Engaging Moderate Muslims—Really?

One Friday last month I visited a community center-cum-mosque in a dreary northern suburb of London.  Inside, wedged between the mostly Somali congregation, the children’s drawings that adorned the walls, and the notices clinging to a dented pegboard announcing events that this place would host in its other incarnation, I tried to strike a balance between unobtrusiveness and respectfulness.  I had come to listen to the khutba (sermon) to try and understand what Muslims were hearing from their leaders.

With a number of worshippers still trickling in, hardly breaking stride to kick off their shoes at the doorway, the speaker approached the podium.  After a brief “peace be upon you” he began his sermon on the Islamic virtues of neighborliness and the necessity of being a productive member of the community.

The topic was auspicious and the speaker made a special effort to make the older Islamic rulings relevant for his audience.  He interpreted an ancient scholar’s prohibition against rudely leaving “piles of firewood” blocking your neighbor’s door as being analogous to leaving your car parked in front of your neighbor’s driveway.  But the most stirring example of the virtue of neighborliness the speaker gave was not of a Muslim, but of a Jew.  He related:

“The well known scholar Abdullah Ibn Al Mubarak had a Jewish neighbour. The Jew wanted to sell his house. The buyers asked him, ‘how much do you want to sell your house for?’  He said, ‘two thousand.’ But they said to him ‘your house is only worth one thousand.’ He said ‘yes, but I want one thousand for my house and another one thousand because of the good neighbour whom I am going to leave behind.’  Ibn Al Mubarak knew of the event, and invited his Jewish neighbour and gave him the price of the house and asked him to continue as his neighbour and not to sell his house.”

During my trips to the Middle East I had heard some fairly blood-curdling things said about Jews. It is also easy to find websites that document how fiercely young Muslim children are being taught to hate Jews. But here, in this mosque packed with Somali immigrants and dotted with the odd white British convert, the speaker had made it a point to publicly laud a Jew for possessing one of the chief virtues of Islam: neighbourliness.  When my colleague later asked him whether he had deliberately chosen to uphold this Jew as an example because of the recent ugly rise in anti-Semitism in Britain he replied, “precisely.”

Unfortunately, the man who gave this stirring sermon was, according to Newsweek, just denied admission to the United States. Dr. Kemal Helbawy (picture), a widely influential scholar and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was invited by New York University to speak at their conference tonight. Dr. Helbawy has been a leading and public advocate of dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States. He told me that “to see the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood working together is something that I pray for every night.” For publicly advocating this dialogue he has had to endure the slings and arrows of both radical Islamists and secular opponents. Now has been rewarded for his stand with public humiliation and forced removal from a New York-bound flight (without explanation) by the Department of Homeland Security. His well-known commitment to moderation and rejection of terrorism (he routinely debates—and defeats—salafists and other hard-liners back in Britain) should make him a natural friend of the United States. Now Americans will not even have the chance to hear his views.

These missteps speak to a wider problem with U.S. policy towards the Muslim world: an unwillingness to consider dialogue with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.  In many cases, the Brotherhood shares the same goals with the United States, in particular the advance of democracy and opposition to radical jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda.  At the very least we should be engaging and speaking with the Brotherhood, to make our positions known and hear some of their concerns.  There will be disagreements but there is no harm in talking—as Dr. Helbawy says “meetings and dialogue do not mean acceptance.”  But how can we be serious about winning the minds of Muslims when we do not even give them a chance to tell us what concerns are on theirs?

Steven Brooke is a research associate at The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C.

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