• ISRAEL \ Jul 02, 2002
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    Israeli Muslims launch a first opposition group against militants
Israeli Muslims launch a first opposition group against militants A group of Muslims from Arab-Israeli villages in the Galilee have launched the first Orthodox Muslim movement in the region to oppose Muslim militancy and extremism.

Calling themselves The Prophetic Tradition Helpers Association (PTHA), the goals of the 10-member group founded this month include providing a platform for moderation and nonviolence, and educating Muslims about how extremists are misinterpreting Orthodox Islam.

"We have watched the situation deteriorate at the hands of extremists," says Khalid Abu Ras of Ilut, near Nazareth, an Arabic schoolteacher and founding member. "We are unhappy that they talk in the name of Islam and we think their stands are wrong. They are hurting Islam and our people."

The group is the first to publish an anti-extremist essay in Arabic from a religious point of view. A recent op-ed in the Arabic daily newspaper, al-Ayn, told a parable of warring brothers in ancient times who learned to build bridges instead of fences. It went on to explain Islamic teachings that urge tolerance, dialogue, nonviolence, and moderation.

Another essay is scheduled to run in al-Ayn Tuesday, citing Sunni scholars who forbid the widespread use of the word heretic being used to discredit those Muslims who hold moderate ideas. The group is working to publish other documents in Arabic and plans to hold talks in Arab villages across Israel.

"People think all Muslims are the same but they are wrong. So many people disagree with the extremists but they have no where to speak. We want to give them a voice," says Abu Ras.

PTHA stands apart from those Muslims included on a list of Palestinians who published an ad in mid-June opposing terror attacks, saying they undermine Palestinian aspirations.

Rather than focusing on political efficacy, the new group looks at extremist activities through a moral lens, based on what they call misunderstood Koranic tradition.

"They base their approach on solid religious text," says Yehuda Stolov, the Orthodox Jewish director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. "They are combating negative attitudes that come out of Islam from within. That gives them a lot of strength that other groups don t have."

Although the group plans to ocus on developing relations with Jewish and Christian groups like dozens of Muslims involved in interfaith and coexistence activities here they are the only such group to be Muslim-based and founded, with a primary focus on internal dialogue, education and change in Muslim society.

Rabbi Dov Maimon, a haredi cleric who is familiar with the group, described its launch as an "intellectual war" against extremism. "We never imagined such an effort. It is very real, very impressive, very brave, and for them, very dangerous."

Orthodox Rabbi Schmuel Slotsky also supports the group's efforts but is more cautious. "It seems like a drop in the sea. But I hope it helps they are a good group of people and we must support them."

Among the group's founders are nine men, including a journalist, a Sufi sheikh, educators and merchants, and one woman, a homemaker. They claim supporters across Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, and the US.

"I have more than one hundred students and imams who study Islam with me and support our ideas from a religious point of view," says Sheikh Abdel al-Salaam Menasra of Nazareth.

"We agree that we have to be moderate not hard-hearted, that we have to understand the other, that we must speak out for what we believe and not sell ourselves. Now we are working to spread the word."