Muslims “have more opportunity in America to practice Islam than anywhere else in the world,” says Muqtedar Khan, director of International Studies at Adrian College in Michigan. “The chances of you being discriminated for your Muslim beliefs in the Muslim world is greater than it is in the United States.”
As the United States continues military operations in the Middle East and many Muslims around the world root against American interests, a chorus of moderate Muslims here has taken up the case for America, describing it as a haven for their people. As they grow in number and influence, moderate Muslim Americans have begun to provide some desperately needed counterprogramming to the message of radical anti-American Islamists here and abroad.
The potential benefits of an outspoken pro-American contingent of Muslims here in the United States cannot be underestimated. Not only is there a very real threat of terrorism from Muslims currently within our borders, as evidenced by the disruption of multiple terror cells across the country, but it is possible that a successful Muslim community in America could send a message to Muslims worldwide that the extremists have got it wrong: America is a place that welcomes Muslims and is good to them.
Like most Muslim-Americans, Khan is a recent arrival. He first came to America in 1992 to pursue a doctorate in business. At Georgetown University, he changed gears and earned a PhD in Islamic Affairs.
Reached by phone, Khan, a native of India, offered an anecdote to describe the little-heard-about affection some Muslims have for America. In 1998, his father, who was working in Saudi Arabia as an engineer, came to visit him in Florida. When the elder Khan saw Disney World, he marveled at the ramps for wheelchairs and other accommodations made for the handicapped. His father said, Khan relates, “‘I think this country is more Islamic than any other country on Earth. Just look at how much care is taken of them.’”
The younger Khan continues, “Every time my father visited me, he would come from Saudi Arabia to America and tell them he was coming to the holy land.”
Not all Muslims, of course, have such a reaction. They remain wary of the United States and of Western power generally. Khan points out that American Muslims look at the conflict in Chechnya and the Arab-Israeli dispute and see Muslims as victims. But, he says, such ambivalence should not carry over to American society. “American Muslims really have no reason to feel they are victims of anything.” The Muslim American community, he says, is thriving, proof of “America’s benevolence and tolerance of Islam.”
The Muslims “who are focused on the internal aspects of America, who are more concerned about their future than the people back home, they realize that they have enormous opportunities.”
And attitudes are changing, Khan says. Organizations and mosques that had shut him out before are now inviting him to speak.
“Post-911, moderate Muslims are being heard more.” In the past, only “conservative or narrow minded” imams and invited speakers would be allowed to speak. According to Khan, conservative Muslim leadership demanded it be that way, while more moderate Muslims did not speak up.
After September 11, moderates began to feel that it was worth fighting to have more moderate views aired. “You can see that the agendas are changing.” Khan also says that moderates like him are growing in number. “There are more moderates today in America than there are in individual Muslim countries.”
Moderates like Khan say it’s important for Muslims to publicly denounce all terrorism, and also to make it clear that Muslims’ top concern was the terrible tragedy suffered by Americans on 9/11, not the relatively small backlash against Muslims that followed.
Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Notre Dame, is another moderate who, after September 11, seized the opportunity to speak out. But, she says, she never thought of herself as a “public intellectual.” Yet, into the public square she went because “extremists … have essentially hijacked … the image of Islam.”
And the media hasn’t helped matters. “Sensationalism perhaps sells better than humdrum acts of ordinary Muslims, who are for the large part moderate,” says Afsaruddin, a first-generation Muslim of South Asian background. “We sometimes talk about a moral majority. Oftentimes the majority tends to be more silent.”
But silence is no longer a reasonable option for moderate Muslims, she says. “We have to get our voices heard because our voices are being drowned out by the extremists.” Afsaruddin says she senses progress in academia, an increasing “readiness” among moderate Muslim intellectuals “who generally do not engage in the media, [but are now] more willing to speak up and make their voices heard.”
As a scholar who focuses on Islamic thought, Afsaruddin insists that “extremism, militancy and violence all in the name of Islam are gross betrayals of the Islamic tradition.” Furthermore, it is up to scholars to explain the religion so that extremists do not have a monopoly. “We have to point to historical and textual evidence that we can marshal that sometimes the ordinary person does not have access to.”
Like Khan, Afsaruddin says the influence of moderate Muslims is growing. “They are being put out there and cumulatively they are having an effect. If this continues over time, we will see the effects of these voices.”
There are also moderate Muslim organizations being formed. One of these is the American Islamic Congress, established after September 11 to oppose Muslim extremism.
Ahmed al-Rahim, a founding member and former chairman of AIC, says he faced extremism in mosques in America as a young man and was repelled by it.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a secular Shiite Iraqi family, al-Rahim moved to America as a child and was raised in Texas and New York. As a young man, he became involved in a mosque in Houston where he had a profoundly disappointing experience.
The mosque had arranged an overseas summer youth trip to commemorate the 40th day of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death. In Iran, the group attended an inaugural ceremony for the new leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the old U.S. embassy, which had been stormed during the Iranian revolution. The crowd was chanting “Death to America.” Al-Rahim says the extremism that led to such a trip is not uncommon at mosques because so many imams come from abroad, as do the funds for many mosques.
