When the American Islamic Forum for Democracy organized "A Rally against Terror" on April 25 in Phoenix, its head, an Arizona physician named Zuhdi Jasser, said his goal was to give Muslim moderates "an opportunity to speak out publicly." And Jasser presented the rally as a robust response to the many criticisms that American Muslims had not produced a "groundswell of condemnation" against terrorism. In fact, he asserted,
The killing of innocent people out of revenge, out of hate or out of retribution is against the absolute laws of Islam. Suicide is against the absolute laws of Islam. People can justify their actions all day long, but we as Muslims are here to say clearly their actions are against everything we believe.
Jasser wrote an oped in the Arizona Republic where, as a Muslim, he took responsibility for the mistrust directed toward American Muslims, rather than merely blow this off as prejudice:
It is impossible as an American not to feel the growing palpable distrust toward the Muslim community. With attacks targeting innocent civilians across the globe, it has sadly at this time gone far beyond the initial prideful question of "Why are Muslims being singled out?" It is time now only to rally and provide an unmistakable resounding reply.
With this in mind, he set out two goals for the rally:
We want to reassure the American public that the great majority of Muslims condemn the targeting of innocents by virtue of the tenets of our faith. We also want to give hope and inspiration to faithful Muslims all over the country that this type of rally is possible.
Jasser found support for his efforts as close as the Arizona Republic, which correctly judged this event to be "the nation's first Muslim rally against terrorism," and as far away as the country's capital, where a Washington Times editorial ended with, "We salute Dr. Jasser, American patriot."
The Muslim community of Phoenix is estimated at 50,000 persons; Jasser worked strenuously to reach out to the Valley Council of Imams, Valley mosques and major Valley Islamic organizations; and the Arizona Republic, the leading newspaper of Phoenix, gave the rally its full-fledged support. A head of steam behind him, Jasser optimistically predicted that 500 to 1,000 people would attend the event.
But then the event was held (an audio of the 50-minute long event can be heard online) and reality set in. Estimates vary. The Arizona Republic counted 250 in attendance, the police 400. The number of Muslims, I heard, was between 30 and 100 persons. Most participants were not Muslim but (the Arizona Republic recounts) "people like Michael Fischer, 18, of Glendale, who wanted to denounce the stereotyping of Muslims; and Grace Clark of Apache Junction, who wanted to promote peace." One correspondent of mine judged the event "a total disaster."
But that is too severe. It was a humble beginning that can grow into something large and strong. Jasser points out to me that "The beginnings of every great movement in our great nation's history of freedom began in a small way." He notes also that American Muslims, being predominantly first-generation immigrants, are still getting grounded. With time, he expects, "the vast majority of American Muslims will listen to the message of our rally and find complete agreement with its statement of faith."
Until then, however, there is the stark reality that very few Muslims did show up. And those who did held up "peace" and "anti-war" signs, not anti-terror or anti-Islamist signs. Two factors help explain this disappointing result.
First, the message of the event did not fit the thinking of most Muslims. Unfortunately, the mood in this community is a radical one, and not inclined to stand up and condemn terrorism.
Second, Zuhdi did not pander to the Islamist establishment – such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations – in planning the event. These extremists no doubt could have brought out a larger crowd – but to rail against Israel or U.S. policy.
The Phoenix rally points to the current reality of American Muslim opinion. This problem needs to be dealt with. If not, I can imagine the United States will hear the same overt calls for jihad and Islamic rule that Western Europe is now experiencing.
May 16, 2004 update: Interestingly, CAIR could not muster much more of a crowd than did Zuhdi Jasser. A triumphalist CAIR e-mail blast after its "Muslim Americans for Human Rights and Dignity" rally on May 14 claimed 200 people; the Arizona Tribune counted "about 150"; and the Arizona Republic located just "close to 75."