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Muslims Take Bigger Role in Terror Fight

Times Staff Writer

When suicide bombers blew up a London subway last year in an attack that British police suspect involved several local Muslims, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca began questioning what else he could do to help prevent homegrown terrorism here.

So he called a man he thought could offer some answers: Maher Hathout, senior advisor to the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In 2004, the council launched a national terrorism prevention campaign, endorsed by more than 600 Islamic centers nationwide, featuring religious education against violence, partnerships with law enforcement and scrutiny of literature, sermons and sources of donations in mosques.

One call led to another, and today Baca and several Southern California Muslim leaders plan to unveil the result of more than six months of discussion: a Muslim-American Homeland Security Congress to consolidate, expand and publicize Islamic efforts against terrorism. The new organization plans to deepen ties with law enforcement, encourage more religious leaders to speak out against terrorism, form a youth council and reach out to alienated Muslims to prevent any drift toward extremism.

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“I don’t think we can ever believe for one minute that the battle against terrorism can be won by secular society alone,” Baca said this week. “Muslim Americans are in the position of playing the greatest role.”

Muslim leaders said they were eager to use the new congress as a showcase for their anti-terrorism efforts, which many believe remain little known by most Americans. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for instance, has routinely issued public condemnations of terrorism, collected more than 690,000 signatures in a petition campaign denouncing hatred in the name of Islam and coordinated a group of North American scholars to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, reiterating Islam’s repudiation of religious extremism and violence against innocent people -- including suicide bombings.

Yet Baca and Muslim leaders say there is little public awareness about such actions. In her various meetings with interfaith, educational and other community groups, “the common question is why Muslims haven’t condemned terrorism,” said Sireen Sawaf of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

But Sawaf and others say they hope the congress will help them do even more in the fight against terrorism -- especially building greater trust among a broader swath of Muslims toward law enforcement.

“Muslims are not the problem, they are an essential part of the solution,” Hathout said.

Indeed, Baca said he hoped the community would serve as the “eyes and ears” of law enforcement to alert them to any potential criminal acts, a role many Muslims say is part of their civic and religious duty.

Baca said that extremism among Southern California Muslims was a “small but real” problem. He cited ongoing multi-agency investigations into local money laundering schemes, possibly to support Mideast terrorism; the indictment last year of four California Muslims for allegedly plotting attacks on U.S. military facilities and synagogues; and the expression of “extremist views” at some local mosques.

At one Culver City mosque, for instance, Baca said he was given a Koran by the imam and invited to read from it during an interfaith service after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he was approached by a man afterward who told him that non-Muslims such as him were forbidden to touch the Koran. “That’s extremism at its worst,” Baca said.

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Several Muslim leaders, however, said they had not personally encountered anyone ever advocating violence in the name of Islam at any Southern California mosque. According to Hussam Ayloush of the American Islamic Council, imams in fact are becoming so concerned about inflammatory sentiments that some are banning political speech in mosques entirely -- a move Ayloush disagrees with.

Many community leaders said they were more worried about selective targeting of mosques for surveillance and of Muslims for immigration violations, according to Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization of more than 60 mosques.

Syed said imams at two mosques had been deported on visa violations in recent years, and wondered why they were targeted. In addition, he said, his Islamic council was disturbed over reports from at least four or five Muslims who said they had been asked by law enforcement to monitor certain mosques, including the sermons of the imam. He declined to identify the mosques and said he has been unable to obtain information about why such targets were chosen and who approved them.

Syed said he hoped that building deeper ties with law enforcement through the congress would help ease such concerns.

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The new organization has a nine-member executive board. The congress will draw membership from mosque members, students, civil rights advocates, educators, religious scholars and others. An advisory council will include law enforcement officers, elected officials and business leaders. U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) has signed on.

Baca said he hoped to take the idea of the congress across the country.

“What I think this congress will achieve is another level of security for our country,” he said. “Whoever is thinking of trying to infiltrate America is going to have a harder time.”


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