02 January 2006

Death threats shut down a Muslim youth retreat

If you're a Muslim in the United States, you're presumed guilty, to the point where death threats will force you to move a youth camp to an undisclosed location.

Imagine the uproar if threats were directed at Christian youth camps -- you know, the ones that might have inspired Tim McVeigh or Eric Rudolph.

From the St. Petersburg Times:
Death threats have closed a church camp where a Muslim youth retreat was planned this weekend, after an Internet blogger alleged that a scheduled speaker was linked to al-Qaida. Mohamed Moharram, president of the Muslim American Society of Tampa, said the three-day event at Presbyterian Cedarkirk Camp and Conference Center was supposed to teach young Muslims leadership skills as well as the core tenets of Islam.

Then, four days ago, the threatening phone calls and e-mails began.

"We got threats to be burned, to be destroyed," he said. "It's appalling."

The Rev. Debbie Bronkema, Cedarkirk's director, said she also received threats.

Some were severe enough that she called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the FBI, and decided to close the center for the weekend.

On Friday, Moharram said the retreat would go forward at an alternate site. But he wouldn't give the address, citing security concerns. The retreat is for about 50 young adults, ages 18 and up, organizers said. Cedarkirk Camp is a conference center in a nature setting in rural eastern Hillsborough County.

What sparked the threats?

Apparently, articles about the upcoming retreat began to appear on right-wing blogs around Christmas, including americansagainsthate.com and frontpagemag.com. The most-linked blog article alleged that one of the scheduled speakers, Mazen Mokhtar of New Jersey, had ties to al-Qaida. Other bloggers picked up the theme.

"Nothing rings in the new year like bringing your kids to hang out with a bunch of terrorists," one blogger wrote on a site called Ace of Trump.

Another posted an obviously doctored photo showing a masked terrorist standing in front of the Cedarkirk sign.

On Thursday, blogger Joe Kaufman appeared on Fox News' show Your World with Neil Cavuto to talk about the retreat.

On the air, Kaufman said that Mokhtar had run a Web site to recruit al-Qaida fighters.

"I don't believe this person should be teaching any children," he said. "This person should be behind bars in shackles."

In fact, federal agents searched Mokhtar's New Jersey home in 2004, after a man in London was arrested for using a Web site to fund terrorist groups.

An identical Web site was registered under Mokhtar's name. But he was never arrested.

On Friday, Mokhtar, a computer programmer, said he ran a business selling server space to host Web sites. He never knew what was contained on the site in question, he said.


He said he was frustrated at having to proclaim his innocence.

"It's really, really sad that I have to keep repeating this," he said.

"The fact that people flew planes into buildings in New York has nothing to do with me. I wasn't one of them. I don't belong to that school of thought."


Meanwhile, Moharram said, he tried to explain to each angry caller that his organization was nonviolent. He also responded to every abusive e-mail, he said.

"I'm exhausted," he said Friday. "I took calls until midnight last night, replying to e-mails: "What are you guys doing? This is totally a mistake. This is totally out of context."'

With one caller, he said, "I told him we are trying to help the government and the U.S. citizens, the average people, to keep them from witnessing another disaster like what happened in 9/11.

"We're teaching the youth and the young kids the real Islam, the true Islam. Not the extremist Islam."
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