Voice of Moderates in Islam
Critics of radical Islam, and indeed of Islam as a whole, often claim that moderate Muslims do not speak out against extremism. But when Islamic progressives protest against the radicalism of the hardcore Saudi Wahhabis, the Deobandis and Taliban, other South Asian jihadis, and the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish Justice and Development party (AKP), we are typically belittled. Non-Muslim media, academics, politicians, and other so-called experts will dismiss us as allegedly lacking the base of support enjoyed by the "Wahhabi lobbies" in the US, UK, and, yes, even in India. We who are believers are not experts, we are told, compared with university-appointed apologists for Islamist ideology; the experiences we have had in confronting fundamentalism in Muslim societies and in the West, in mosques and medresas, do not verify or vindicate our opinions.
This was brought home to me, in the latest instance, during an uproar in US and UK media over an American congressional hearing on radical Islam, chaired by Pete King, a Republican from New York as well as chairman of the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee. I will not recall here the absurd chronicle of events preceding the first of what are now called "the King hearings," which was held on 10 March. Suffice to say that the media manipulators and political priests who seek to diminish the significance of radicalism in American Islam tried to make the King hearing appear menacing to the rights and security of all American Muslims.
I will, however, describe my own most recent experience with Rep. King, his effort, and media coverage of it. I wish to instruct those capable of learning, and to expose those in need of rebuke.
Few readers will be surprised to learn that Rep. King was subjected to an extended broadside of personal attacks intended to make him appear an anti-Muslim bigot. Finally, the campaign against King centered on one item: he had repeated the charge made in public by a Lebanese Sufi, Hisham Kabbani, in 1999, and repeated by me in 2001 and afterward, that 80 percent of American mosques are controlled by fundamentalists. This did not and does not mean that 80 percent of American Muslims are radicals. But many mosques, if not the majority of big mosques in America, were built with Saudi-Wahhabi and Pakistani-jihadi money and are administered by adherents of these deadly ideologies and their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Further, these mosques have been utilized for erection of an American Muslim "establishment" that disseminates Wahhabi and Pakistani-jihadi attitudes along with the claim that their creed is "simply Islam," and "the only Islam."
The chief components of this apparatus are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) – a front for the homicidal Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan (JI) – and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Among them, financial backing is often forthcoming from individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, although Saudi King Abdullah has tried to halt the involvement of the official institutions of the monarchy in the global Wahhabi offensive. Activist officers and foot soldiers are mainly South Asian. Doctrine and idiom are taken from the environment of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the works of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and the notorious hate-mongering preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Unfortunately, American Muslims have proven conformist in their reluctance to challenge these misleaders. Given the domination of American Muslim community life by such types, the ideological hegemony of radicalism is unsurprising.
Rep. King was hammered for repeating the claim of 80 percent extremist influence, and while he cited Kabbani, the latter has left the US and had fallen silent on the matter, having been severely attacked by the "Wahhabi lobby" for his 1999 indiscretion. Rep. King then noted that I had made the same charge in 2001, 2002, and 2003, in journalism, US Senate testimony, and my book The Two Faces of Islam – the first major examination of Saudi Wahhabism ever put before the Western public. Because, as I witnessed in the Balkans and elsewhere before 2001, Muslims thirst for an accurate accounting of Wahhabi misdeeds, my book has, I believe, had a greater impact on Muslims than among other Western readers, although it was successful in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe. The Two Faces of Islam was translated into the Indonesian language and published with a preface by the late president of that country, Abdurrahman Wahid. It was then translated into Bosnian and Croatian, with the latter edition issued by the ulema of the Croatian Muslims (a minority in that country). It was also published in Albanian and has been translated into Farsi, with new editions promised in Hindi and Urdu.
On Wednesday, 9 March, the day before the King hearing, I received an e-mail from Glenn Kessler, a reporter with a blog column called "The Fact Checker" at The Washington Post, telling me that Rep. King had told him the estimate of 80 percent radical control had come from my work as well as from Kabbani. I responded by noting that the same accusation had been made by distinguished Iraqi and other Shia ulema living in the US and offered to put Kessler in touch with them. But for that he had no concern. He decided apparently that he had disproven the charge: it rested only on the allegations of Kabbani and me, which the Post blogger described in an article on the morning of the hearing as "a single observation by one Muslim cleric [sic – Kabbani is a Sufi shaykh or pir-sahib, not an alim] 12 years ago, who has offered no evidence to make his claim. The one other possible source is the personal observations of Schwartz but as far as we can tell it has not been confirmed by any documented study," Kessler concluded.
