at the event shows that national Muslim-American groups were included at the table.

The 8,000-member strong Islamic Supreme Council of America has had "very substantive meetings with members of the administration and everywhere at every forum we have found the president and the administration very receptive to what we have to say," Hoffman said.

"The question is: Who decides who speaks for the Muslim American community? And we speak for a definite segment," he added.

The disagreement within the Muslim community over the White House's outreach is not unexpected considering the wide diversity of American Muslims, said former ambassador David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute (search).

"There is no homogenous" Muslim community, Mack said. "It's very difficult to generalize about them."

Mack noted that the majority of American Muslims are not Arabs, but in fact, come from the Indian subcontinent. Despite their diversity, some clear strands of thought pervade the Muslim-American community.

"The one thing that almost all Muslims would take offense at is the perception that being a Muslim ... makes you something less than other Americans," he said. 

Muslims find it very offensive when customs officers or police treat them differently than other Americans, Mack added.

Among the priorities to discuss with the administration, Turahni and Hooper say civil liberties top their lists. If given an audience with the president, Turahni said,  "I would focus certainly on the civil rights of American Muslims. We feel that the Patriot Act, one and two, are putting Muslim-Americans generally in the suspect seat. When you demonize an entire group of people, then it is easy to deal with them from that vantage point."

Critics have been careful to make clear that their worries about an anti-Muslim sentiment in the Bush administration do not relate to the president specifically.

"I don't think it's really the president. I think it's the president's advisers who happen to be on the extreme side when it comes to Muslims," Turahni said.

They do point to a number of administration officials whom they perceive to be unfriendly to Muslims. Heading this list are Daniel Pipes, appointed by Bush to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace; Elliot Abrams, appointed to the National Security Council; and Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who last month described America's war on terrorism in religious terms. Boykin was not punished by the Defense Department, which angered some corners. 

Turahni said he would advise Bush to fire Abrams because he doesn't think he can be an honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians.

"You just can't have a person with such strong biases to advise you on a conflict that has two sides to it," he said.

Pipes, who for a long time has drawn the ire of Muslim groups for his outspoken support for Israel, said the Bush administration's policy toward Muslim Americans "is a work in progress."

Before the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration had no policy for liaising with Muslims, Pipes said. It naturally has taken some time to iron out the kinks, and the administration is now dealing with a wide array of Muslim-American groups.

"The Islamist organizations that are moaning and bellyaching are not mainstream Muslims," Pipes added.

Muslim-Americans say they also worry about U.S. foreign policy in several regions. Hooper said Muslim-Americans are concerned about the continuing bloody conflict in Chechnya (search) and the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir (search).

And of course, the standoff in the Middle East is a central focus.

"The Palestinian-Israeli issue does get a lot of prominence ... because of the very very high level of aid that we provide Israel," Mack said.

Bush has been careful not to characterize the war on terror as one against Muslims, and has regularly praised Islam and explained some of its central tenets to the American people. Neither Hooper nor Turahni expressed concern over events in the war on terror.