Time to Wake Up


 

Ahmed Nassef didn’t hug me, but I would have let him. I’d heard of him, had read stories about him and had tried unsuccessfully to contact him several months ago.

Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., to speak at a Hillel Conference, and guess whose name was also on the speakers’ roster?

When my talks were done, I went to his. The college students were already packed into the room, and I understood why.

Nassef is the founder of Muslim WakeUp!, a 2-year-old organization dedicated to creating a progressive Muslim culture in America, and his efforts have met with some initial success. And as far as I could tell from visiting the organization’s Web site, the man hasn’t lost his sense of humor trying.

Nassef has wide shoulders and a broad, expressive face. He was born in Egypt 39 years ago, and then moved with his family to the United States when he was 8. He grew up in Los Angeles and Glendale, attended UCLA and developed a successful career in Internet marketing.

The organization he and Jawaad Ali founded began as a kind of marketing experiment. After Sept. 11, 2001, it started to bother Nassef that the spokespeople for Islam in America tended to be culturally, politically and religiously conservative, and portrayed Islam as monolithic.

“They talk about Islam like it’s a human being,” he said. “Islam says this, Islam says that; like, I talked to Islam the other day and he said….”

On the other side, non-Muslim Americans shared misconceptions that the majority of Muslim men were pious militants who kept their women in burkas — what Bill Maher so sweetly refers to as “beekeeper suits.” Nassef was certain — informed by studies and his own experience — that most Muslim Americans were more like him. A Zogby survey found that about 10 percent engage in a high level of observance. The rest, like himself, observe some holidays and cherish their faith and heritage, but have no consistent relationship with the politics or institutions of these 10 percent. “I figured there are a lot of people who feel the way I do,” he said. “And I began to wonder how I could reach them.”

He decided a Web site was the ideal way to reach an untapped audience.

Muslimwakeup.com reflects the widest possible swath of the Muslim American experience. It is pro-gay rights and pro-women’s rights. It has a section called “Sex and the Umma,” which features Muslim women’s erotica (guess which part of the site gets the most hits).

It also has a feature called “Hug a Jew.” A member of the Web site embraces a Jew, then explains that person’s story. “One of the core principles of Islam is justice,” Nassef said. “The whole idea of collective judgment goes against the principle of justice.”

“American Jews and Muslims could find a common agenda on issues like social justice and education, but they can rarely get beyond a certain international conflict,” Naseef said. “Once you get to my generation and the younger generation all they talk about is Israel and Palestinians and bombings. Then you’re no longer talking about human beings, just monsters.”

Hug a Jew is Nassef’s way of humanizing a people some might — unjustly — stereotype. Like I said, the man has a sense of humor.

The site now receives 70,000 unique visitors per month, according to Nassef, and a lot of media attention. The plan is for the site to form a catalyst for different forms of expression of Islam in America. One reason so many Muslims stop going to mosque and lose their faith, Nassef said, is that they have come to understand that their choice is orthodoxy or nothing.

“It’s very rare to find a place where you can be an American Muslim, a place where you can feel you belong,” he said. “This is a thing all my Jewish friends have.”

A sister site, pmuna.org, for Progressive Muslim Union of North America, will help organize and inspire the kind of religious but non-orthodox movements in the Muslim world that we Jews developed a few generations back. Nassef, his wife and their 5-year-old son live in New York City, where the 92nd Street Y Jewish Community Center provides plenty of inspiration.

“It’s a great inclusive place,” he said. “We need to build these kinds of institutions.”

In December, hackers penetrated Muslimwakeup.com and slathered it with accusations of apostasy. Nassef has received hundreds of angry e-mails, and some death threats. But he majored in Islamic studies at UCLA, is a native Arabic speaker, and doesn’t shirk from confronting those who claim their Islam is the one true one.

“Secularism has a long tradition in the Arab world,” he said.

Recently he was invited to debate an imam at Stanford, and Muslim students crowded in to hear him.

“I think there is movement,” he said. “We’re going through an important time in our community. More and more people are seeing us as a voice.”

Recent books by Irshad Manji and Asra Nomani are hopeful signs that he is correct.

I sat down with Nassef after his talk and we spoke about the challenges to his vision. There is no steady source of funding. It’s not clear that progressive Islam divorced from mosques can succeed beyond a generation. But the speaking invitations keep pouring in, the site has grown by 10,000 visitors in a month and Nassef exudes confidence.

“This is the beginning of something that will build,” he said. “These are the first steps.”

 

Fuel for Fear


An FBI warning that Al Qaeda might attack Jewish targets with gasoline trucks ignited widespread concern in Los Angeles and fueled heightened security in Jewish communities nationwide this week.

