A factor in the uproar over the Ground Zero mosque is that many Americans have been reluctant to look with clear eyes at the Islamist movement in the U.S. And moderate Muslims pay the price.
The failure of well meaning people to acknowledge that many of the prominent Muslim advocacy groups in the U.S. are organized offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood – the global political and fundamentalist Islamic movement that seeks to reestablish a Muslim caliphate – hands conservatives a wedge issue that they use in toxic and divisive ways.
And it puts law enforcement in a terrible bind. Line agents and prosecutors with knowledge of these groups understand their agenda and origins. But their more politically minded bosses, who haven’t spend years immersed in the case files, legitimize groups that have been implicated in terrorist financing investigations by partnering on community outreach.
It’s all evidence of our muddled thinking.
If liberals would acknowledge the origins and nature of groups like the Islamic Society of North America, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, it would help diffuse the climate of intolerance that they deplore.
Conservatives wouldn’t be able to complain of a grand conspiracy of ignorance. And all Americans would become more sophisticated about distinguishing between Muslims who truly share values of religious freedom, and those who in some ways don’t – not to discriminate against anybody, but to more clearly define the debate.
By most accounts, the imam behind the mosque project, Feisal Abdul al-Rauf is a moderate Muslim without ties to these Brotherhood-related organizations. It’s true he hasn’t helped his stated cause of promoting intercultural understanding by going completely AWOL during this roaring debate over the Muslim cultural center he hopes to build near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.
It would have been better if Rauf’s representatives here hadn’t recently told Claudia Rosett of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies that Rauf was unavailable – only to have Rosett phone him up in his satellite office in Malaysia, where he quickly ducked her questions about where he intends to get the $100 million to fund the mosque project. But let’s give Rauf the benefit of the doubt: Maybe he’s frightened by all this controversy and doesn’t know how to respond.
But the reason the conservatives get traction on this emotional issue is that liberals won’t acknowledge some of the facts behind their general argument. Fact: Saudi-backed interests have purchased the titles to many of the mosques in the United States over the last 20 years under an organization called the North American Islamic Trust.
NAIT is an affiliate of the Islamic Society of North America, whose president, Ingrid Mattson, was invited to speak at President Barack Obama’s inaugural prayer breakfast and who has met with many top government officials over the years. It is well documented that ISNA was founded by members of the Brotherhood, though it denies it has any ties to the global Islamic political movement.
Over the years, NAIT-owned mosques have kicked out moderate imams and installed Saudi-trained conservative imams who preach anti-Western rhetoric and limit the rights of women. Moderates have been cowed. For a great account of one of the conflicts in microcosm, see Asra Nomani’s documentary of her struggles to take back her Morgantown, W.Va., mosque from the fundamentalists. Or read my own 2003 story about a mosque battle in Tampa here.
Another fact: The Council on American-Islamic Relations, oft quoted in the media for views on Muslim issues, was born of a Hamas support network in the early 1990s, evidence introduced at the terrorism-support trial of members of an Islamic charity called the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development showed.
Hamas itself is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its stated goal of the destruction of Israel and its campaign of suicide bombings in the 1990s and early 2000s against Israel is one reason there is no peaceful two-state solution for the Palestinians.
The most clear-eyed recent look at these groups – which by virtue of their prominence, funding and organization have become the “face” of Islam in America – came in the July 31 issue of the National Journal (subscription required).
The article by Neil Munro was entitled “Reformers v. Revivalists.” It documents the frustrations of secular, modernized Muslims in the U.S. who are trying to counter the power and reach of the Islamist organizations.
“Revivalist” is a specific term for politically active conservative Muslims that is roughly equivalent to what on the Christian side we’d call the Religious Right. The Islamic “revival” began in the 1970s, and is a marked by conservative religious piety, a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran, sharia law and traditional Muslim values such as separation of the sexes. It is not the same as terrorism, but it is part of a general trend away from Western assimilation.
It would help clear up the confusion in the U.S. about diversity among Muslims if mainstream publications like the New York Times would start referring to groups like ISNA as “Islamic revivalists,” as the National Journal does.
On the other side of this debate are secular modernized Muslims like Zudhi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and Irshad Manji, director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. These are the people the U.S. media should be turning to for context. But their organizations are underfunded and not very prominent, and they are rarely quoted.
Wrote the National Journal:
“The Islamic revivalists, or Islamists, have a very different vision for the reform of Islam – and of Islam’s role in the United States – than do Jasser, Manji and other modernizers. They hold a fundamentalist view of Islam that champions original texts and opposes assimilation into Western Society.”
ISNA president Mattson did acknowledge to the National Journal that some traditional practices need to be changed, such as those that discriminate against women. “The priority has to be well trained imams who have the traditional [religious] skills to satisfy the communities … but don’t take us back to the Middle Ages,” she said.
Nonetheless, writes the National Journal, “the modernizers point out … that the revivalists’ emphasis on the original texts [of the Koran] limits their ability to modernize Islam and its cultural practices in the West.”
And “reformers say they’re frustrated by the Islamist revivalists’ clout,” the National Journal wrote.
Ani Zonneveld of Muslims for Progressive Values told the magazine: “The revivalists definitely dominate the conversation in the media, and it’s the media’s fault because [reporters go] to the most visible organizations.”
The media has a stereotype of Muslims that causes them to dismiss modernizers as “inauthentic,” the National Journal said, paraphrasing Sonnenfeld.
Contrast the National Journal story with this New York Times article on opposition to mosques across the country, not just at Ground Zero:
In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law. These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.
There is not one quote in the Times article from any of the Muslim modernizers who might add context and address the complex issues.
Instead, the Times quotes an ISNA-affiliated Islamic studies professor, Ihsan Bagby, characterizing the mosque opponents stance as “that Islam is invading, that civilization is being undermined by Muslims.”
The article dismisses the mosque opponents as intolerant bumpkins – which they might be. But wouldn’t it contribute to a more constructive dialogue to have quoted one of the modernizing Muslims who disagrees with the fundamentalists?
The Times has spilled oceans of ink over the last 20 years covering the conservative political Christian movement and its opposition to abortion rights, gay rights, the teaching of evolution, and the battles over school prayer.
It would help everyone – including law enforcement — if more journalists took the same clear-eyed view of the Islamic revivalists in the U.S. as the National Journal did.