The Battle for the Mosque Broadens and Deepens
by Stephen Schwartz
At the launching of the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) two years ago, TCSDaily was one of the media institutions most supportive to our work, and I have therefore chosen this venue to present a balance sheet of CIP's activities in promoting moderate Islam.
We have enjoyed significant success. But some notable obstacles remain before us. These include the vulnerability of mainstream media and even Western governments to the claims of Islamic radicals to stand as the sole representatives of the faith, and the corruption of academics that legitimize this charade.
But we also must deal with serious challenges inside the Western Muslim community. First, U.S. and UK Sunni Muslims are completely dominated by extremists - Saudi-backed Wahhabis in the first case and Pakistani-controlled jihadists in the second. Canada, which I recently visited for a series of lectures, represents an important exception to this pattern, as discussed here.
Second, Sunnis in general are taught conformity to their leadership, and stirring them to reject the radicals who exploit them is a major task.
Third, while a great number of Shia Muslims in the U.S. and Canada, with their clerics and mosques, are less orthodox in their attitudes, and sympathize with CIP against Saudi-backed Sunni terror, they are often tainted by an attraction to Iran and Hezbollah, which makes it impossible for us to sustain a cooperative effort with them. We maintain formal relations with Iraqi Shia leaders out of concern for the situation in their country, where U.S.-led coalition troops are present in the front lines for freedom. If we enlisted all the Shias on this side of the Atlantic who express warmth toward us, CIP might quickly become one of the largest Muslim organizations in North America. But before such a development can take place, Hezbollah must be curbed in Lebanon and Ahmadinejad removed from power in Teheran - the latter as a first step toward complete dismantling of the Iranian clerical regime.
Nevertheless, we have made progress. In the U.S. the CIP profile as a resource on moderate Islam has risen; we have cosponsored major events with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, participated in numerous international conferences and consultations, and gained relatively wide media attention. We have created a branch in England, with the noted Muslim scholar and expert on Islamic cultural heritage, Dr. Irfan al-Alawi, as our new international director for development, and are launching a second website there, with sections in Arabic and Farsi.
We are also strengthening our presence in Canada. Our Canadian representation has been crucial from the beginning. Our Canadian director, Salim Mansur, is a professor at the University of Western Ontario and newspaper columnist. Further, professor Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University, our Pacific Coast director and main expert on theological issues, is a Canadian citizen. Finally, our first Fellow, Imaad Malik, is also of Canadian origin and was a student of professor Mansur. Others have commented that Canada is a center of Western Muslim dissenters favoring Western democracy and social reform in the Muslim world.
CIP operates vertically and horizontally - that is, while we seek to organize Muslims at all levels to resist extremism, we have also sought extensive contacts and collaboration across borders. We have enjoyed firm support from the Bosnian Muslim clergy and Sufi shaykhs in the Albanian lands. We have begun mentoring Alevi Muslims of Turkish and Kurdish origin in Germany - a community of hundreds of thousands of genuinely enlightened believers who combine Sufi spirituality with a vision of social justice and secular governance. We have significant contacts among Muslims in Turkey itself, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. And most importantly, as anybody who examines our sites will find, we have a substantial group of supporters inside Saudi Arabia.
When CIP was inaugurated, we pledged a fight to take back the Sunni mosques, which bring together the great majority of Western Muslims, from the radicals. But after several years' activism and debate some of us have come to the conclusion that it is more pressing and fruitful, at this point, to concentrate on recruiting moderate members of the worldwide Muslim clerical and intellectual elite. It may well be that in one of many parallels with the end of Soviet Communism, the undoing of radical Islam may come from the top rather than from below. While Polish Solidarity and other mass protest movements played a major role in undermining the Soviet empire, the final blow was delivered from Moscow itself. Once Russian funding for international Communism was cut off, the global Communist network deflated like a balloon. If Saudi King Abdullah, who has commenced a reform course, is successful in breaking the links between the monarchy and Wahhabism, and the Iranian clerical system is abolished - outcomes that are both possible by peaceful means - the threat of radical Islam may diminish quickly.
For these reasons, our enhanced international outreach represents a new stage in CIP's agenda of responsibilities. We hope to supplement our U.S. and UK websites with sites in Kuwait and Kuala Lumpur, and to cosponsor conferences with universities in Europe and Asia. Our struggle is arduous. We must convince Muslim leaders as well as ordinary believers to prove that Islam is indeed a religion of peace; we must help allay the fears of non-Muslims who see Islam as a permanent threat; we must work to restore theological balance in Islam while helping train a new generation of Muslim thinkers, writers, and other intellectuals.
I would conclude with an intentional paradox I often propose to American Muslims: that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., although a Christian preacher, was closer to the heart of Islam than Malcolm X, who actually became Muslim. Malcolm X's career was enacted in Harlem, where he was safe except from enemies in the ranks of his former brethren, but Dr. King worked in the Deep South, under conditions of brutal racist terrorism that were close to real fascism. Malcolm X mobilized followers who had long verbalized their discontent, and who had gained public legitimacy for their alienation among the white liberals and radicals of New York, while Dr. King appealed to the most downtrodden, intimidated, isolated, and voiceless people in America. And finally, Dr. King followed the precepts of Islam in putting the interests of vulnerable families and other members of his community first, in all his work. He would not countenance radical rhetoric or a surrender to rage.
We believe, as a principle of mainstream Islam, that the essence of our faith is to control one's anger. While none of us would dare to compare ourselves with Dr. King, our mission resembles his in one major aspect. Like him, we are called to organize people long crushed, ignored, denied their rights within their mosques, and forced into acquiescence to injustice. This condition, imposed on them by the radical Islamist establishment, is much like that of ordinary Blacks in the American South before the victory of the civil rights movement. That, and nothing else, explains the "Muslim silence" about extremism that so many non-Muslims self-righteously denounce.
The Center for Islamic Pluralism struggles for the rights of Muslims within Islam. Our conscience is clear and our commitment is strong. We believe firmly that moderate Islam, global democracy, and interfaith cooperation will prevail against extremism, corruption, and hate. Above all, we are grateful to our donors and our friends in media, who have provided us with an irreplaceable credibility and made our first two years' work satisfying and promising for the future.