It is tempting to digress into a debate over how theological distinctions within a religion may be reduced to the quantified facts beloved by authors of "documented studies." Is it realistic to expect that I, my organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), or anybody else would find it worthwhile to circulate social-science questionnaires among Muslim leaders in the US asking if they are radicals? Of course they will not so describe themselves to most non-Muslims, especially now. Admission of the extremist content of their interpretations may be found among African-American Muslims, South Asian jihadis, Khomeinists, and individuals like the Islamist theorist Tariq Ramadan. But one must know how to locate such evidence, and Kessler and those like him have no time for such extended research. That was demonstrated by Kessler's indifference to my offer to introduce him to Iraqi-American Shia clerics who are anti-Wahhabi, as well as anti-Taliban and anti-Jamaati.
But I will leave that detour brief, except to say that my offer – a challenge, really – to Glenn Kessler stands, and is extended to the rest of the Western media: if you want to hear Wahhabis and other radicals denounced by Muslims for their power over American Muslims, you may first ask Islamic Sufis, and what you are told will be confirmed by Shia leaders. On that, I stake my life.
There are more instructive details to this matter. I was, I think, the victim of "driveby journalism" by Glenn Kessler, but his case against me was weak, and he at least named me as "a prominent opponent of Wahhabi Islam – a strict sect of Islam described by some as extremist." To any moderate Muslim, the second part of that line will be of interest. Wahhabism is considered extremist by most Muslims, and this characterization is shared today by enough non-Muslim experts. The truth about Wahhabism can, finally, no longer be concealed. In that sense, I (and my colleagues in CIP) extracted a small victory from Glenn Kessler.
More remarkable was that The Washington Post had published online, on 8 March, a column by the Indian-born journalist and Muslim progressive Asra Q. Nomani, titled "In Defense of Peter King's Muslim hearings." Nomani, the well-known friend of the murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl, now teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She wrote, "When I heard that Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was going to hold hearings on the issue of radicalization inside our American Muslim community, I thought: It's about time… This is a discussion we desperately need to have as a nation because for far too long we have lived in a culture of denial, fueled in part by Muslim community leadership that – like just about any community tends to do until prodded – denies our problems rather than admits them… after 42 years as an American-Muslim, I can say without a doubt: an ideology of extremism has crossed across our borders, and radicalization is a real threat inside our communities in the U.S., often times unchallenged because members of our Muslim community are intimidated to speak out against it… In Congress, we have had honest debate about everyone's dirty laundry – from BP to the Big Three automakers. There has been discussion in the halls of Congress about 'Jewish extremists,' 'white supremacists,' the Ku Klux Klan and clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Muslims should not be exempt from critical examination, just because [their] lobby takes a defensive posture – just like all special-interest groups tend to do… there is a very real interpretation of Islam inside our communities that threatens to convert our youth and others to extremism. It is expressed through publishing houses, imams, YouTube videos, websites and arm-chair ideologues. We need to have an open conversation about how extremist Islam gets into the heads of Muslims such as would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hassan and so many others. We need to own up to the fact that some within Islam have a problematic interpretation, and we need to have the moral courage to be honest about it…"
Nomani continued, "Like most Muslims, I've seen rigid, puritanical interpretations creep into the American Muslim community, starting in the 1970s with the exportation of the dogmatic Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia, fueled by the oil money that gave the Saudis a largess from which to pump its ideas into the world. In my hometown community of Morgantown, W.V., I saw the Saudi ideology express itself… Starting in 2003, at my mosque in Morgantown, my family and I challenged the interpretations of Islam that assigned women the back door and led our imam to tell us we couldn't be friends with the Jews and the Christians. When my family and I challenged the community to tackle our problems with radicalization, what happened? The men at the mosque voted to put me on trial to be banned from the mosque, they fired my father from the board and other families disinvited our family from potluck dinners… For far too long, our nation has had a politically correct stance when it comes to the question of militancy, extremism and radicalization inside Islam. In the name of interfaith dialogue, we have pulled our punches on the very serious and real issues of extremist interpretations of Islam, issuing feel-good statements… We try to be polite and not offend. So many well-intentioned people who are critics about issues inside their own faiths are joining the bandwagon, trying to defend Islam and Muslims, as if the faith and the community are monolithic, but our best defense, I believe, is honesty about the good, bad and ugly. The purpose of religion is to inspire in us the best of human behavior. That includes truth-telling."
