Attacking Islam: Implications for Social Cohesion and U.S. Relations with the Muslim World

Jul 18

David Keene, Chairman,
American Conservative Union
Parvez Ahmed, Chairman,
Council on American-Islamic Relations
WHEN: Tuesday, July 17, 2007, 9:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.
WHERE: Holeman Lounge, National Press Club, Washington, D.C.

Excerpts from Remarks by Parvez Ahmed

As a nation, we are at a crossroad. One path is laden with fear and paranoia. The other path is sober and pragmatic. Following the tragic attacks on 9-11, US policies have been largely driven by fear. The fact that “fear” was a primary motivator in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 is understandable. But six years later the fact that our policies continue to be driven by fear is problematic.

It is problematic because policies driven by fear will be naturally irrational. Thus, to sustain such irrationality, the Bush administration, often through their surrogates have resorted to fear mongering. This has unleashed a vicious cycle. One in which fear leads to bad polices and bad policies lead to more fear. Caught in this vicious cycle are Muslims – whose faith has been blamed for everything from genocide to terrorism with bad governance in between.

Rather than focus on a narrow minority of fanatics that are behind the terrorist attacks or the handful of unelected rulers whose actions remain antithetical to their faith, the popular discourse in America today remains mired in stereotypical pronouncements about Islam.

As a result Muslims and their faith Islam remains misunderstood, feared and shunned – 4 in 10 Americans admit being prejudiced about Muslims. A country as diverse as America and one that stands on the principles of liberty and justice for all can ill afford to remain entrenched in such prejudices and paranoia.

Despite the fact that the American Muslim community has to live with consequences of a pervasive Islamophobia, the community shows remarkable optimism. A recent poll by the Pew Center shows that American Muslims are mostly mainstream and decidedly American in their outlook, values, and attitudes. American Muslims have a positive view towards the larger society and overwhelmingly reject extremism in all its forms.

As a result expert pollster Dr. Steven Kull, from the University of Maryland testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs noted, “For decades, polls in the Muslim world … have shown a variety of resentments about US policies. Muslims share the worldwide view that the US does not live up to its own ideals of international law and democracy. There have also been specific complaints that the US favors Israel over the Palestinians … that the US exploits the Middle East for its oil and that it hypocritically supports non-democratic governments that accommodate its interests. These attitudes persist. But now there is also a new feeling about the US … a new perception of American intentions. There now seems to be a perception that the US has entered into a war against Islam itself.”

Because of this politicization of the so called war on terror, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recently asserted that the “war on terror” is causing us infinitely more harm than anything that the terrorists could have ever imagined.

A culture of fear has turned America away from being a confident nation to one that is susceptible to panic attacks. As a result, from foreign policy to domestic law enforcement, we see more hype than reason, and more paranoia than realistic concerns.

Military analyst William Arkin wrote in the Washington Post: “Every time we pretend we are fighting for our survival we not only confer greater power and importance to terrorists than they deserve but we also at the same time act as their main recruiting agent by suggesting that they have the slightest potential for success.”

Global patterns show that terrorism is not exclusive to any one group. The world’s leader in suicide terrorism has been the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that recruits from the predominantly Hindu Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Between 1968 and 2007, the largest purveyors of terrorism have been groups affiliated with communist/socialist or nationalist/separatist ideology.

Despite this, the faith of Islam continues to be conflated with terrorism. The intertwining of violent political rhetoric with religious imagery by groups like al Qaeda certainly precipitates the notion of some intrinsic link between Islam and terrorism. This perception is greatly assisted by a veritable cottage industry of neo-experts pontificating with great certainty about the cause-effect relationship between Islam and terrorism.

Both al-Qaeda and the neo-experts mischaracterize the reality that Islamic jurisprudence advocates the preservation of life, honor and dignity of all human life as a supreme endeavor.

Rather than address the seminal causes of terrorism, influential opinion makers continue their drum beat of conflating Islam with terrorism.

