Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Moderate Muslim?

’ Just over two years ago I organized a forum of leading younger Muslim activists at the Central University in Budapest. Among those present were the Swiss born scholar Tariq Ramadan and the Moroccan political and social activist Nadia Yassine. Both, in very different ways, are at the center of the Bush Administration’s confusing policy of labeling certain Muslim religious leaders and organizations as “moderate” and others as “extremists” and attempting to isolate or support them based on this determination.

Last year the State Department revoked a visa granted to Dr. Ramadan, preventing him from accepting a prestigious professorship at Notre Dame. Last month it offered some support for Yassine, who is under indictment in Morocco for daring to suggest at a conference at UC Berkeley we both attended that a republican form of government would better serve Morocco’s citizens than its monarchy.

The divergent treatment of Yassine and Ramadan demonstrate why this latest attempt to rein in growing antipathy towards the US across the Muslim world is doomed to fail: the support for moderate figures is inconsistently given, not backed up by changes in American policy, and easily subverted by the larger strategic and ideological agenda of Bush Administration officials.

Ramadan, whose grandfather Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is considered the most important Muslim religious intellectual in Europe. He has written and spoken extensively on the need for Muslims to avoid building a “ghetto Islam” and to work with people of all faiths to build a culture of peace and justice.

Indeed, when I was invited to a workshop organized for CIA and State Department officers on Islam in Europe a senior official explained to me “We know Ramadan is the real deal. How can we tell what other figures in Europe are like him and not being duplicitous?”

Yet days before he was to move to Indiana to take up his position at Notre Dame the Bush Administration revoked his visa on the unsubstantiated charge that he was a “secret supporter of al-Qa’eda.” The real reason would seem to be his outspoken criticism of the Israeli and US occupations, despite the fact that Ramadan has explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist, warning his followers against “simplistic and superficial anti-Americanism,” and vociferously opposes terrorism.

Sadly, a potential ally in the war on terror is now another casualty, right at the time–as the London bombings have shown–when honest voices who understand the emerging generation of Western Muslims are desperately needed.

Nadia Yassine, as a leading spokesperson of the Moroccan Justice and Development movement, is one of the most visible and powerful women in the Muslim world. Equally at home quoting Noam Chomsky and Islamic law, in our forum in Budapest she joined Ramadan in criticizing Muslim leaders who’ve “hijacked” Islam as harshly as she condemns US policy in the Muslim world.

Perhaps since Yassine has no plans to move to the United States and teach impressionable college students the US Embassy offered a few words of support before her trial despite her strong rebuke of American foreign policy. Or maybe it was to answer criticism of its tepid support of pro-democracy protesters elsewhere in the Muslim world. Strategically, the pressure on the Moroccan government is part of the larger strategy of convincing governments to work with so-called “moderate Islamists” who oppose violence, even if they don’t explicitly support US policies.

The hope would seem to be that bringing moderates like Yassine into the political process will further “moderate” their views and even improve their attitudes towards US policy in the region. Such hopes are Pollyannish at best and patronizing at worst.

The reality is that the US can’t have it three ways: it can’t ostracize some figures, offer support for others with nearly identical views, yet at the same time provide hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars of aid to the governments that oppress them. As Nadia Yassine explained to me, “I have no confidence in American foreign policy.” Why should she as long as we are supporting the government that’s trying to jail her for speaking her mind?

America has to choose: either we continue supporting corrupt, authoritarian and often brutal governments or we support democracy and justice for the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. There can be no middle ground; no lofty rhetoric undermined by realpolitik; no exceptions because of “security” or “strategic” considerations–They are what got us into this mess in the first place.

The former path means continued double standards and hypocritical policies, and with them a further erosion of support for the United States that will strengthen groups like al-Qa’eda and prolong the war on terror indefinitely. The latter means curtailing our economic, military and political support for the governments of the region, including Israel’s, until they actually promote peace, justice and democracy.

The second path is much more difficult, precisely because it involves an actual, substantive change in US policy. But as both Ramadan and Yassine made clear in Budapest, it will also win us many new allies, including some now considered enemies. Without them, the war on terrorism cannot be won. ’

Prof. Dept of History UC Irvine, author, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005)