Muslim Cheers for Wolfowitz
by Stephen Schwartz
Last Sunday [May 25, 2003] saw a remarkable event in Washington – one that defied stereotypes about Muslims and the Bush administration's "hard-liners": Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, widely identified (and denounced) as the main architect of America's Iraq intervention, won multiple standing ovations from an audience of hundreds of Muslims
He praised the coalition's use of force to remove evil, and he hailed the new reality in Iraq. For the first time in 26 years, he said, Shia Muslims had freedom to observe their Arbaeen festival in Iraq. The room exploded in applause.
The venue: the first-ever national convention of Shia Muslims from the United States and Canada.
Wolfowitz is said to be the hardest of neoconservative hardliners. The Shias have a reputation as the most extreme, anti-Western, ultraradical Muslims. Yet they came together through the ideal of freedom, and the principle of liberation through the exercise of U.S. military power.
Pundits and experts have been wrong about both Wolfowitz and his Shia hosts.
Most of the media paint Wolfowitz as an arch-conspiratorial fanatic. Yet the truth, as anybody who has met with him quickly learns, is that he has an extensive and nuanced understanding of Islam. He served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia for three years under President Ronald Reagan.
He is also a defender of democracy, taking pride in his key role in helping change the Philippines in the 1980s. He supported the removal of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the triumph of democratic champion Corazon Aquino.
Shia Muslims, for their part, are typically described as extremists in the mold of Ayatollah Khomeini - dismissed with claims that all Shias everywhere support the Lebanese radicals of Hezbollah. The most recent dire prediction is that the Shia majority in Iraq will establish a rigid Islamic order.
But Shias are victims of mass murder in Pakistan, where followers of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi sect hunt and kill them relentlessly. When the Pakistani group Sipah-e-Sahaba (Order of the Prophet's Companions) murdered American reporter Daniel Pearl, he was their first victim who was not a Shia Muslim. Before him, the group had slain hundreds of innocents.
In addition, Shia Muslims, including a considerable community in the New York area, are better educated than many other Muslims. Their dedication to self-improvement often makes them a target.
In Saudi Arabia, where they are the majority in the oil-rich Eastern Province, they are also an economic elite. But within the Saudi kingdom, they still suffer extraordinary cruelties at the hands of the Wahhabis, who teach in Saudi schools that Shia Islam is the product of a Jewish conspiracy.
Life is tough for Shias, a minority of 200 million, or 15 percent of the world's Muslims. In America, where estimates of the total Muslim population vary from 2 million to 10 million, one in four is Shia. Most came here from Pakistan and Iraq to escape violence.
The Shia national convention in Washington, held by the Universal Muslim Association of America (UMAA) with 3,000 participants, represented a new trend in American Muslim life. Until now, the discourse on Islam in America was dominated, from the Muslim side, by the "Wahhabi lobby" - groups toeing the extremist line of the Saudi regime.
The "Wahhabi lobby" includes such entities as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). These groups have skewed discussion of Islam and Muslims in this country, by presenting America as an aggressive power internationally and as an enemy of Muslims.
Shia Muslims living in America see the world in very different terms. Agha Shaukat Jafri, a Shia community leader in New York and organizer of the UMAA convention, said, "We see America as our homeland and ourselves as American Muslims. We consider ourselves an integral part of its body politic. We condemn all forms of terrorism, and we consider these so-called Muslim fighters, who carry out terror, as enemies of our faith."
He described the reception for Wolfowitz as "very warm." He added: "We should thank the Bush administration for liberating the Shias of Iraq. I think Dr. Wolfowitz understands our viewpoint and our deep opposition to extremism. We were thrilled to have him attend and to hear his words."
Others, including non-Muslims, who attended the event were struck by the enthusiasm shown to Paul Wolfowitz. But Jafri put the emphasis in the right place: "The convention inaugurated a new period in the history of American Muslims, of heightened awareness of our responsibilities to the country we live in and hope for the future flourishing of Islam and democracy. At our convention next year, we would like to have President Bush as a guest."
And why did a story like this go unreported in the rest of our media?