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Muslim athletes speak out

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NEW YORK — Friday, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did the same thing he does every Friday during the offseason.

Instead of sinking jump shots the way he has during nine NBA seasons, he leads about 30 followers in prayer. As the imam of the Masjid al-Haqq (House of the Truth), Abdul-Rauf is the religious leader of a small Islamic community he founded three years ago in Gulfport, Miss. His job is to "bring awareness to people about what Islam is," to whomever will listen.

Abdul-Rauf wants everybody to know that his religion does not condone terrorism or the attacks on the twin towers last week. But he also wants people to carefully consider the consequences of their actions before rushing to judgment.

Abdul-Rauf was vilified by fans and the media when he refused to stand during the national anthem while playing with the Denver Nuggets in 1996, calling the American flag a symbol of tyranny and oppression and a violation of his religious beliefs. He received death threats and was suspended by the NBA. He sat out one game before deciding that he would stand and pray during the national anthem.

While the United States has named Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden the prime suspect in the attacks, Abdul-Rauf says he would like to remind Americans that Muslims were also blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 before the arrest of Timothy McVeigh.

"They keep saying (bin Laden) is a suspect and they keep saying Muslims are implicated," Abdul-Rauf told the Daily News on Friday. "I won't get into what religious group did it. I will just wait until most facts come out. I'm trying to look at all the dynamics and I may not be as accurate, but I try to weigh all of those things."

"(President Bush) mentioned that the U.S. has a lot of enemies," Abdul-Rauf added. "A mistake was made years ago with the federal building. They said Muslims did it and it comes out that a militia group did it. Whoever did it, whether it be a Christian, Muslim or Jew, I don't think a whole segment of people should be implicated."

Like Abdul-Rauf, Toronto's Hakeem Olajuwon practices the Islamic faith. His immediate reaction to last week's attacks was one of sadness, grief and shock. Olajuwon also wonders how peaceful Muslims will be viewed from now on.

"My reaction, beyond the sadness for the lives that were lost, is that this is a very big setback for us," Olajuwon told the Houston Chronicle. "The Muslims in America are now the images of the crime and this fulfills the stereotype. It puts us in a very bad position, all the way back to almost the beginning, to having to explain to a country where we are still in the great minority that the actions of a few cannot be allowed to represent all Muslims."

On his Web site, Denver's Tariq Abdul-Wahad also condemned the attacks.

"It is completely forbidden in Islam to kill innocent people," Abdul-Wahad said. "Those acts have therefore no spiritual basis. What happened are simply cold-blooded murders. God almighty, in our holy book the Quran, states that for one to take a life unjustly is as if he killed humanity itself."

Olajuwon is considered by some as an ambassador of Islam. When Abdul-Rauf — formerly known as Chris Jackson before converting to Islam — took his stand against the national anthem, Olajuwon said he did not understand Abdul-Rauf's position.

"I don't regret any position that I've taken in the past or any comments that I have made," said the 32-year-old Abdul-Rauf, who played for the Grizzlies last season and is now a free agent. "My approach may have been a little different."

Abdul-Rauf is certain about one thing, however: Islam does not teach violence.

"I'll quote one of the senators, that terrorism has no basis in any religious doctrine," said Abdul-Rauf.