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Sunday, May 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

More than 300 Muslims gather for Seattle banquet

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times staff reporter

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American Muslims mingling in a ballroom at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle last night showed no outward sign of the pressure many are feeling.

At the annual banquet for the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the issues of war abroad and civil rights at home surfaced at the podium, and participants were ready with opinions when asked.

Yet this formal gathering of more than 300 people breathed the warmth and intimacy of a close-knit community.

Children dressed in their best filled the room with a family feeling.

Men from Africa, the Middle East and Malaysia greeted each other with broad smiles, tight bear hugs and soft kisses to the cheek.

Young women mostly wore headscarves, and a few had their faces veiled.

One overt political note was sounded as U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, was introduced and given CAIR's public-official-of-the-year award for his support of the Muslim community.

Before giving McDermott his plaque, Samia El-Moslimany, CAIR vice chair, announced "tremendous news."

She told the crowd that the King County Democratic Party, meeting earlier in the day elsewhere within the Convention Center, had voted into its platform a commitment to "withhold U.S. tax dollars from Israel while it is in violation of international law."

"This is a memorable day," said El-Moslimany.

The anti-Israel statement was one of 235 amendments to the party's platform, according to Greg Rodriguez, King County party chairman. Reached at home last night, Rodriguez could not recall the exact wording, but said, "I would imagine that probably did get in."
 
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Following El-Moslimany to the podium, McDermott said that passage of the platform commitment should encourage all American Muslims to get involved in the political process.

Afterward, Naseem Tuffaha, local director of the Seattle chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who introduced the anti-Israel proposal at the Democratic party meeting, said that, though the platform is not binding, "it's a source of influence."

Yet political influence seemed remote to many at the banquet.

On the way in, many paused in the lobby to watch video footage of Capt. James Yee, the U.S. Army Muslim chaplain who spent 76 days in prison on allegations of spying at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before all charges against him were dropped in April.

Yee, who had not spoken publicly since his release, gave a short speech at the dinner. Having joined three other men for Muslim prayers in a quiet corner just before he addressed the crowd, Yee made a point of stating at the outset that he was not speaking in any official capacity or as a member of the military.

His lawyer has said that Yee received orders since his return to duty at Fort Lewis restricting what he may say publicly.

Yee declined to speak with the press, and confined his remarks from the stage to thanking all who had supported him, and thanking CAIR in particular for its organized efforts.

"I encourage you to stand for justice and to support (CAIR)," he concluded, "My name is Yusuf Yee, your brother in Islam."

Earlier, some participants spoke of the fears aroused by cases such as Yee's.

"Every once in a while, someone gets picked on," said Jeremy Mseitif, a Lebanese-born American. "It seems you are guilty until proven innocent."

Brian Shaheed, a California-born convert to Islam who had traveled with his wife from Longview for the banquet, told of how his wife had obscenities yelled at her; how they had been refused service in several businesses and told to go back to their own country (both are white Americans who wear Islamic-style attire).

"We get nervous," Shaheed said.

Atefeh Naeemi, a young Iranian-born American, compared the pressures currently facing her community to those faced by African Americans in Jim Crow days and Japanese Americans during World War II.

"Maybe this is the Muslim-American time to be tested," Naeemi said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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