Here it is worth mentioning that Morgantown is a small, rural college town with a population of no more than 30,000. That Wahhabism had penetrated and taken over the Muslims in such an obscure part of America says a great deal about their power in the mosques. But Nomani's column leads to more questions for Kessler: does he read the newspaper for which he works? Did it occur to him to ask Nomani about "the 80 percent?" Does he disregard the opinion of Asra Nomani?
Kessler approached the conclusion of his column on "the 80 percent" by writing, "University of Kentucky professor Ihsan Bagby in 2004 published a study of Detroit mosques that concluded that approximately 93 percent of mosque participants endorse both community and political involvement and more than 87 percent of mosque leaders support participation in the political process. Most were registered to vote and 'because of these moderate views, mosque participants cannot be described as isolationists, rejecters of American society or extremists.' (Some conservatives have noted that the study also found strong support for universal health care, affirmative action and Islamic law in Muslim-majority nations, as well as deep concern about immorality in the United States.) King said he was unaware of the Detroit study.'"
But Kessler appeared unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that Ihsan Bagby is one of the most notorious promoters of radicalism in American Muslim life. In addition, Bagby's arguments are laughable to any American Muslim who is not an extremist. Detroit is a center of sympathy for Hezbollah and other Islamist terror groups. The weasel-words adopted by Kessler about "Islamic law in Muslim-majority nations, as well as deep concern about immorality in the United States" are euphemisms for radical opinions on shariah as common law and on American customs. Juggling with words will not change these realities. And extremism cannot be judged by whether Muslims vote. This ridiculous assertion has elsewhere been advanced to portray the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as moderate. But the same Pakistani JI that supports the Taliban and has a history of bloody terrorism in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh runs in elections and has used Pakistan's parliamentary institutions to introduce retrograde, fundamentalist regulations.
Glenn Kessler is not an untalented reporter. In 2007, as I commented then, he made "a novel admission: along with the traditional range of reportorial tools, he and others depend on 'decoding.' According to Post articles… during the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East, Arab leaders including Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal spoke in a 'code,' and when American journalists interviewed the minister, the 'reporters understood the code'… Thus, according to Mr. Kessler, when minister Saud said that the kingdom is a neighbor of Iran, and hopes to avoid conflict with Tehran, the reference to Iran as 'a neighbor,' without adding that the countries have good relations, 'said volumes about the Saudi attitude toward Iran.'"
I wrote at that time, "No, the failure to claim that the countries have good relations reflects mere fact: Saudi Arabia and Iran do not love one another. They are neighbors, and few countries are anxious for war with their neighbors, especially if one neighbor talks provocatively about acquiring a nuclear weapon. But Saudi-Iranian relations are formal, rather than warm. Mr. Kessler, however, declined to provide any excerpts from the 'volumes' produced by minister Saud's anodyne remarks. Apparently, while the reporters 'understand' the 'code,' they are unwilling to share its meaning with the rest of us. And of course, the 'volumes' of commentary hidden in the 'code' somehow did not reflect Minister Saud's explicit statement about avoiding conflict." I noted that I had previously predicted that journalists like Kessler would "be caught unawares by rapid changes in Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which are inhabited by people heartily sick of tyranny. I did not need to learn decryption methods to figure that out – I only recall how surprised Westerners were when the Soviet Union collapsed, notwithstanding decades of 'decoding' [i.e., as I would now add, esoteric analysis, in addition to the literal decipherment of secret communications from and to Moscow] by Sovietologists."
And this leads to my concluding declaration, for now, to Glenn Kessler: I, Asra Nomani, and other moderate Muslims do not claim possession of a decoding device that allows us to determine who is a fundamentalist and a radical among the Muslims. Islamist ideology and its commanding influence are visible in plain sight in American Muslim life. You do not have to be a Muslim to recognize it; Pete King has proven that. But you must have, at this point, the willingness to name it and face it. And I will assert that I can produce more evidence of this reality than Kessler can disclose the quantities of knowledge from the Middle East to which he claims privilege thanks to his understanding of "codes," but which he does not reveal to the readers of The Washington Post. Ambiguous phraseology and political correctness may seem to hide, for now, the realities of radical Islam in America. But the truth is already known and admitted, and will prevail. Agonies over its revelation come too late.