- August 4, 2006
Faux ’moderate’ Islamists
It is almost five years since September 11, one year since the July 7 attacks in Britain and just months after the arrests of alleged members of a Toronto terrorist cell. But the intellectual machinery of the United States has not legitimately engaged the Muslim American community and its leadership in an ideological debate about Islamism.
Stories about Muslims and Islam are now ubiquitous in the mainstream media. Yet rarely is there any substantive discussion with American Muslims about the ideology of Islamism or its prevalence. Is it limited to the activists? Is it the money trail? Or is it the faith? These questions and others that engage American Muslims in declaring or denouncing Islamist ideology seem to generally be off-limits for the media and for our elected officials. As they dance around this central cognitive engagement of our global war, the consequences to our nation’s security are immeasurable.
Many frontline reporters seem to actually have little understanding of the conflict between Islamism and Islam. There is a deep contradiction between the Islamist ideology of theocracy and our Americanism. Avoiding this, we forget who we are. The touchstone of Americanism that Islamists fear the most is our constitutional system, which protects our individual spiritual liberty through a complete separation of religion and state.
While the vast majority of Muslims do not support terrorism as a means of political change, the burning question is where Muslim leaders and their constituencies stand regarding the ideology of Islamism. Moreover, is there a difference between Islam and Islamism? If pious Muslims can be anti-Islamist, shouldn’t public discourse highlight this potent ideological weapon against the political ends of our enemies?
There are plenty of news and human-interest stories about Muslims and Islam that discuss the so-called “moderate” Muslim American identity. But what is the exact measure of this moderation? The concept of moderation can be superimposed upon any ideological construct. How long is it going to take for conventional wisdom to come to terms with the fact that moderation within Islamism is in no way moderation with regards to Americanism? Until this understanding is commonplace, anti-Islamist American Muslims are going to be unable to force the hand of their fellow Muslims in the ideological conflict within Islam against the Islamist ends.
Why? Anti-Islamists are a minority among activist American Muslims. Internally, we are usually ignored or dismissed by the majority of our activist co-religionists when trying to engage them in debate regarding the dangers and toxicity of Islamism upon Islam. No matter how pious, anti-Islamists are often demonized as irreligious. All the while we try to argue that, to the contrary, there is no closer relationship a Muslim can have with God than one entirely free from government and clerical coercion.
On June 18, the New York Times ran a story by Laura Goodstein, “U.S. Clerics seek a Middle Ground,” which highlighted the “moderate” work of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and his colleague, Imam Zaid Shakir. The bulk of this typical story discussed platitudes regarding the personal struggles of these American Muslim leaders and positively anticipated their development of a moderate Muslim seminary. However, nowhere did the New York Times delve into a genuine critical analysis of whether there was a central conflict in the ideology of the Zaytuna Institute, the school mentioned in the New York Times piece, and that of America. Yet, the piece ended with this alarming quotation from Mr. Shakir: “He still hoped that one day the United States would be a Muslim country ruled by Islamic law, not by violent means, but by persuasion.” The imam further stated, “Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a Muslim country,” he said. “I think it would help people, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a Muslim. Because Islam helped me as a person, and it’s helped a lot of people in my community.”
Not only is this a blatant endorsement of Islamism (theocracy) over Americanism (anti-theocracy), but this imam labels anti-Islamist Muslims dishonest. The radical Islamists are rabidly anti-American from their fear of pluralistic liberty. They are too insecure to give Muslims or any citizens the opportunity to be free and to choose to sin or not. Can mainstream American thought afford to be naive and uncritical about this central theme of Islamist movements? Radical or moderate, regardless of the packaging, the goal of Islamists is to create a Muslim theocracy. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League responded with clarity in his June 23 letter to the New York Times: “Religion flourishes in America because we have no imposed religion, as the founding fathers designed. Imam Zaid Shakir’s hope for an America ruled by Islamic law is fundamentally un-American. Our hope is that he is an aberration and that moderate Muslim voices will prevail.”
How long is it going to take for our mass media and political leaders to finally begin to turn our collective lenses upon this un-American ideology and report on the threat it poses to America even in its most subtle forms? If Muslims insist upon remaining silent about the dangers to Americanism of Islamist ideological infiltration, we must ask why. Anti-Islamist Muslims receive the brunt of attacks from radical Islamists. This is not happenstance. Conversely, attempts by so-called moderates to ’Islamize’ America are cheered on by the radicals no matter how far these ’moderates’ try to distance themselves from them in all their empty condemnations.
