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At U.S. Conference, Shiites Share Concerns

Times Staff Writer

New Jersey cardiologist Syed M. Rizvi has long been a loyal Republican, drawn by the party’s socially conservative platform, which reflects his Islamic faith and traditional Indian culture. But this year, he suspended his party membership and is now rethinking his support of President Bush for one reason -- Iraq.

Although Rizvi applauded the ouster of Saddam Hussein, he fears his fellow Shiite Muslims in Iraq are unduly suffering from the postwar chaos, carnage and what he sees as too much American say over the country’s policies.

“They are not letting Shias take control,” said Rizvi, who Sunday was among 3,000 Shiites gathered here for their second annual convention. “I am really disappointed.”

Rizvi’s views seemed to reflect a larger turnabout in a constituency that once counted itself as staunch supporters of U.S. policies in Iraq. Most American Shiites were jubilant over the overthrow of Hussein, who brutally persecuted Iraq’s Shiite majority, and anticipated that the ensuing Democratic government would lead to the world’s first Arab Shiite state. But much of that optimism has evaporated.

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“Almost 100% of Shias are disillusioned. They say we traded one occupation for another,” said Robert Crane, a Shiite Muslim convert who heads the Center for Policy Research, an Islamic think tank in Washington. Crane is a lifelong Republican who contributed to Bush’s campaign and voted for him in the last presidential election but now is reconsidering his support.

Iraq topped the list of foreign policy concerns at the weekend convention of the Universal Muslim Assn. of America, a group formed last year to organize the Shiite community here and project a distinct voice on religious and public policy issues. Organizers said they hoped to issue a conference statement today that would condemn terrorism, call for a “just peace” in Iraq based on Iraqi wishes and a urge deeper understanding of Shiite Muslims by Americans.

But convention-goers also discussed issues ranging from the lingering impact of the attacks of Sept. 11 to interfaith relations and social pressures on young Muslims to date and drink.

“We are trying to build a new voice for the Muslim world,” said media coordinator Ali Alahmed.

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The conference’s theme, “Unity in Diversity,” illustrated some of the challenges facing the fledgling organization as it tries to pull together Shiites, who compose an estimated 10% to 20% of the nation’s Muslims. In defining their association as American, conference organizers did not, for instance, require women to wear a hijab, a head scarf, or sit separately from men. They even held a youth mixer, encouraging members of the opposite sex to exchange information.

But that did not sit well with traditionalists from Mideast and South Asian countries, according to Parvez Shah, conference chairman. He also said organizers, who are mostly of Pakistani and Indian origin, have so far failed to coax other sizeable Shiite communities to participate, notably Iranians and Arabs.

Unity with other faith communities and other Muslims -- especially the Sunni majority in the U.S. -- was also urged by several conference speakers, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Relations with American Sunnis have at times been tense, with Shiites complaining that they are not embraced by many Sunni-led organizations and at times even accused of being infidels for following a different line of Muslim leaders after the prophet Muhammad. Such frustrations in part led Shiites to form their own organization last year after two decades of discussion about it, according to Rizvi.

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But Ebadi, an Iranian jurist and activist, emphatically urged unity, exhorting the Shiite audience to “not reinforce differences with our Sunni co-religionists, particularly during these times of crisis, as others try to defame our faith.”

Azizah al-Hibri, a University of Richmond law professor and activist with a Muslim women lawyers’ association, echoed that theme, calling for a national broad-based Muslim leadership that would include women, Shiites and other minorities. She said the absence of such leadership had resulted in the Muslim community’s marginalization.

“We have been voiceless in this country ... not because we have been pushed aside but because we did not fight for our rights at the table,” she said. “So long as we are divided we are not going to be able to look at the situation we’re in.”

For some, the conference was largely a social event offering a rare opportunity to meet Shiite Muslims from around the country. Norane Mir, 23, a UC Santa Barbara student, came to network with other young Muslims and pass her resume around in hopes of finding a research job in her field of neuropsychology. Irma Khoja, a Columbia University student, said she came in part to spread the word about an upcoming retreat to develop Shiite youth leadership.

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At least some families came to look for potential spouses for their children. The conference offered a one-day “matrimonial service” staffed by several women who collected data on marriage seekers. More of the social action, however, seemed to take place in the Marriott Hotel lobby, where young Muslims hung out and quietly eyed each other.

Still, the issue of Iraq never seemed far from the surface. Maina Agha, a New Jersey travel agent, called Bush a “blessing” for giving Shiites a voice in Iraq for the first time in centuries; she blamed the postwar chaos not on Americans but on outside Islamic extremists. In panel discussions, interviews and casual lobby conversations, however, several convention-goers questioned the motives of the Bush administration for invading Iraq and fretted over what they see as anti-Muslim bias among top U.S. government officials.

Crane, a fluent Arabic speaker and former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said the U.S. must begin to emphasize justice, a key Islamic value, in its policies in Iraq and elsewhere. He also predicted further problems unless American policymakers allowed Iraqis to base their constitution on Islamic law.

“Unless you do that, we’ll continue to be opposed by the majority of Iraqis,” he said.

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