For moderate Muslims, says al-Rahim, “the most important message is that we condemn all kinds of hate speech including anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism and that we come out as boldly as possible against violence committed by Muslims in Iraq, in Israel, in Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia, and that we do all that we can in this war against terrorism to uproot terrorists that are planning and plotting acts of terror against other countries.”
Al-Rahim, too, points to 9/11 as a turning point for himself and the moderate movement. “After 9/11, I and a group of Muslims felt that the mainstream, official voice of Islam in America wasn’t forceful enough in condemning the violence and the acts of terror on 9/11. There was some hesitancy, and there was more concern with hate crimes against Muslims, which I think were relatively low, and there was more focus on that than actually looking at the violence and the hate speech that has been committed in the name of Islam.”
Muslim leaders often do not respond adequately when Muslims are arrested on terrorism charges, al-Rahim says. Instead of saying that if the charges are true, “we feel these individuals should be prosecuted,” they come out with a much less forceful statement like, “on the day of judgment we’ll find out who is just and who is not.”
Although many American Muslims hold moderate views, it has taken time for them to speak up, al-Rahim observes. “Part of it is a learning curve. Muslims are just learning how to write op-eds, appear on the media, lobby effectively for what they want.”
The Muslim community in America, he believes, could even play a leading role for Muslims around the world. “I certainly think it’s one of the few communities, if not one of the only communities that can occupy this place of leading the Muslim world. If you look at European Muslims, they are living in ghettoes. If you look at the Muslim world, there is very little freedom of expression. America has really given Muslims an opportunity to rethink and redefine their position in the world. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here.”
Another moderate Muslim who has gotten involved is Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of AIC. She has been perhaps the most visible moderate Muslim since her August 30 speech at the Republican Convention. In her remarks, the native of Basra, Iraq, thanked America.
Yes, “there is still bloodshed and uncertainty,” she told the Republicans in New York, “but America, under the strong, compassionate leadership of President Bush, has given Iraqis the most precious gift any nation has ever given another–the gift of democracy and the freedom to determine its own future.”
Suwaij has been in America since fleeing Iraq after rising up against Saddam Hussein in 1991. She is now working with USAID to rebuild the Iraqi school system and to implement women’s empowerment programs.
Another young organization that believes Islam has become too politicized is the Islamic Supreme Council of America, which was founded in 1997. It is an umbrella group focused on classical Islam that rejects extremism. ISCA rejects the notion, popular among some Muslim groups, that the story of Muslims in America is a largely negative one.
“In America, unfortunately, the voices that dominate the public sphere for the Islamic or Muslim organizations are … the ones that are always focusing on negative aspects of foreign policy,” said Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of ISCA. “Instead [there is] a polarization by emphasizing the negative and focusing on problems instead of focusing on the good things that are happening.”
Siddiqui says Muslims must get politics out of the religion and instead focus on the spiritual aspects, on which Islam is actually based. He says that some groups, which he declined to list by name, have “hijacked the mike.”
Not all moderates are so hesitant. Usually, they cite the Council on American Islamic Relations specifically as the extreme organization that they need to balance.
CAIR is best known for reporting (some say exaggerating) hate crimes against Muslims Americans and for commenting on American foreign policy in a manner not at all flattering to the United States.
CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper says it is hard to be positive about the Muslim experience in America. “As an advocacy group, that’s one of the things that you have to deal with. Inevitably you are going to be focusing on the negative because that’s your job.”
“We try and actively search out positive stories and positive issues, and whenever we’re able, we put those forward. … Unfortunately, positive stories are becoming few and far between.”
Hooper says that one of the goals of CAIR, which has over thirty thousand members, is to educate Americans about Islam and to portray a positive image of the religion. Hooper says that CAIR has condemned every terrorist attack. However, critics of the organization say that it is funded by Saudi Arabia and has ties to the Palestinian terror group Hamas.
Many moderate Muslims complain about the difficulty of breaking into the mainstream media, where they want their voices to receive as much attention as those of CAIR and others. To help get their message out, Hillel Fradkin, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Islam and American Democracy project, has organized conferences hosting moderate Muslims.
While many moderate Muslims are upbeat about their progress, Fradkin says that moderate Muslims are actually becoming less outspoken in recent months. “I think I know at least partially the reason why: People who stuck their heads up to attack the Islamists and attack the terrorists came under pressure from them or elements sympathetic to them.” Fradkin says moderates have reported to him “acts of intimidation within mosques, people literally forced out by sympathizers with the radicals.”
Believing that the freedoms in America would be beneficial to the international Muslim community, Fradkin says, “I do think that there’s a good chance that the experience of the country will lead over the long term to a moderation of the community.”
Asked whether moderates can flourish in America and export their ideas abroad, Fradkin is still optimistic. “It’s very much a possibility both because, unlike in large number of Muslim countries, Muslims can say what they want, read what they like. They will have the real experience of democracy, which is basically an abstraction in most of the Muslim world.”
Americans and Muslims alike could use some lessons in the diversity of Muslim opinion. One hopes that people like Khan, Afsaruddin, al-Rahim, Siddiqui, and others continue to speak out, and that their views receive a fairer hearing in the media and elsewhere. Moderate Muslims may yet prove to be important allies in the war on terror as they help Muslims everywhere to understand and appreciate American freedom.
Peter Brownfeld is a writer based in Washington D.C.