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Radical Islam in
your backyard

Radical Islam in
your backyard

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The quality of life enjoyed by gays and lesbians living in Western Europe has been threatened by an increase in radical Islamic immigrants. Is the United States next?

Kristine Withers was feeling threatened by the Islamic Thinkers Society when she was arrested for getting into an altercation with the radical group in July 2004. The militants had become a weekly fixture on a street corner near her home in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City's Queens, setting up tables and erecting signs with messages reading "Your terrorists are our heroes" and "Allah will destroy nations that allow homosexuality."

Since then the 43-year-old lesbian has had several run-ins with the group and has been admonished by authorities to be more tolerant. Indeed, Withers has been somewhat hostile. But that's what's needed, she argues, given the incredible threat the Islamic Thinkers pose to the well-being of the neighborhood's sizable gay and lesbian population. "They think they own the neighborhood, and the cops give them the attitude that they do," she says. "I'm very concerned."

After another altercation in January--during which Withers claims she was knocked to the ground--Withers was charged with disorderly conduct. In April the charges were dismissed. "For some reason the 115th precinct and local politicians turn their backs," she says. "They are afraid. And gay organizations? No response. It's all out of fear."

Withers's confrontations with the Islamic Thinkers may seem relatively minor, but they have brought major media attention to the presence of radical Islam in the United States and its impassioned and sometimes violent opposition to freedom of the press, women's rights, and homosexuality. When worldwide protests erupted over the publication of cartoons in Denmark depicting the prophet Muhammad, the Islamic Thinkers, who have ties to the radical Muslim group Al-Muhajiroun, were among the more than 1,000 Muslims protesting in Manhattan near the Danish consulate on February 17. They carried signs portraying George W. Bush and Danish editor Flemming Rose (who had made the initial decision to run the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten) with targets on their foreheads.

Groups like the Islamic Thinkers are not nearly as prevalent in the United States as they are in the European Union, where many Muslim residents subscribe to a much more radical interpretation of Islam. In the Netherlands in recent years Islam has been colliding with the country's open acceptance of homosexuality. There have been numerous reports of gay bashings and other violent crimes, including the 2005 gay-bashing of Washington Blade executive editor Chris Crain by a group of youths who were reportedly of Moroccan descent. And gays and lesbians in Amsterdam said in a recent survey they don't feel as safe as they once did and that overall tolerance of homosexuality is in decline.

But that hasn't happened in the United States--not yet, anyway. When it comes to the rights of LGBT people in the United States, radical Islam is a far more dangerous threat than fundamentalist Christianity, claims Claire Berlinski, the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent's Crisis Is America's Too. "It's the most pressing threat to liberty right now. They really do think Western civilization would be best brought to an end. Anyone considered an apostate is very much at risk."

Berlinski understands that taking such a hard line could make her sound racist and intolerant, but the rhetoric coming from radical Islamists--some of whom espouse the full implementation of Islamic sharia law, reduced rights for women, and death for gays and lesbians--requires a strong stand. "It sounds so strange coming out of my mouth, but it's the only reasonable thing you can conclude when confronted with someone who wants you dead," she says.

Berlinski has been a vocal critic of those who seem to take a soft approach to radical Islamists. She points to the assassination attempt on openly gay Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who was stabbed at an all-night celebration at the Paris city hall in October 2002. The press made little mention of the fact that the assassin, Azedine Berkane, was a Muslim of Algerian descent who had openly expressed his hatred of politicians and gays.

But Faisal Alam, cofounder of Al-Fatiha, a national LGBT support group for Muslims trying to reconcile their sexuality with their faith, cautions that gays and lesbians shouldn't see all Muslims as threats. "We should have more dialogue within our community and education for a religion that remains mystifying in some people's minds," he says.

The latest book by former Advocate reporter Bruce Bawer, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within, includes personal accounts of intimidation by radical Islamists in his adopted home of Norway and profiles how appeasement of religious extremism is a huge risk for the West.

