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Originally published Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 4:10 PM

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Muslim leaders in Washington state say rioters don't understand Islam

Local Muslim leaders say they want to take back the heated conversation from extremists staging anti-American riots in parts of the world. Leaders here say people in some Muslim countries do not understand American values and diversity of opinions.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The people driving anti-American riots in parts of the Muslim world are a small minority who don't really understand the faith they purport to defend, members of Washington's Islamic community said Saturday.

"We want to take back the conversation from the extremists," said Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "They are very few in numbers."

Bukhari and more than a dozen other local Muslim leaders gathered at Seattle City Hall to denounce the recent violence, particularly the slaying of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staff members. When he heard of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens' death, Bukhari said he had a sinking feeling in his heart.

"He was a person who stood with the Libyan people," Bukhari said.

Those who took to the streets in Egypt, Libya and Yemen might think they are acting out of faith, but their understanding of Islam is deeply flawed, said Imam Abdulbary Yahya of the Cham Refugee Center and Mosque in South Seattle. "The reason for all this violence is mainly ignorance."

Yahya travels around North America and Europe, teaching weekend courses in Islamic doctrine and history to modern Muslims who have never been formally schooled in their religion. One of the stories he likes to tell is about how the Prophet Muhammad reacted when a Jewish man cursed and insulted him to his face.

Instead of cursing back, the prophet deflected the barb and admonished his own wife for reacting angrily.

"If you defend the prophet, you have to know about him and how he defended himself," Yahya said.

One reason some Muslims reacted angrily to an American video mocking Islam is that many Muslim countries lack religious and cultural diversity, Yahya said. People aren't used to hearing different views or interacting with people of different beliefs, he said, and they certainly aren't comfortable with the type of rough-and-tumble public discourse that Americans value.

"They don't understand that this is how America is," Yahya said.

Religion is also a very serious matter for many Muslims, said Alaa Badr, of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound. "We don't joke around in the same way in Muslim countries as you might see in countries in the West."

And for Muslims, that sense of reverence extends to other religious leaders. People would be just as offended, Badr said, by videos that ridiculed Moses or Jesus.

Badr said he hopes — and expects — that the flare-ups will subside soon.

"People in the Middle East really love the U.S.," he said. "I think we will see a calming effect over the next few weeks."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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