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Western New York Muslims should become "a voice of influence" and assume a prominent role in the community and the political arena, Muslim activist and civil rights attorney Eric E. Vickers encouraged Sunday evening.

Vickers addressed a group of about 500 Muslims and others at the fourth annual banquet of the American Muslim Council Western New York Chapter in the Adam's Mark Hotel.

In an interview before the banquet, Vickers, who recently served as the national executive director of the American Muslim Council, said the 7 million Muslims in this country could help America in its relations with Muslim nations and could be "a tremendous resource in the war on terrorism."

"I think Americans since 9/1 1 have had an instinctive fear against Muslims," he said, "and some in this country try to perpetuate that. We have to let the average American know about this beautiful religion."

However, he added, "there's an air of intimidation in the Muslim community. It's very detrimental to this country right now. There's this sense you could be subject to (persecution by) the government, to the FBI."

Vickers said he converted to Islam while he was a law student at the University of Virginia.

"It really was a search for a spiritual balance," he said. "In law school, you're materially driven. The focus is on getting out and going to work on Wall Street or for a Washington law firm. That spiritual balance was missing."

Vickers spent many years in Washington as special counsel to the Minority Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund and returned to his native St. Louis in 2000 to make a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives. He lost in the primaries, he said, to the son of the retiring Democratic incumbent.

As head of the American Muslim Council, he was scheduled to meet with President Bush on, of all days, Sept. 11, 2001. When he finally got to talk to the president two weeks later, Vickers expressed the need to act against the backlash facing Muslims and to encourage understanding of those in the faith.

"I think he's done all the ceremonial things to show that Muslims are peaceable people and not to be feared," he said. "On the other hand, the policies that have come from his administration have been very hard on the Muslim community. I would say they are even un-American."

Vickers said Western New York was an area of special concern for civil rights because of the arrest of six Lackawanna men who attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. Five have accepted plea deals in the case and the sixth is expected to do the same today.

"There was a heightened focus created with the mention of 'sleeper cells' here in this country," he explained, "but I don't think the evidence proves out for that."


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