Bawer also cautions against lumping Muslims together. There's isn't nearly as much radicalism in the United States because many of the country's estimated 5 million to 7 million Muslims are native converts, which don't compare to Western Europe's much larger, immigrant-dominated Muslim population. "Muslims emigrating to the United States tend to be more educated, less religious, and readier to integrate and to work than Muslims emigrating to Europe," he says. "Plus, Americans--believe it or not--are far better than Europeans at giving immigrants jobs and accepting them as equals."

But Americans need to be more aware of what radical Islam espouses, he adds. "Americans, especially gay Americans, can't afford to ignore what's going on," Bawer says. "Christianity began to reform itself centuries ago. Islam has yet to begin the process. Many Christian churches are gay-friendly. Gay-friendly mosque is still an oxymoron."

And the ability of Muslims to integrate comes with a potential price for LGBT Americans, Bawer warns. "Because immigrants fit in so quickly in the United States, it takes less time than in Europe for an immigrant group to become a political force," he says, "and the idea of American Muslims becoming a political force along the lines of the Christian right is a prospect that we should all be focused on, and deeply concerned about."

Asra Nomani, the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, doesn't see American Muslims becoming an antigay force because they have other issues to worry about in a post-September 11 world.

"American Muslims are basically too afraid to take their homophobia into action," Nomani says, agreeing with Bawer that some kind of Islamic reformation has yet to happen. "We haven't had the advances the Christians and Jews have had with new interpretations--we are just on the verge of that," she says, adding that you still "touch a nerve if you raise the idea that Islam does not condemn homosexuality."

That's true, says Alam, who is hoping to spur a discussion about homosexuality by reaching out to large Muslim organizations in the United States, such as the Council of American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America. "All of them know we exist; some we've had conversations with," Alam says. "For the most part, what they say is, 'We don't agree with what you're doing, but we're not going to stop it.' "

Progress can be made by forming alliances with moderate Muslims who have differing opinions on the rights of women and gays and are starting to speak out, Alam says. "It's a terrifying time, but it's also an amazing time," he says. "Reform in Islam is emerging. Fundamentalists are also solidifying themselves, which is why you see such violent reactions. Muslims who have sat on the fence are starting to take sides."

Nomani too believes progress in combating radicalism is possible. She has been leading a movement in the United States to allow women to pray with men in the main hall of mosques, a movement that has brought a few death threats. And she connects the rights of women within Islam with the rights of all sexual minorities. "I'm personally committed to arguing theologically the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Muslim world," she says, "and scholars are out there doing it quietly. We are going to continue to chip away at it."

Imam Daaylee Abdullah converted to Islam as an adult after being introduced to the religion in China, where the Muslims he met did not practice the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of the religion more common in the Middle East. While getting an Islamic law degree at the Graduate School of Islamic Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va., Abdullah's homosexuality became known to school administrators, who forced him out before he could finish. For the past seven years Abdullah has run the Yahoo group MuslimGayMen, which started with a few hundred members but has grown to more than 1,200. They discuss everything from how to come out to family and friends to learning more about Islamic law.

Since Christianity, Judaism, and Islam grew out of the same Abrahamic tradition, Abdullah argues, "that shows the inclusiveness of what God's concept is. God always talks in broad terms anyway, and the Koran teaches that."

Abdullah has spoken out against tolerating Muslims who come to the United States and subscribe to a reversal of the rights and liberties Americans--including gays--have come to expect. "They cannot make it Islam only," Abdullah says. "They want the economic benefits but not the social interactions."

The LGBT community has always been a cultural leader in terms of new thought for society, Abdullah says, and they shouldn't be afraid of offering a full-throated defense of fundamental freedoms. "We need to speak up," he says. "Let's not be drowned out by the screams and hollering."

Back in Jackson Heights, that's what Withers says she is doing when she encounters members of the Islamic Thinkers Society, who like to stand on the sidewalk and shout condemnations of the West in Arabic. And she hopes other gays and lesbians will wake up to the potential problem. "The community needs to be thinking about [radical Islam] a lot more," she says. "It's definitely going to grow."

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