From Jewish organization offices to community centers to synagogues, news spread quickly of the latest FBI terror warning that Al Qaeda operatives at one point discussed attacking Jewish institutions with bomb-laden gasoline tankers.

Responding to the warning, high-ranking law enforcement officials, including LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish and L.A. FBI Assistant Director Ron Iden, held a security briefing for Jewish leaders at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance on June 27. Representatives from synagogues, Jewish service agencies and organizations from American Israel Public Affairs Committee to the Menorah Housing Foundation filled the museum’s Pelz Theater. Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss led the meeting, fresh from attending a Homeland Security conference in Washington, D.C., the day before.

The officials’ presentations stressed the security measures already in place and congratulated Jewish leaders for their close relationship with local law enforcement. Weiss said the appearance of high-ranking officials at the meeting "sends a strong message to the Jewish community and to the community at large."

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center told the group, "We’re not here to scare anybody … but to say things have not changed would be wrong." Iden gave an overview of the FBI’s "very, very strong working relationship" with local law enforcement, with a number of systems like e-mail networks and phone trees to "ensure that as we get information it gets out to the people who need it, quickly and accurately." Kalish, who stressed "the public should have confidence in law enforcement, in our preparation and in our commitment," gave the Jewish leaders contact sheets for LAPD officers and described the LAPD anti-terrorism unit’s intelligence control center.

After the presentations, officials held a closed-door session with the Jewish leaders to discuss specific security measures in detail.

Responding to the fuel tanker threat, some Jewish leaders said their communities had long ago beefed up security in response to other threats.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said many Jewish institutions in the Los Angeles area toughened their security after a shooting rampage at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC) in 1999.

Such steps included hiring security guards, erecting concrete barriers outside buildings and, in some cases, searching cars. Some synagogues now require guests to R.S.V.P. before attending life-cycle events, he added.

The same was true in Washington, where many Jewish leaders said security had been stepped up after the Los Angeles NVJCC attack and reinforced after Sept. 11. The FBI alert was just another reminder to be vigilant, they said.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), both based in New York, alerted member agencies throughout the country about the potential attacks, and many then notified local groups.

"The ADL is advising Jewish institutions to be extremely alert to fuel and tanker trucks parked near their facilities," said Robert Martin, the ADL’s director of security.

"The police should be called immediately if any doubt exists relative to the legitimacy of such trucks (i.e., no fuel delivery was expected)," Martin wrote in a memo.

Yet Jewish groups were also being cautioned not to overreact to the fuel truck alert since, like earlier Al Qaeda threats and subsequent FBI warnings, it did not refer to any specific targets or dates and remained uncorroborated.

"There’s no reason for panic," said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the JCPA. "We’re not saying this is business as usual. This is a time for special vigilance. Prudence and alertness, not panic, is the message we’re trying to get across."

Still, the latest FBI warning, which preceded a report in The New York Times on Sunday that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the deadly fuel truck bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba on April 11, inflamed fears nonetheless.

Last Friday, "we were inundated with calls," Raffel said.

People asked if they should attend Shabbat services, or what kind of precautions they could take, he said. "People are nervous."

Hoping in part to dampen such fears, these groups are urging several steps in response to the latest threat, including coordinating security measures with local police.

Some moved to take preemptive action.

They scheduled a day of safety training July 10 for synagogues, schools and community facilities.

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the Orthodox Union’s national director of community and synagogue services, said the session was sparked by "an alarming increase" in worldwide anti-Semitic violence and the FBI warnings that "terrorists may try to use fuel tankers to attack Jewish schools or synagogues."

A team of European-based security specialists from the firm of Community Security Trust will discuss handling a range of anti-Jewish threats, the Orthodox Union said, including break-ins, suspicious mail or objects, bomb threats, desecration of Jewish facilities, hate mail, personal attacks and even "strangers in our synagogues and schools."

Around the country, synagogues and institutions reacted swiftly to the latest in a series of terror alerts.

At least one Jewish institution reacted by trying to make itself a less visible target. In the Dallas area, the Akiba Academy’s Camp Kulanu summer camp removed a welcome sign and asked police for extra surveillance.

And at Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Miss., Shabbat services included a reading of the FBI warning. Though congregants agreed the tiny 25-family synagogue remained an unlikely target, they also decided to remain on guard.

In Baltimore and Omaha, which are two of the five cities slated to host the 2002 JCC Maccabi Games in mid-August, officials are strengthening security.

Though many, like Diamond, agreed that people should be careful, he also cautioned that they should keep the situation in perspective.

"We don’t want people to be panicked — already people are living with some degree of fear," Diamond said. "Don’t not come to synagogue because there’s a tanker truck on the corner."

JTA contributed to this report.

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