Abdulwahab Alkebsi arrived in the U.S. from Yemen on New Year's Day in 1980. Within a few years he had graduated from Rutgers with a double major in computer science and engineering and had gone on to get his master's degree in computer science from American University. He also became an American citizen and a political player: He's the executive director of the Islamic Institute, a Washington think tank that "facilitates the development of grassroots Muslim political movements that are economically conservative." reason's Washington Editor Sam MacDonald spoke with Alkebsi a few days after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Q: When someone refers to Osama bin Laden, they call him a "Muslim terrorist." How do you respond to that?
A: It's becoming part of the lingo right now. Language is important in these matters, and the language is wrong. Let's call bin Laden what he is: He is a terrorist. It has nothing to do with Islam–just as much as you don't want to call Timothy McVeigh a Christian terrorist or a Christian killer.
Q: Will the attacks make it harder for Muslims to integrate into American culture?
A: The vast majority of Americans accept us totally, 100 percent, as Americans. Let me be very clear. This is the best place in the world to be a Muslim. You have the ingredients to be a true Muslim over here. Being a true Muslim doesn't mean you wear a head scarf, and it doesn't mean you don't wear a head scarf. It's a choice thing, and this is where we get that choice.
Q: After getting over the sheer shock of the attacks, what was your first reaction as the head of an Islamic group?
A: My religion really didn't cross my mind. The first thing that crossed my mind, for all the first day, was as an American. It was shock. It was fear. My reaction had nothing to do with me being a Muslim. Then the reports started coming about the connections to bin Laden, the connection to, in the vocabulary, Islamic extremists, Islamic terrorists.
Q: The Islamic Institute is politically conservative. Is that where most Muslim Americans fit into the political spectrum?
A: It's part of who we are. The sanctity of life is very important to Muslims. The majority of Muslims are also immigrants. A big portion of them are small-business owners who want lower taxes and less government infringement on their business. It's not that Muslims are Republicans. Muslims tend to be conservatives who care about the poor and the elderly, so compassionate conservatism fell right in our laps. It's been a rallying cry, and it's been very helpful.