Muslim Radio A Workout for 1st Amendment

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post

The guy tossing verbal grenades at 700 on your AM dial learned early on that life is a battle. The Klan set Mahdi Bray's lawn aflame back in the '60s because of his family's role in registering black voters down South. Decades later, it's Bray who is lighting the fires, but his weapon of choice is a radio transmitter.

Ever since September's attacks, the airwaves of WWTL -- a low-power, high-static, daytime-only station with headquarters in Walkersville in Howard County and a remote studio in downtown Washington -- have bristled with debate and invective as Muslims bare their fears, express their anger and cherish their heritage on talk shows in English and Arabic.

Since the early days of radio, immigrants have used the medium to bond, to ease the passage into a new land. WWTL, which sells its airtime to several providers of Muslim programming, is squarely in that tradition. There are shows on Islamic investing, doctrinal interpretation and how to maintain Muslim values in a non-Muslim society. Worried parents call in seeking ways to keep their language and beliefs alive in children who want to be like the kids next door.

The station provides familiar voices and ideas to homesick immigrants. But Bray, the main talk show host, isn't into calming nerves. Bray, who grew up in Norfolk in the black church, converted to Islam 27 years ago and has become a professional agitator, taking to the streets to press for school prayer in the District, to protest U.S. funding for Israel's defense and to shout against anti-Muslim discrimination.

"I believe in righteous agitation," says Bray, 50. "I like stirring things up. That's what makes this country great. We're different from other countries, including some Muslim countries, in that we can speak boldly, unfettered. I deliberately push the envelope."

Mornings at 10, Bray's "Islamic Perspectives" takes to the air, but his causes continue long after sign off. He is also national political director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and president of an umbrella group of Muslim organizations. Although relatively new to radio, Bray knows how to play the shock jock, and he's developed a following among non-Muslims who listen for every incendiary remark on WWTL.

Peter Hebert was scanning the AM dial one day when he happened upon WWTL's early-morning program of readings from the Koran. The first thing he says he heard was, "Rabbis are idolaters, slay them." That got his attention. Hebert, a Montgomery County tech executive, is an observant Jew and quickly became a regular listener.

In the following weeks, he says, he heard hosts and guests talk about Jewish control of the media and a Jewish conspiracy to attack the World Trade Center and blame Muslims for the assault. And he's heard Bray defending Hezbollah, which the State Department labels a terrorist organization.

Hebert complained to the station's owner and the Federal Communications Commission, and he believes the station has toned down its act since September. (Last year, WWTL owner Sima Birach, an Orthodox Christian from Yugoslavia, tossed another program off the station because it featured "virulent" commentaries about Jewish control of U.S. institutions and policies. Birach did not return five calls seeking comment.)

I, too, have had some startling moments listening to WWTL, awakening, for example, to hear Koran readings such as this: "As for those who disbelieve, theirs will be a boiling drink and painful death," and, "Those who desire the world . . . their home will be the fire." Now there's a bracing wake-up show.

As for Bray, he has offered Hebert $1,000 if he can produce a tape of any anti-Semitic comment by the talk host. "Some people say I feed hatred toward the Jewish community, and I take deep offense at that," Bray says. He says he never attacks Jews but often criticizes Zionism and Israel: "I've had some tough things to say about Zionism, but I've tried to be fair to the Jewish faith. I grew up in a civil rights movement inundated with people of the Jewish faith who were led to stand and fight with me."

Bray argues vigorously against U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Yet he invites guests who represent a broad spectrum of views. He's as likely to have conservative activist Grover Norquist on his show as he is to share the microphone with a leftist Muslim feminist.

Listen to WWTL, and you'll hear plenty of cause to be both disturbed and encouraged. For two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bray stayed on the air all day, taking calls, giving out information about blood drives, listening for signs of a backlash against Muslims. He's happy to conclude that "for every act of bigotry, there's been at least 20 acts of generosity and kindness."

I've also heard lengthy discussions about "the influence of capital" and the "how the media are twisted by their particular ownership" -- a leftist critique commonplace on any college campus but one that turns more pointed on Bray's show: "We know who the owners are," one guest said, prompting another to reply, "They answer to the Zionist regime."

A few days later, another guest pronounced Zionism "more than racism" and said "America is dripping with the blood of our people." Bray laughed, responding: "This is the only show with two disclaimers. When I go off the air, they play two disclaimers."

He's right: The show's sponsor, the Islamic Foundation of America, and the station's owner daily disavow any connection to "the views and opinions expressed in this program."

Although Bray's program is sponsored entirely by the Islamic Foundation, which Bray says gets much of its money from the government of Saudi Arabia, he does not shy from criticizing the Saudis. He has called leaders of Muslim countries "despots" who rule with "a shameful lack of democracy."

The Saudis have never told Bray to back off, "just to be balanced," he says. WWTL's owner leaves him alone, too: "They know I'm not a journalist. I have an agenda."

Bray appreciates the freedom his employers provide. But he can't resist a dig: "The dialogue here is a lot freer than it is in the Middle East. The Saudis know that in America, this is what you got to do. But back home, no way!" He says it without flinching, and then he roars at his naughty self.


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