By Andrew Maykuth
Inquirer Staff Writer
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Ahmed Omar Abu Ali sat at the defendant's table in a small federal courtroom last month, a youthful man with a sparse beard accused of a serious crime - conspiring to kill President Bush.
Several dozen supporters chanted softly in Arabic, drawing a rebuke from a security officer. A veiled woman explained that they were merely praying for the 24-year-old American student, who had confessed that he aspired to hijack and crash an airliner into "the leader of the infidels."
To Abu Ali and his supporters, the trial that ended a few days later with the young man's conviction was not about terrorism. "It's a Muslim thing," Abu Ali told federal investigators. "You wouldn't understand."
Indeed, Islam is very much on trial - but not in the courtroom. The world's second-largest religion is undergoing a trial by Muslims themselves as they struggle to confront extremist tendencies, such as the ideology that motivated American-born Abu Ali to travel to Saudi Arabia and join al-Qaeda.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims are under growing pressure to take action against jihadist strains of the faith.
"The transformation we're going through now, it could take Islam to enlightenment, or it could take Islam to the dark ages for a long time to come," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an outspoken critic of Islam's extremists.
"We are at a crossroads," he said.
The struggle taking place in America is a microcosm of a worldwide battle over the direction of Islam, which claims up to 1.3 billion followers - approximately six million in the United States. At its core, the confrontation is over the influence of militant, theocratic varieties of Islam, such as Wahhabism, the Saudi Arabian Islamic movement that inspired Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban.
Moderate American Muslims, who had quietly squirmed as militant rhetoric crept into their mosques and discussion groups, are becoming more willing to confront the radical ideology that they say dishonors Islam's core message of compassion and mercy.
"Before 9/11, people were not focused on the struggle against the authoritarianism and the despotism of the Wahhabis," said Abou El Fadl, author of a recently published book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists.
Radical leaflets, once openly available in Islamic libraries in America, have become more difficult to find. Recruiters for holy wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, formerly welcomed in many mosques, are now turned away.
"My sense is that people feel the extremist ideology needs to be countered, and we [Muslims] are the only ones who can effectively counter it," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
A big issue facing many mosques is how much to cooperate with authorities. Many Muslims are recent immigrants and believe the worst things they have been told about the government. The clergy are under great pressure not to report suspicious activity.
"Some imams are open about cooperating with the FBI," Abou El Fadl said. "Other imams say, 'This is a religiously inspired administration, and it is immoral to bring attention to fellow Muslims who are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.' "
Many Muslim advocates say they have repeatedly condemned terrorism since Sept. 11, yet they are still criticized because their denunciations are insufficient or overly qualified.
"We're speaking up, but people aren't hearing us," Al-Marayati said. "The problem is not in the message, but in the reception."
The July suicide bombings in London's transit system shocked many of the faithful because the attacks were carried out by Muslims born in Britain, rather than foreign operatives who infiltrated with the aim of carrying out a strike.
"People here in America realized that anger with the U.S. could translate into something more," said Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at the University of Delaware.
After the London bombings, the Fiqh Council of North America, an advisory committee on Islamic law, issued a fatwa denouncing violence against civilians. And several advocacy groups stepped up campaigns to urge young people to beware of radical preachers.
But some critics said the fatwa was more show than substance. They say it did not denounce specific extremists and still left room for Muslims to justify attacks, particularly in Israel.
"The condemnations are never fully throated, they're not specific," said Daniel Pipes, executive director of Philadelphia's Middle East Forum and one of the nation's most controversial campaigners against radical Islam.
Muslim advocates express exasperation with Pipes, who has long been at odds with such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization that models itself after the NAACP.
"We have consistently disassociated Islam from terrorism," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the council, which last year organized a yearlong antiterrorism publicity campaign called "Not in the Name of Islam."
Much of the debate centers on who is defined as a moderate and who is an extremist.
