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Islamic leader praises tolerance

The head of an Islamic group says that despite civil liberties worries, America has largely helped Muslims thrive since 9/11.

ROBERT KING
Published December 23, 2003

SPRING HILL - The leader of the nation's largest Islamic group told local Muslims on Sunday that tolerance for other faiths and respect for women has made Islam in America a model for the rest of the Muslim world.

Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, also said America's standing as the world's lone superpower gives it a special duty to ensure its Muslim community continues to thrive, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite concerns from many Muslims that their civil liberties have been threatened in the name of national security, Syeed said America has largely held up its end of the bargain.

"What we experienced here on 9/11 was a tragedy of colossal magnitude," Syeed said. "But we passed that test."

Based in Plainfield, Ind., ISNA is an umbrella organization for more than 300 Muslim mosques, schools and service organizations. Its annual convention, which drew 30,000 people this year, is the largest annual gathering of Muslims in America.

ISNA's stated goals include training imams - or local prayer leaders - for service, youth development and promoting a "true and accurate" image of Islam.

One of ISNA's subsidiaries, the North American Islamic Trust, owns about 27 percent of the estimated 1,200 mosques in the United States, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Hernando County mosque on Barclay Avenue is owned by the trust.

Local Muslims say the arrangement offers stability by protecting the mosque, for instance, if radical elements tried to take control. But they say the trust has no daily influence here.

Syeed, who had attended a conference in Orlando during the weekend, said he took the time to stop by the Hernando mosque to thank individuals here who provided financial support this year for an ISNA conference for Muslim educators.

"It is professionals like you who have gotten training in American universities and who have distinguished yourselves that give us an advantage in establishing the Muslim community in this country," Syeed said.

About 20 local Muslims listened while seated on the floor of the mosque, sipping Arabica coffee and eating Middle Eastern pastries.

Dr. Nazir Hamoui, a Spring Hill urologist who has attended ISNA national conferences, said Syeed's is a moderate voice in Islam.

"This mosque identifies with his views," Hamoui said.

Syeed said American Muslims must pass on their Islamic values to their children but prepare them for a pluralistic society. They must take care not to allow extremist versions of Islam to be imported into this country.

"Our (Islamic) schools can't have anything in common with the Islamic schools in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Pakistan," he said. Much attention has been given in recent months to the radical form of Wahhabi Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

With an established American Muslim community dominated by physicians and engineers, ISNA has such a strong base of financial support that it doesn't need outside help. ISNA stopped taking contributions from Saudi sources 10 years ago, Syeed said.

"We are keeping ourselves miles apart from things like these," he said.

In any religion, fundamentalists are characterized by their intolerance of other faiths and for their devaluation of women, Syeed said. But American Muslims include many professional women, and the community is very interested in reaching out to other faiths, he said.

"Our Islamic community in America stands out on both these issues," Syeed said. "We can never be considered as fundamentalists or extremists."

Syeed said the questions about Islam prompted by the "dastardly acts" of Sept. 11 have provided Muslims with an opportunity to tell their story. Muslims, like other minority groups before them - blacks, Catholics and Jews specifically - each faced suspicion and persecution but eventually found acceptance in America, Syeed said. It should be the same for Muslims, he said.

"None of them had an easy way," he said.

- News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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