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A NATION CHALLENGED: THE CLERIC; Muslim Leader Who Was Once Labeled an Alarmist Is Suddenly a Sage

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Two years ago, an obscure Muslim spiritual leader named Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani stepped to the microphone at the State Department and issued a chilling admonition to Americans to beware the Muslims in their midst.

He warned that Islamic extremists had infiltrated the vast majority of American Muslim mosques and student and community groups, and that they had bought more than 20 nuclear warheads and were paying former Soviet scientists to break them into chips that could be carried in suitcases.

''We want to tell people to be careful, that something major might hit quickly,'' he told a forum on Islam convened by the State Department.

Now the sheik, who was denounced as a charlatan by nine major American Muslim organizations, is back in the spotlight as never before. He has appeared on CNN, ''Today,'' MSNBC, NPR and more since the terrorist attacks, cast as the Muslim who dared to blow the whistle on his brethren. Two weeks ago, he briefed the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Uzbekistan, a country that has supported the United States in its war on Afghanistan and whose president has offered Sheik Kabbani a warm welcome.

Sheik Kabbani's profile and motivations, in reality, are a complex intertwining of religious and political rivalries. Even experts and policy makers who admire him say he has undermined his message with hyperbolic claims about the influence of Islamic extremism in the United States.

''He's a good guy and he does mean well,'' said Robert Seiple, ambassador at large for religious liberty in the Clinton administration and now president of the Institute for Global Engagement, in St. David's, Pa. ''But his comments about 80 percent of the leadership of Islam in America being extremists are irresponsible and terribly unfortunate,'' Mr. Seiple said. ''It just plays into the hands of those who would demonize and create division, and those knee-jerk types who see Islam as a monolith.''

Probably more than any other figure, Sheik Kabbani helped shape the view circulating among some American commentators and intellectuals that the problem within Islam can be attributed entirely to Wahhabism, the austere, fundamentalist brand of the faith practiced in Saudi Arabia.

''Where he makes the mistake,'' said Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African and Islamic studies at Howard University, who serves on an advisory board for the sheik, ''is he tries to lump together the Wahhabis with all the other Islamist groups. Not all of them are Wahhabis.''

Sheik Kabbani grew up in Lebanon, exposed to visiting Islamic luminaries in the home of his uncle, the grand mufti of Lebanon. As a boy, he traveled the Islamic world with a Sufi master, Sheik Muhammad Nazim Adil al-Haqqani, the namesake of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani order of Sufism, and married his daughter.

Sufism is the mystical stream within Islam, and scholars say there are 40 to 60 major orders and 1,000 branches. The whirling dervishes from Turkey are Sufis.

Sheik Kabbani's Sufi order emphasizes participation in politics and social issues, adherence to Islamic law and a strain of apocalypticism that, combined with his political analysis, stoked his dire predictions, said David Damrel, an expert in Islamic mysticism at Arizona State University.

While well accepted and integrated in many parts of the Muslim world, Sufism has in some places been suppressed by the more legalistic, puritanical Islamic movements like Wahhabism, which has made inroads in the United States by building mosques and training teachers. They disapprove of Sufi practices like venerating holy men and making pilgrimages to the graves of saints. Uzbekistan is important to Sheik Kabbani's Sufi order because the founder of its parent Naqshbandi branch is buried there.

Escaping the civil war in Lebanon in 1991, Sheik Kabbani was sent to the United States to spread the Naqshbandi-Haqqani order, already well established in places like Cyprus, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and parts of South Asia. He has homes in Michigan and California and claims about 8,000 regular contributors and participants, 60,000 occasional students and 13 Islamic centers. He relates to his disciples like a guru.

In an interview last week in New York, 17 students congregated in the room to hear him. A male student brought coffee; when Sheik Kabbani went to the restroom, another held his turban and another his cloak.

Sheik Kabbani said that he stood by his claim in his State Department speech that 80 percent of American mosques had been taken over by extremists, because of the 114 mosques he first visited in the United States, ''Ninety of them were mostly exposed, and I say exposed, to extreme or radical ideology,'' based on their speeches, books and board members. He said that a telltale sign of an extremist mosque was a focus on the Palestinian struggle.

Sheik Kabbani said that American Muslim groups were dominated by Sufi-hating Wahhabis, and that when he tried to distribute pamphlets at the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, organizers called the police. They say he disrupted the conference by grabbing the microphone from a speaker.

In 1998 he set up an office in Washington and named his organization the Islamic Supreme Council of America, whose grandiose title further inflamed other Muslim leaders.

''He wanted to have a voice among the Muslim leaders,'' said Dr. Nyang, ''so when American government talked to Muslims, the Sufis would have a voice, and he, Kabbani, will be the voice of the Sufis.''

His State Department speech was attended by Muslim leaders he branded extremists, and ended in shouting. His address had combined fact, like Osama bin Laden's merging with other terrorist groups, and broad suspicion, like, ''If the nuclear atomic warheads reach these universities, you don't know what these students are going to do.''

Nine Muslim groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim Students Association, signed a letter demanding ''with heavy heart'' a retraction and an apology. Death threats flew in both directions. Sheik Kabbani received F.B.I. protection.

''With one talk he made every Muslim student in America suspect,'' said Hassan Hathout of the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council.

After that, Sheik Kabbani received only a wary welcome in Washington until Sept. 11. But last week in New York, he represented Muslims alongside a rabbi from Israel, a Hindu from India and several Christian ministers at the closing news conference for the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a United Nations nongovernmental organization.

''The Kabbani affair is the introduction into America of Middle Eastern sectarianism, and the hyperbolic rhetoric and interfratricidal struggles that go with that competition for attention from American leadership,'' said Dr. Nyang, whose grandfather was a famous Sufi. ''America is a big magnifying mirror, and they compete for access to it, because it projects you internationally and makes you look big.''

Published: October 28, 2001 in The New York Times