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MUSLIM GROUP HOPES GATHERING WILL HELP DISPEL STEREOTYPING

When the Western New York Chapter of the American Muslim Council gathers for its annual banquet tonight in the Adam's Mark Hotel, organizers hope non-Muslims will see a community that's just like any of the others that put on a lavish dinner each year.

A community of small business owners, blue-collar workers, doctors and other professionals -- in other words, everyday Americans.

"The purpose of this is really to integrate with the community at large," said Fayyaz Hussain, co-chairman, with his wife, Joanne, of the banquet organizing committee.

The local Muslim community was overwhelmed this past year by the arrests and subsequent prosecution of six Lackawanna men accused of attending an al-Qaida terrorist training camp.

The arrests shocked and saddened many Muslims. Some still worry that Muslims are unfairly labeled as terrorists because of the actions of a few.

The banquet, said Hussain, helps counter "the stigma and stereotyping."

"It's absolutely essential just to break some wrong perceptions people have," he said.

This year's event will be the fourth for the local chapter of the national organization. The banquet has grown from 150 attendees in 2000, the first year of the event, to about 400 people last year.

"It has really become the premier event for Muslims in our region," said Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the local chapter of the American Muslim Council. "It lets the community at large know what the Muslim community is all about."

Qazi estimates one-quarter to one-third of the people who attend are not Muslim.

Eric Erfan Vickers, a civil rights attorney and former executive director of the national office of the American Muslim Council, will be the guest speaker.

Vickers, who has met twice with President Bush since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, caused a stir in February when he suggested in an e-mail that there was irony in the space shuttle Columbia's breaking up over Palestine, Texas, while carrying an Israeli astronaut.

Vickers apologized and resigned in March as executive director of the American Muslim Council, but the organization plans to merge with the American Muslim Alliance, another group with which Vickers is connected.

Vickers was booked as a speaker about six months ago, before his Columbia remarks and resignation.

"He's very articulate. He's a no-nonsense guy, and he says what he truly feels in his heart, without sugar-coating it," said Qazi.

Vickers, who writes and speaks often on Muslim-Jewish relations, should be judged on more than his unfortunate remarks about the Columbia disaster, Qazi added.

"We were looking at the individual as a whole rather than taking one line and crucifying him for that one sentence," he said. "He doesn't talk evil about other religions."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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