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Verdict a 'turning point' for Muslims

By BILL COATS
Published December 8, 2005


All over Tampa Bay, word of Sami Al-Arian's acquittals spread from Muslim to Muslim.

The cell phone of Osama "Sam" Mustafa, a Palestinian-American from Riverview, chimed with the news at the Al-Aqsa Coffee House in Temple Terrace, where Mustafa was enjoying the flavored smoke of a "hookah" water pipe.

"He was the symbol of the Palestinian community here," Mustafa said. "We can hold our heads up high now."

Several leading area Muslims voiced a common theme Wednesday in the wake of Tuesday's verdicts: The Al-Arian case, like the Sept. 11 attacks before it, had cast all local Muslims under suspicion, imposing caution and worry on their psyches. Tuesday's verdicts - which included eight acquittals and nine mistrials for Al-Arian - restored a sense of freedom.

"A lot of people I saw yesterday, they were very patriotic," said Ahmed Bedier, local director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It was kind of a turning point in the community."

"Since Sept. 11, this is the most significant event in the bay area that makes you feel that the system is working for Middle Eastern Americans," said Ahmed Abu-Hajar, 37, a Pinellas Park engineer visiting the Temple Terrace coffee shop. "I feel very proud to be part of this community."

Mohammad Sultan is director and imam of the Islamic Society of the Tampa Bay Area mosque in Temple Terrace. Sultan was teaching Arabic to children Tuesday when he got a call on the verdicts.

"Perhaps it will give us some relief of not being accused of being terrorists," Sultan said. "Still, people live on edges here. They feel closely watched."

Askia Muhammad Aquil, a Muslim leader in St. Petersburg, was attending a meeting in San Francisco when he heard about the Al-Arian verdict. He learned about it through e-mails from Bedier, then on television news, then in a phone call from his wife.

He said local Muslims, dispirited in the belief that the United States was overreacting to the Sept. 11 tragedies, should get a boost from the verdicts.

But Aquil, executive director of St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, said relations damaged by the terrorist attacks already had improved markedly.

"Christians, Jews, etc. anticipated a backlash against us," Aquil said. "People reached out, out of concern and empathy."

He said that led to interfaith exchanges and better dialogue among religious groups.

Like Mustafa, Aquil was interviewed by the FBI as part of a government response to Sept. 11.

"Muslims were fearful," he said. "They didn't know to whom they should speak or what they should say; who was being investigated, and for what?"

But the investigators eventually built trusting relationships, Aquil said.

He called the verdicts "a teachable moment," particularly for recent Muslim immigrants.

"What it teaches is the real beauty of the American system, a system of checks and balances," Aquil said.

That was one theme Wednesday among Muslim commentators internationally, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at New York's Sarah Lawrence College and an expert on Muslim politics.

The other theme was harsher: The verdicts were proof "how unfair, unjust, dismal is the record of the Bush administration on human rights and the rule of law," Gerges said.

That view was dominant among Palestinians, the only Middle Eastern society that followed the case closely, Gerges said.

"For the Palestinians, the Al-Arian case reinforced convictions and perceptions that the United States treats them all as terrorists," he said.

CAIR's Bedier had expected a conviction.

"We didn't think these co-defendants could get a fair trial in Tampa because of the negative pretrial publicity," Bedier said.

"We thought there was no chance," said Mustafa, the businessman from Riverview. "We thought he was going to do a 20-year stretch."

Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 8, 2005, 00:51:07]


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