by Stephen Schwartz
A MAJORITY of the American political and media elite appears enraptured with the notion of engagement and dialogue with Islamists. But rather than supporting moderate Muslims as they struggle with radical Islam, "engagement and dialogue" typically takes the form of fretting about the concerns of aggrieved Muslim activists.
A prime example came on Tuesday, June 26, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Smack in the middle of Washington, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) presented the views of a panel it had assembled on "Muslim Americans in the U.S. Foreign Policy Discourse."
The discussants included three general categories--here listed by type rather than their place on the agenda: First were the peddlers of banalities, including the Woodrow Wilson Center's president Lee Hamilton and Lynn M. Martin, the secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush. Then came the nay-sayers: Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, and Daniel Benjamin, a fixture at the Brookings Institution. And then the final contingent: American Muslim "leaders": Farooq Kathwari, the proprietor of Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc., and Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
The pretext for the panel was a "new" study produced by a CCGA task force of some 30 prominent Muslims--and not-so-prominent non-Muslims--titled "Strengthening America: The Civic and Political Integration of Muslim Americans." But there was nothing new about it. According to the task force, "Muslim Americans" are successful in terms of income and personal liberties in America, but resent being objects of suspicion since September 11. Although nobody on the WWIC panel was about to address the theme, the constant use of "Muslim American" as a community heading may have something to do with such issues. Why "Muslim Americans" instead of "American Muslims"? Perhaps inadvertently, the tone of the discussion and documents presented at the WWIC event revealed the logic behind the usage: "American Muslims" are Americans who believe in Islam; but "Muslim Americans" is a label for a minority group, who should presumably be approached with sensitivity and whose complaints, real or imaginary, are matters of great consequence.
BUT THE DEEPER PROBLEM with such panels remains the people who are chosen as Muslim representatives. Farooq Kathwari described himself at the WWIC event as "coming from Brooklyn." But he is better known among Muslims as a Kashmiri whose American-born son, Irfan, was reported killed while fighting Indian soldiers.
As for Salam Al-Marayati, on the afternoon of September 11 he declared on a Los Angeles talk radio show that Israel should have been considered a suspect in the attacks, because they would have wanted to "divert attention from what's happening in the Palestinian territories, so that [Israelis] can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies." In the intervening years, Al-Marayati has said on MSNBC that Israel introduced terrorism to the Middle East and that Israel supporters "want a monopoly on discourse and don't want our voices heard, especially as it relates to the whole Middle East."
At the WWIC event Al-Marayati claimed that it is grossly unfair for American Muslims to be asked "[A]re you an Islamist or not? Are you a jihadist or not?" Such questions, he argued, deny American Muslims the right to "self-definition."
One of the other panelists, Edward Walker, the former ambassador, was even more shrill, going right to the heart of the fears he believes Muslims face in America: the Hollywood entertainment industry. He enthused over a recent Washington Post feature about Arab-American author Jack Shaheen and his book (and documentary film) Reel Bad Arabs.
Shaheen's argument, endorsed by Walker, was that Hollywood films only show Arabs as belly dancers, billionaires, and bombers--and that this is what teaches the American public to hate them so.
The conference devolved further when Sayyid M. Syeed, general secretary of the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was honored while seated in the audience and the CCGA study distributed.
The booklet "Strengthening America: The Civic and Political Integration of Muslim Americans," featured a roster of "Muslim American Institutions" which somehow managed to list no Shia groups (such as the American Muslim Congress or the Universal Muslim Association of America), almost no spiritual Sufi bodies, and no Balkan, Turkish, or other moderate Muslim ethnic organizations. The CCGA seems to have missed that Chicago is home to America's main Bosnian Muslim community, which is Sufi-oriented.
As usual, Muslim "dialogue" is all about Arabs, Pakistanis, and other radical complainers.