Civil libertarians are behind Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in his refusal to stand for the playing of the national anthem on religious grounds, but leaders of the faith that he embraces said Wednesday those grounds might be shaky.
Abdul-Rauf, a guard and the leading scorer of the Denver Nuggets, was suspended by the NBA without pay a few hours after telling reporters Tuesday that he considered the flag "a symbol of oppression, of tyranny" and that he would continue to refuse to stand for the anthem.
"I'm a Muslim first and a Muslim last," Abdul-Rauf said. "My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology."
But Islamic leaders in Los Angeles said his understanding of his religion as it relates to national symbols can be questioned.
"He's basing [his decision] on Islam, which is wrong," said Maher Hathout, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California.
"Muslims give a pledge to respect their country and honor its symbols. The American flag does not represent oppression. It represents the United States of America.
"Maybe there are certain policies of oppression that we can oppose, like any American citizen, but I don't think a person who does that should use Islam as a justification for his opinion."
Abdul Karim Hasan, leader of Mosjid Bilal, a mosque in Watts, agreed.
"I have not heard, nor have I read, that a Muslim should disrespect the culture of other people," he said. "The flag is part of their culture. As a member of the Muslims of African American descent, I don't follow his point of view."
Abdul-Rauf's suspension was for violation of a long-standing league rule that requires players, coaches and trainers to "stand and line up in a dignified posture" during the U.S. and Canadian anthems, said Russ Granik, deputy commissioner of the NBA.
But it's a rule that probably shouldn't be applied universally, said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"In suspending star player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem, the National Basketball Assn. has sidelined religious liberty as well," Shapiro said in a statement.
And it's a rule that Abdul-Rauf has been violating all season, first by doing stretching exercises on the bench during the anthem, later by remaining in the locker room.
The problem was brought to the NBA's attention by the Nuggets about three weeks ago.
"They asked that they be allowed to try to work it out, and we agreed," NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said. "Nobody wanted to make any waves."
After talking with Nugget officials, Abdul-Rauf decided to stay in the locker room during the playing of the anthem. The issue became public through local talk radio shows that were discussing patriotism and the Oklahoma City bombing trial, which has been moved to Denver. Callers said they had noticed Abdul-Rauf's lack of attendance at pregame ceremonies, and he was quoted in a Sunday story in a Denver newspaper as saying he was basing his decision not to participate on his religion.
The Koran, the sacred book of Muslims, states that nothing should come between him and Allah, Abdul-Rauf said.
"My beliefs are more important to me than anything," he said. "If I have to, I'll give up basketball."
The suspension is costing him $31,707 per game.
Among Muslim athletes, Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing after refusing to serve in the Army in Vietnam. Track and field athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith were vilified for raising their fists in a "black power" salute during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics.
Abdul-Rauf's agent, Shareef Nasir, said the suspension came without warning.
"It's very difficult for me to figure out," Nasir said. "I was not consulted, nor was the players' association consulted. I just think [the NBA] wanted a confrontation."
The union stands behind Abdul-Rauf.
"Our union respects the free expression rights of any individual, and NBA players are no different," said Alex English, the association's acting director. "We support Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and we support the American flag, which symbolizes Mahmoud's right to take precisely the action he is taking."
One player seemed to disagree with Abdul-Rauf. Hakeem Olajuwon, the star center for the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets, said the Koran teaches respect for the customs and traditions in whichever country one lives.
"It's tough for me to understand his position, but in general the Muslim teaching is to obey and respect. To be a good Muslim is to be a good citizen," Olajuwon said.
In a statement Wednesday, Abdul-Rauf sidestepped the issue of religion, but said that in good conscience he could not participate in a pregame ceremony involving the national anthem without complete sincerity.
"My intentions were not in any way to be disrespectful to those who regard the national anthem as a sacred ceremony," he said. "I am an African American, a citizen of this country and one who respects freedom of speech and freedom of expression."
That the issue has become public has raised Muslim leaders' concern about a possible backlash.
"Already, people are calling up radio stations asking Muslims to pack and go home," said Asiam Abdullah, editor of the Minaret, an Islamic magazine published in Los Angeles. Abdullah said that he was shocked by Abdul-Rauf's actions.
"The deeper issue this raises," Abdullah said, "is the question of whether Islam is compatible with the U.S. Constitution. Is Islam compatible with the American democracy? The simple fact is that the only free Muslims in the world are in the United States. For him to bring out the debate at this moment in this particular fashion will damage the Muslim position in this country."
It won't help the Nuggets' position in the NBA standings, either.
They beat the Orlando Magic, 110-93, on Tuesday, but are one game behind Sacramento for the final playoff position in the Western Conference and play at Chicago on Friday night, as of now without their leading scorer.