NEW YORK // The recent arrest of four New York men for allegedly plotting to attack Jewish centres raised fears among American Muslims the incident would reinforce extremist views of them as an ever-present danger in US society. The vast majority of American Muslims did not even consider the four men as real religious brothers, said Naim Baig, vice-president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a community group started in 1974.
"We say there is no place for any terrorism in Islam, period. Some people abuse the faith out of their own tribal agendas. These four guys were not even practising Muslims. They had criminal backgrounds and some had girlfriends," Mr Baig said. This view of the plotters as outside mainstream Muslim society helps to explain why the alleged bomb plots were usurped by the financial crisis and its moral implications as the most discussed topic at last weekend's three-day ICNA conference, attended by up to 12,000 people in Hartford, Connecticut.
Muslim community leaders have tried to distance themselves even more from the plotters in recent days, with many issuing statements of concern over the use of an informant by US law enforcement agencies to catch the men, who aimed to bomb two New York synagogues and shoot down military planes in Newburgh, about 110 kilometres north of the city. The alleged plot "may have been based more on the financial inducements of a government informant than on the predisposition to terrorism of three petty criminals and a mentally ill Haitian immigrant," the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), a civil rights group, said in a statement. "The Associated Press described the alleged plotters as 'down-and-out ex-convicts living on the margins in a faded industrial city'."
Earlier this year, several Muslim groups called for a suspension of outreach co-operation with the FBI because of concerns over the use of informants at mosques, particularly in California and Florida. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in US prisons, with between 30,000 and 40,000 conversions each year, according to a study for the justice department by Indiana State University criminologists.
"Prislam" is how such conversions are described by law enforcement officials, who closely monitor prison imams. Corrections officials in New York and Connecticut have also banned a Saudi translation of the Quran that has an appendix called "The Call to Jihad (Holy Fighting in Allah's Cause)". Less easy to check is the informal teaching administered to prisoners by fellow inmates and who might have a less than scholarly understanding of Islam.
The alleged plot also highlights tensions between Muslims of Arab or South Asian origin and African-American Muslims, such as the four alleged plotters. They are James Cromitie, also known as Abdul Rahman, David Williams, also called Daoud, Onta Williams, also called Hamza, and Lageurre Payen, also called Amin or Almondo, who was born in Haiti. Tough drug laws since the 1980s led to the incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans, many of whom joined the Nation of Islam, a US-born religious group much criticised for its extremist views, before progressing towards more mainstream Sunni Islam.
Mr Baig, who is of Pakistani descent, said relations were improving between African-Americans and their co-religionists from South Asia and the Middle East. "The relationship is still in a learning process and there are many cultural gaps. For example, many of our African-American brothers can't handle the spices in our food. We also fell into racial profiling where we labelled different groups in a certain way," he said.