Power or Ideology What the Islamists Choose Will Determine Their Future

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Ariel Cohen



Question 1: Various commentators have frequently invoked the importance of moderate Muslims and the role that they can play in fighting extremism in the Muslim world. But it is not clear who is a moderate Muslim. The recent cancellation of Tariq Ramadan’s visa to the United States, the raids on several American Muslim organizations, and the near marginalization of mainstream American Muslims in North America pose the following question: If moderate Muslims are critical to an American victory in the war on terror, then why does the American government frequently take steps that undermine moderate Muslims? Perhaps there is a lack of clarity about who the moderate Muslims are. In your view, who are these moderate Muslims and what are their beliefs and politics?

AC: I would like to say from the outset that I am neither a Muslim nor a sociologist. Therefore, my remarks should be taken as those of an interested and sympathetic outsider. I do not believe at all that the American government “undermines” moderate Muslims. The problem is more complicated. Many American officials abhor engagement in religion or the politics of religion. They believe that the American Constitution separates religion and state and does not allow them to make distinctions when it comes to different interpretations of Islam. For some of them, Salafiya Islam is as good as Sufi Islam. Others do not have a sufficient knowledge base to sort out the moderates from the radicals, identify the retrograde fundamentalists, or recognize modernizers who want political Islam to dominate. This is wrong. Radical ideologies have to do more with politics and warfare than religion, and, in some extreme cases, should not enjoy the constitutional protections of freedom of religion or free speech. There is a difference between propagating a faith and disseminating hatred, violence, or murder. The latter is an abuse and exploitation of faith for political ends, and should be treated as such. For example, the racist Aryan Nation churches were prosecuted and bankrupted by American NGOs and the American government. One of the problems is that the American government allows radical Muslims who support terrorism to operate with impunity in the United States and around the world, and does very little to support moderate Muslims, especially in the conflict zones. To me, moderate Muslims are those who do not view the “greater jihad” either as a pillar of faith or as a predominant dimension thereof. A moderate is one who is searching for a dialogue and a compromise with people who adhere to other interpretations of the Qur’an, and with those who are not Muslim. Amoderate Sunni, for example, will not support terror attacks on Shi`ahs or Sufis, or on Christians, Jews, or Hindus. Moderate Muslims respect the right of individuals to disagree, to worship Allah the way they chose, or not to worship – and even not to believe. Amoderate Muslim is one who is willing to bring his or her brother or sister to faith by love and logic, not by mortal threats or force of arms. Amoderate Muslim decries suicide bombings and terrorist “operations,” and abhors those clerics who indoctrinate toward, bless, and support such atrocities. The list of moderate Muslims is too long to give all or even a part of it here. Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani (chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America) and Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi (secretarygeneral of the Rome-based Italian Muslim Association) come to mind. Ayatollah Ali Sistani may be a moderate, but I need to read more of his teachings. As the Wahhabi attacks against the Shi`ah escalate, Shi`i clerics and leaders are beginning to speak up. Examples include Sheikh Agha Jafri, a Westchester-based Pakistani Shi`ah who heads an organization called the Society for Humanity and Islam in America, and Tashbih Sayyed, a California-based Pakistani who serves as president of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance. I admire the bravery of Amina Wadud, a female professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who led a mixed-gender Friday Islamic prayer service, according to Mona Eltahawy’s op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Friday, March 18, 2005 (“A Prayer Toward Equality”). Another brave woman is the co-founder of the Progressive Muslim Union of America, Sarah Eltantawi. And the whole world is proud of the achievements of Judge Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2003. There is a problem with the first question, however. It contains several assumptions that are debatable, to say the least, if not outright false. First, it assumes that Tariq Ramadan is a “moderate.” Nevertheless, there is a near-consensus that Ramadan, while calling for ijtihad, is a supporter of the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimin [the Muslim Brotherhood] and comes from that tradition [he is the grandson of its founder, Hasan al-Banna]. He also expressed support for Yusuf al-Qaradawi (and all he stands for) on a BBC TVprogram, and is viewed as an anti-Semite. He also rationalizes the murder of children, though apparently that does not preclude the European Social Forum from inviting him to be a member. He and Hasan al-Turabi, the founder of the Islamic state in Sudan, have exchanged compliments. There are numerous reports in the media, quoting intelligence sources and ex-terrorists, that Ramadan associates with the most radical circles, including terrorists. In its decision to ban Ramadan, the United States Department of Homeland Security was guided by a number of issues, some of them reported in the media and others classified. This is sufficient for me to believe that Ramadan may be a security risk who, in the post-9/11 environment, could reasonably be banned from entering the United States.1 Second, the raids on “American Muslim organizations” are, in fact, a part of law enforcement operations. Some of these steps have had to do with investigations of terrorist activities, such as the alleged Libyan conspiracy to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Others focused on American Islamist organizations that were funding the terrorist activities of groups on the State Department’s terrorism watch list, such as Hamas. To say that these criminal investigations are targeting moderate Islam is like saying that investigating pedophile priests undermines freedom of religion in the United States. Finally, American Muslims are hardly marginalized. They enjoy unencumbered religious life and support numerous non-governmental organizations that often take positions highly critical of domestic and foreign policy – something that is often not the case in their countries of origin. There is no job discrimination – some senior Bush Administration officials, such as Elias A. Zerhouni, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are Muslims. American presidents have congratulated Muslims on religious holidays and often invite Muslim clergymen to important state functions, such as the funeral of former president Ronald Reagan.

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