The Varieties of Muslim Experience
by Stephen Schwartz
UNTIL SEPTEMBER 11, the American media typically portrayed only two kinds of Arabs and Muslims: rich oil princes and unemployed ranters in the streets. Even after the atrocities in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, the common wisdom has it that we must listen to the "Arab street," because, we are told, "the street" determines consciousness in Muslim societies. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, in the highly stratified Arab and Muslim nations, the street counts for nothing, which is the main reason people often crowd it yelling hateful slogans.
Instead, the oil princes and the angry demonstrators are the two extremes in societies that are a great deal more educated, diverse, and complex than we have led ourselves to believe. We have overlooked the simplest and most obvious truth about the Islamic world: Its essential values are neither nihilistic nor exotic. Rather, they are the values associated with working, saving, and building families. The kinds of people who will determine the future of Islamic civilization are seldom seen on our TV screens. Just a few examples:
-Indian, Bengali, and non-fundamentalist Pakistani professionals, prominent worldwide in information technology, medicine, and scientific research.
Most Muslims on the Indian subcontinent long ago rejected the radical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. Muslims ruled over millions of Hindus for centuries, living alongside them, and even, in the case of some scholars, finding seeds of monotheism in Hindu paganism. Muslims from the subcontinent form a silent majority in American Islam, their voices drowned out by the clamor of the aggrieved.
-Traditional but tolerant Sufi Muslims.
The 13th-century Sufi mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan but lived in what is now Turkey, is popular with New Age readers today. Yet few Americans realize that Sufis have long fought Islamic fundamentalism by teaching principles of reconciliation among all religious believers.
-Chechen, Dagestani, and other Muslims from the former-Soviet Caucasus bitterly opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.
Most Chechens remain extremely angry about the attempt of a disaffected warlord, Shamil Basayev, and a Saudi-backed Wahhabi Arab named Khattab to divide the Chechens and wreck their resistance to the Russians. Armed Wahhabis' incursion from Chechnya into Dagestan inspired similar outrage.
-West African and North African Islamic intellectuals.
Many Western intellectuals read Moroccan and Egyptian authors like Mohammad Shukri and Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and listen to the music of North Africa and the Middle East. But the struggle of mainstream Muslims in Algeria and Egypt against bloody fundamentalist terrorism in their countries has never received the attention it merits in our media.
But if our foreign correspondents give short shrift to groups like these while pandering to the Arab street, so also in portraying Islam in America they give undue prominence to groups that amount to an extension of the Arab street on U.S. soil. Such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council, and the American Muslim Alliance import into our public square the rhetoric and deceit characteristic of Islamic fundamentalism.
Of these groups, CAIR has been the most adroit, and therefore the most dangerous. Based in Washington, D.C., it was created in the mid 1990s to define the position of American Muslims in politics and international relations. Although its Islam is fundamentalist and anti-Western, it pretends to represent all Muslims in their "relations with America," as if practicing a sort of religious diplomacy comparable to that of the Vatican. Before September 11, CAIR was amazingly good at intimidating American journalists into shunning such terms as "Islamic fundamentalism."
CAIR and other such groups have a keen appreciation of Americans' desire to be nice and American journalists' desire to be politically correct. Thus, they have framed their assault on American public opinion in terms of sensitivity: that it is hurtful to "the Muslims" for American media to describe any among them as fundamentalists or terrorists.
But these groups are not the only spokesmen for Islam in America. One who stands out as being of a different ilk is Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, leader of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in the United States and chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, an advocacy group for mainstream Islam. Kabbani has spent years fighting the advocates of fundamentalism.
In recent weeks, Kabbani has been interviewed in our major media, where he has repeated his forthright condemnation of all forms of extremism. Unlike CAIR and other devious groups, which condemn terrorism in the abstract, Sheikh Kabbani names names. He points out that Osama bin Laden and those like him draw on the totalitarian Wahhabi strain in Islam to justify not only terrorist attacks on ordinary people throughout the world but also violence against Muslims who disagree with them.
Unfortunately, representatives of CAIR and other groups fronting for fundamentalism and slippery about terrorism continue to have entr e to the White House, while Sheikh Kabbani has yet to meet with President Bush. Shouldn't that oversight soon be corrected? And shouldn't American diplomats and journalists broaden their view of Islam, and the American public learn more about the Muslim world?