The Chosen One

Page 5 of 7

But, Abboud says, she grew tired of speaking out against the likes of Ann Coulter.

Last month, Coulter, the neo-conservative author and pundit, referred to Muslims as "camel jockeys" in a column for United Press Syndicate. CAIR railed against her in a press release within hours of the column's publication.

"My philosophy is, you just don't give those people attention," she says.

So, rather than "expanding my horizons," as she says, by leaving Arizona, she elected to accept a position as the executive director of the Arizona Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation. If CAIR is akin to the NAACP of Muslim advocates, the Freedom Foundation professes to be more like the ACLU, defending the civil liberties of not just Muslims, but all Americans.

(Coulter's "camel jockey" diss, for instance, has sparked zero response from MAS.)

Unlike his counterparts at CAIR, Mahdi Bray, the national director of MAS' Freedom Foundation, admits -- without restraint -- the obvious benefits of having a white female speak on behalf of the "the tens of thousands" of Muslims (but only about 5,000 paying members) that MAS represents.

"I'm a realist," Bray, 56, says during a recent visit with local Muslims in Tempe. "We live in a predominantly white, Christian society. So it's just as advantageous for her to be a white, former Christian woman in this organization as it is for me to have been Christian half of my life."

But at the same time, Bray says the decision to hire Abboud had little, if anything, to do with her race or gender.

"Deedra has been kind of a folk hero here, in speaking out and reaching out to the community," Bray says. "She's a natural-born activist."

Last month, Bray personally asked Abboud to speak at a press conference in Washington on February 6 to help communicate MAS' response to the cartoon controversy. She was the only head of a MAS state chapter invited.

Abboud was sent, by Bray, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, recently to argue with law enforcement officials that the shooting of an Arab man outside a Middle Eastern restaurant there was racially motivated.

And now, after Bray called her earlier in the week to handle a radio interview with an alt-rock shock DJ who calls himself "Uncle Nasty," Abboud is again the point person.

At lunch, she taps the end of her pen on a memo pad that is scribbled with abbreviated talking points. And when she subtly rolls her eyes, it's clear Abboud is irritated with Uncle Nasty, from Denver station KBPI-FM 106.7, asking her questions about the publication of those cartoons in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

"I don't think Americans have been given the full context of those cartoons," Abboud tells Uncle Nasty, her voice becoming louder as she tries to speak over the one on the other end of the phone. "I'm not defending the violence. But the editor of the Danish paper wasn't trying to make a point; he was clearly trying to offend people.

"They've really got a Nazi mentality in Europe right now," she says to Nasty, her half-eaten half-sandwich now an afterthought.

She goes on to explain that she's been following the cartoon controversy since the Jyllands-Posten first published the cartoons back in September, long before fundamentalist Muslim imams took the cartoons on a tour of the Middle East and ignited riots and protests early last month. The cartoons depict the Prophet Muhammad, which in itself has offended Muslims; the most widely circulated being one in which Muhammad is wearing a bomb as a turban. Another depicts Muhammad in Heaven turning back extremists, saying, "Stop! Stop! We have run out of virgins!"

Since then, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia have vowed to boycott the Danish government and Danish products. And they've since directed their anger at the United States and its so-called war on terror.

Normally, Abboud says, this wouldn't be the fight she and the Muslim American Society would choose to battle.

"We try to stick with domestic issues," Abboud says.

But, as unofficial representatives of Muslim America, MAS, as well as the Council of American-Islamic Relations, is speaking out about the cartoons.

That's not to say, though, that both organizations -- the largest of their kind in the U.S. -- haven't sought to further their own cause, which mostly focuses on righting discriminatory wrongs against Muslims, such as racial profiling and hate speech, by being willing participants in the cartoon fray.

"I wish I didn't have to deal with this crazy reaction, the violent response," Bray says. "I agree with Deedra on that point.

"But I slightly differ with her as to the importance of the issue. This is rooted in something much deeper than free speech. This is about a backlash against Muslims in Europe, their emigration to Europe, their culture and their faith.

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Joe Watson