How long will it take Muslims to frontally counter Islamism (political Islam) and separate it from their Abrahamic religion of Islam? We in the Muslim community unfortunately need a little nudging before it’s too late. America’s security hangs in the balance.
So far the ideological battle against political Islam has proven to be a fight few Muslims want to participate in. It has taken five years since September 11 for conventional wisdom to even begin to attempt to understand “moderate” Muslims let alone engage their ideology.
Far more important than a debate over who or what defines a moderate is our need in the United States to focus discussions upon the ideology of Islamism and political Islam. If radical Islamist terrorism is a means to an end, we should be pressing American Muslim leaders about where they stand regarding al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah.
Islamism, as I see it, is an overriding philosophy of Muslims who believe in a society guided by a system of government founded upon clerical interpretations of religious law as derived from their own interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah. Argumentation within Islamist governments and parties is based upon clerical interpretations of God’s law, not upon a reasoned deduction of effectiveness of human law. No matter how moderate Islamists present themselves, they will always hold on tightly to the notion that a majority Muslim state must be identified as an “Islamic state” with clerical guidance of their society’s proximity to the Muslim path.
Islamism is clearly in direct conflict with Americanism. Yet, an Islam which is anti-Islamist is not. Americanism as Islamists see it is defined by our Constitution and our legal precedents as a system based in legislative liberty for all faiths — true pluralism. Americanism uses a language of legislative debate not derived from religious precedent or clerical interpretation of one faith, but rather from the reasoned precedent of our secular courts and legislatures. Until this great chasm of thought between Islamists and American ideology is made clear, we are actually facilitating the spread of Islamism among American Muslims.
Make no mistake. There are many Muslims who do understand that anti-theocratic societies like the United States are preferable for the free practice of their own private faith and that of all others. In fact, many Muslims are inherently anti-Islamist by virtue of being pious Muslims demanding to be free of coercion. That is why many of our families immigrated to the United States. But virtually no efforts are underway to find these Muslims, who are our greatest untapped resource since September 11.
Islam, as a personal faith, and its inherent spirituality, worship, moral code and practices can and should be looked upon as entirely separate from all that is political Islam. This is the profound challenge of anti-Islamist Muslims of this generation. While this separation is admittedly hard to find, its existence is essential to our victory in this ideological battle.
Muslim ideological moderation is not achieved by a declaration of nonviolence. It is not demonstrated by a belief in elections and representative democracy. The radical Islamists simply ride along with moderate Islamists toward the same arena. They repackage themselves as moderates while still residing within an Islamist construct.
For example, Europe’s radical, pretend moderate, Imam Yusef al-Qaradawi, the international spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Grand Islamic Scholar of Qatar, has recently been pushing for a “wasatiya” (middle way) movement, often preaching to his followers to moderate and tolerate. Yet, he continues to have the blood of American soldiers and innocent civilians in Iraq on his hands, with his endorsement of the religious legitimacy of suicide bombing in Iraq. He moderates his language for European audiences and reverts back to his fundamentalism for his Al Jazeera audiences. His fundamentalist stances are misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, pro-Islamist and anti-freedom.
In the current American discourse, we should be curious to learn whether Muslims agree with leaders like him and why. Unless my fellow Muslims are willing to take on the likes of al-Qaradawi ideologically, they will continue to facilitate Islamism and its associated threat to American security.
When we fought the ideological battle against communism during the Cold War, was there a moderate Communist ideology? The public intellectual debate was clear that Americanism and communism were entirely incompatible. The Soviet goal for global domination was an imminent threat to our security. Similarly, the Chinese, North Vietnamese, North Koreans and Cubans, to name a few, had central conflicts with American ideology. Are we as aware of the threat posed by “moderate” Islamists regardless of their denunciation of militancy? Those who know American Muslims will tell you that the violent jihadists are a small minority of the world’s Muslim population and hard to find in our local communities. This militant minority, including members of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others, certainly needs to be found and reckoned with swiftly and forcefully on the battlefield. However, the jihadists use barbaric methods to achieve change toward a theocratic political end — political Islam.
Political Islam, on the contrary, has great support within the Muslim population. It should be engaged relentlessly in our public arena. Only anti-Islamist Muslims can change that tide. But, for now, our private and public-sector thought leaders should first wake up and force the debate.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a former Navy lieutenant commander.
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