UCLA's Abou El Fadl, who calls himself a moderate, says he is unwelcome in many mosques because of his opposition to the Saudis. But Pipes has called him a "stealth Islamicist" because he supports Islamic law.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, an Islamic convert and Pipes ally who heads the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, complains that many Muslims judge one another's faith based on political ideology, rather than theological issues. "It's about being an angry, oppressed minority," he said.
In a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged the disagreements over terminology. It defined "Islamic extremism" as an ideology that denies the legitimacy of nonbelievers and other forms of Islam and promotes hatred, intolerance and violence.
"There are telltale signs about an extremist," said the University of Delaware's Khan. "When critics start speaking of a Zionist conspiracy, a Christian crusade, and when those things justify violence, that's scary stuff."
For better or worse, the aggressive government prosecutions of Islamic extremists have helped frame the debate. Even unsuccessful cases, such as the acquittal this month of Florida professor Sami al-Arian for supporting Palestinian jihadists, send a message that there is less space in which extremists can maneuver.
But some Muslims say the antiterrorism campaign is only driving extremist sentiments underground and reinforcing Muslims' sense of victimization.
"I don't think government monitoring would change people's ideology," said Khurrum B. Wahid, a civil rights lawyer who worked as Abu Ali's attorney. "It's just suppressing it."
Wahid said Muslims were more wary about expressing even protected free speech because they know their words can haunt them. He complained that the government's surveillance methods were "getting more extreme."
The evidence against Abu Ali included wiretapped phone conversations between the student and his family, as well as e-mail messages recovered from an Internet service provider.
In his research before the trial, Wahid also sought fruitlessly to locate a copy of a book by Ayman al-Zawahiri that prosecutors alleged had influenced Abu Ali. Before 9/11, he said, the book was easy to find.
"This was an impossible book to find nowadays," said Wahid. "Nobody will admit to owning it."
But other Muslims say Abu Ali's trial also demonstrated why they must be careful with whom they associate.
A year ago, Muslim advocacy groups and civil libertarians rallied around the detention of Abu Ali, who contended that he had gone to Saudi Arabia in 2003 to study Islam. Abu Ali's supporters claimed his confession was coerced under torture supervised by American investigators.
But as the trial moved forward, the jury found the claims of torture and American involvement were unsubstantiated. Abu Ali's statements, in which he expressed admiration for the terrorists who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, were incriminating.
By the time of the verdict, all but his immediate friends and family had become mute.
According to Khan, the lesson most Muslims took away from the trial: "If you say stupid things, then you have to pay the price for your stupidity."
Adherents and Basic Tenets
An Islam Primer
Islam is the world's second-largest religion - and growing fast. The word in Arabic refers to peace through submission to God.
Followers, known as Muslims, believe in one God and that the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) is his messenger. The religion's sacred text is the Koran, or Qur'an.
Practitioners must declare their faith, pray five times a day, give to charity, fast from dawn to dusk in the holy month of Ramadan, and, if possible, make a pilgrimage to Mecca during their lifetimes.
Muslims believe that on the Last Day the world will come to an end, and the dead will be resurrected and judged. Salvation will be acquired through good deeds.
Islam has no overarching authority, and the status of a preacher is equal to that of the laity. If one believes and declares oneself to be a Muslim and behaves in a manner befitting a Muslim, one is accepted into the community of believers.
Islam by the Numbers
Estimates of the worldwide Muslim population range from 900 million to 1.3 billion people. In the United States, accurate figures are hard to come by because the U.S. Census does not ask about religious belief.
Only 18 percent of Muslims live in the Arab world. Other large concentrations are in sub-Saharan Africa; Pakistan, India and Bangladesh; China; Europe; Russia; and Central Asia. The largest single Muslim population is in Indonesia.
In the United States, the estimated number of Muslims is six million. As of 2000, there were 1,209 mosques in this country, 62 percent of which had been founded since 1980. Thirty percent of the worshipers are believed to be converts. American Muslims are a diverse group, made up of Asians, African Americans and Arabs. In fact, only 7 percent of U.S. mosques are attended by a single ethnic group.
Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Census Bureau, National Public Radio, Overview of World Religions (philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/islam/)
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or email@example.com.