DETROIT, Michigan - US Muslim leaders have called on the administration of President George W. Bush to halt its bombing campaign against Afghanistan, in a marked departure from their earlier stance.
A broad coalition of Muslim groups on Saturday urged the White House to "urgently reassess its action in Afghanistan, and to cease the bombing campaign and other military actions," now into its fourth week.
Criticizing the military strategy as ill-conceived, the dozen groups argued that the campaign was victimizing the beleaguered Afghan population and would worsen the plight of thousands of Afghans who are fleeing their homes.
Many have headed towards the border with Pakistan, which is already host to some two million Afghan refugees. But the Pakistani border has been sealed, and aid agencies are concerned about how the newly-displaced will survive the harsh Afghan winter without food or supplies.
"Allowing thousands of innocent civilians to die in the harsh Afghan winter will only serve to weaken the global resolve to root out terrorism," the groups said in a joint statement issued after a meeting in Washington.
"The senseless starvation of women and children will fuel hate and extremism," said the statement, posted on the Islamicity.com website.
The signatories, which include the Washington-based lobby group CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the AMA (American Muslim Alliance), emphasized their support for US efforts to track down the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
"We have always supported the fight against terrorism in general terms," said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. "But we reserve the right to differ on the tactics that should be used."
"The majority of Muslims would say this is not the right way to go about it," he added, explaining that it was "difficult" to make the case that an entire nation should be bombed in order to catch a handful of terrorists.
The more conservative American Muslim Council refused to sign the statement, preferring not to challenge US policy so publicly.
"It's not for us to set the military agenda," said AMC president Yahya Basha from his home in suburban Detroit. "That's for the White House and its military experts to decide."
The AMC, like the other representatives of the estimated six million Muslims living in the United States, has officially supported the president's anti-terror campaign without directly endorsing the military offensive against fellow Muslims in Afghanistan.
It's a delicate balancing act for the leadership of a community which worked hard to build up political capital with the Bush administration -- it delivered votes to Bush in 2000 and is hoping for some favors in return.
"We don't want to damage our relationship with the Bush administration at a time when we feel we should be showing solidarity with the rest of the nation," acknowledged Basha.
But Hooper said the Muslim community would be doing itself a disservice by refusing to speak out on "critical issues facing the nation."
"We strongly reject any suggestion that opposing a certain policy of our government is tantamount to disloyalty. This suggestion is undemocratic, unfair and un-American," the groups said in the statement.
Muslim leaders are concerned that if the US-led air campaign were to continue through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, it would hand a propaganda coup to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, whom US authorities blame for last month's suicide attacks.
"There is rising concern about the number of civilian casualties, and how bin Laden would use the fact of air strikes during Ramadan to stoke public opinion," worried Basha.
Copyright © 2001 AFP