On his July 4th NYT op-ed, Thomas Friedman once again repeats one of his favorite anti-Muslim attacks, namely that Muslims have not vigorously condemned terrorism. Two years ago when Friedman incorrectly made a similar assertion that, “No major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden,” Prof. Juan Cole from the University of Michigan refuted him by documenting on his blog “Informed Comment” statements from several well-respected Islamic clerics and scholars condemning bin Laden, al-Qaeda and their murderous ideology.

In 2004, The Council on American Islamic Relations launched an online petition and public service announcements that stated in part, “We Muslims wish to state clearly that those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent.”

In July 2005, American Muslims scholars issued a fatwa or Islamic edict condemning terrorism and asking Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. Over three hundred American Muslim organizations endorsed it.

Mr. Friedman ends his column by making another false assertion, “virtually all suicide terrorists today are Muslims.” He conveniently ignores the fact that the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka till date remain one of the largest perpetrators of suicide bombings.

Such misinformation by influential opinion makers negatively affects the American Muslim community, especially given the fact that fewer than 10% Americans express having any knowledge of Islam. Such prevalent ignorance is prone to manipulation and ideologues are doing exactly that.

Fear mongering layered above ignorance, drives the irrational fear we call Islamophobia.

In recent years, Islamophobia has gained currency in part due to a thesis advanced by Samuel Huntington that presents the inevitability of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. This thesis makes a fatalistic misassumption that the West and Islam are monolithic and culturally exclusive.

This thesis has been given popular currency by several powerful groups in the U.S. These groups are usually closely aligned with the Bush administration and the neo-conservative ideology. They have three things in common – a disdain for Islam, a propensity to solving problems by force and a blind eye towards the plight of the people living under occupations.

Elements within the Jewish and the evangelical community have become strange bedfellows. They have bought into the Daniel Pipes type pernicious propaganda of a ‘zero-sum game,’ namely that the empowerment of the American Muslim community is a threat to Israel.

There is a common thread that runs through these tactics. The basic line of attack has been to frame Islam as an alien culture and Muslims as outsiders to the Western civilization.

In his book “Lost History,” Michael Morgan makes a powerful case that – far from being culturally exclusive – Islamic civilization “seeded the European Renaissance and enabled many aspects of the modern West and global civilization. It is a history that by the beginning of the 21st century had been forgotten, ignored, misunderstood, suppressed, or even rewritten.”

At some level, I share the pessimism in John Mueller’s book “Overblown” that, despite the low odds of terrorists succeeding, politicians will be inclined to sanctimoniously to play to those fears, bureaucrats will stoke the same fears, entrepreneurs will work very hard to milk it, and the press will continue to make sure that what bleeds leads.

Yet I am more persuaded by a sense of optimism and hope.

Because the power to change this situation is in the hands of those who choose not to accept the status quo. More and more Americans are waking up to the fact that the status quo is unacceptable.

The status quo shows that on one hand, we speak about “democracy” but turn our backs to those who win fair elections in the Muslim world.

We talk about liberty, but keep supporting dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world. Why is it that most, if not all, of America’s best allies in the Muslim world are dictators?

What is needed today is bold leadership not playing to the base politics.

A recent study sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs argues that a well-integrated and empowered Muslim population would far better serve the United States than a population that feels marginalized and harassed. Our nation needs the voices of American Muslims to navigate the critical policy challenges both here and abroad.

The study suggests practical solutions. They call for expanded partnerships (not more insidious wire tapping surveillance) between American Muslims and law enforcement, supporting the development of American Muslim leadership that can better network with youth, strengthening mainstream American Muslim institutions and making American Muslim voices part of coalitions that work on common concerns issues like immigration and health care.

If we were to do this, it will not only turn back the perception that America is at war with Islam but also inevitably marginalize the al-Qaeda ideologues thus providing a deathblow to terrorism being committed in the name of Islam.

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