Muslims and the need for reform or, at least, better PR

Two weeks ago, the Orange County Federalist Society, of which I am honored to serve as vice-president, hosted Andrew McCarthy to talk about the King Hearings on the question of radical Islam.  A few months ago, we hosted a panel discussion on the Park 51 mosque (a/k/a the “Ground Zero Mosque”) and the Oklahoma anti-Sharia law.  For some time now, I’ve been expressing concern over the fact that, despite Americans’ strong commitment to religious tolerance, many Americans continue to harbor doubts whether some fundamental incompatibility exists between Islam and Americanism.  This doubt manifests itself in such things as the reflexive concern over the entrenchment of Sharia law in America; skepticism over the motives of the Ground Zero Mosque; or outright fear that the nice neighborly Muslim who lives down the street might turn into another Nidal Hasan.  Nearly a decade after 9/11, Americans are still deeply conflicted over Islam.

I’ve previously offered my theory that the glacial pace of Muslim acceptance owes to the fact that Muslims are bad at PR.  Moderate Muslims have been too reluctant to distinguish themselves doctrinally from their more fanatical counterparts.  While we now have terms like “Islamism,” “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” “fundamentalist Islam,” and “moderate Islam,” these are all apparently American inventions that don’t necessarily relate to any actual doctrinal difference within Islam proper.  As a result, Americans don’t have any real touchstone for understanding why some Muslims can believe in jihad while others don’t, why some seek to implement Sharia and others don’t, what Taqiyya is all about, or whether we need to take for granted that, in a world with a large Muslim population, burning a Koran in one part of the world will inexorably result in murderous mobs in another.

Shrinking this cultural divide really isn’t as hard as it seems.  One simple thing moderate Muslims could do to this end, for example, would have been to denounce the Park51 mosque.  Most Americans condemn the mosque as the tasteless, insensitive, oafish, irksome idea that it is.  Others worry this might send the wrong message to Muslims too dim to understand the difference between condemning an Islamic center in the shadow of an Islamist terrorist attack site, and condemning Islam as a religion or Muslims as people.  It was a clutch moment for moderate Muslims to clear their throats and rescue the two bickering WASPy groups with a clear statement of a true moderate Muslim position.  Dennis Miller got it right:

Now you can put me in the terror camp, I can’t worry about the earth, I’m too worried about the world and the thing that worries me the most in the world is radical Islam obviously and increasingly might I add moderate Islam. Because I’m starting to wonder when you guys are gonna declare a fatwa on the assholes within your own organization. Like I said, most of us don’t care about your faith, we don’t have an axe to grind with your faith but we are starting to bridle at how you treat your women and how you fucked up Cat Stevens. As far as this mosque at ground zero, can they build it? Of course you can. You know you can. Should you? You know you shouldn’t. It’s bad manners for you to do that there because of the people who died there . . . .

Moderate Muslims keep missing opportunity after opportunity to establish themselves as a group with any clear, cogent, or compelling message.  Instead, what we get from the American Muslim narrative is a mealymouthed condemnation of terrorism that is always coupled with a lecture about Israeli settlements or Israeli terrorism or the Israel lobby or American-Israeli foreign policy.  I made the point in a recent post about Terry Jones and Koran-burning that while two bad acts may be related, attempts to insist on drawing that link can be problematic.  In the case of moderate Muslims’ narrative on terrorism, their insistence on coupling terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict has the effect of suggesting that moderate Muslims, to some degree, mitigate the evil of terrorism.  CAIR, in  typical fashion, offers only boilerplate denunciations of terrorism and guarded acknowledgment of the problem of Islamicization.  Thus, CAIR suggests Islamist terrorism is no different than any other kind of terrorism, that we should not regard it as any special kind of threat, and that the King hearings were nothing more than a bigoted “witch hunt.”   

What moderate Muslims really need are more spokespersons like Zuhdi Jasser.   Jasser, a devout Muslim who testified at the King hearings, offering a strikingly different perspective about what American Muslims should be doing to advance the narrative.   Aaron Elias writes concerning Jasser and his views:

“[U]until anti-Islamist Muslims wage the intellectual battle against Islamism within the Muslim consciousness, we will make no headway against ‘the narrative.’"

Jasser founded AIFD in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in order to provide a Muslim American voice that would genuinely advocate and defend the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution. He has taken the fight against radical Islam to heart and sees it as a responsibility of all "true" Muslims. Where many U.S.-based Islamic organizations, such as CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America, claim to support the U.S. Constitution but provide dodgy answers and shoddy excuses for terrorism when the rubber meets the road, Dr. Jasser’s AIFD is based on the founding principles of the United States. Where CAIR’s rhetoric tends to create a tension between Americans and its Muslim members, the rhetoric of Jasser and AIFD refers to Americans as an "us" and not a "them."

"I have always looked upon myself, long before 9-11, as a Jeffersonian Muslim, if you will," Dr. Jasser answers when asked about his identification as a Muslim. "Along with the ideas of liberty as embodied in the works of our founding fathers, naturally emanating from that is a deep antipathy for Islamism (political Islam), salafism, jihadism, governmental sharia, and the global collectivist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood."

. . . .

"America is really the only laboratory in the world that gives us the freedom to create a third alternative," Dr. Jasser states with certainty. "That is, an Islam based in modernity that separates mosque and state and celebrates universal religious freedom and liberty."

Bizarrely, liberal outlets like the Huffington Post dismiss Dr. Jasser as a “friend” of Glenn Beck and the right-wing media’s “Muslim voice of choice,” and describe his testimony at the King hearings as having “added nothing of value to the discussion.”  HuffPo also saw fit to quote the conclusions of one Mazen Ayoubi, without explanation of his credentials, who complains Dr. Jasser is “hijacking our religion.”  HuffPo quotes an apparently equally unqualified Boston Muslim, Aatif Harden, who accused Dr. Jasser of being “right on the edge” of being an “Uncle Tom.”  Daniel Larison also has no love for Jasser after Jasser sided against Imam Rauf on the Park 51 mosque near Ground Zero.  T.A. Frank at The New Republic, on the other hand, gives an even-handed treatment of Dr. Jasser and his message, including his role in narrating the controversial documentary The Third Jihad:

This is a tough game to play. To those on the left, Jasser wants to deliver a wake-up message that danger is afoot. To those on the right, Jasser wants to say that Islam is perfectly compatible with modernity and mainstream American life. In short, he wants to stress that Islamism is a more serious threat than we think and a less serious threat than we think. … The end result is that Jasser is unpopular with basically everyone.

Despite Frank’s suggestion to the contrary, there don’t appear to be many attacks on Jasser coming from the right.  The left’s hostility toward Jasser, then, would seem to be predominantly partisan. 

Finally, and as Jasser also suggests, moderate Muslims aren’t doing enough to demonstrate their religion doesn’t have to be monolithic.  Americans want to believe that the Islam practiced by American Muslims is something fundamentally other than the Islam practiced by radical Muslims.  However, moderate Muslims haven’t made any significant progress in setting out the formal or doctrinal differences that separates them from the Sharia-embracing chauvinistic Muslims of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, for instance. While moderate Muslims seek to placate westerners by offering ready denunciations to terrorism generally, they fail to address the precise question on the minds of westerners: Is terrorism inextricably intertwined with Islam? 

Moderate Muslims and extremist Muslims both claim to follow true Islam, and insist the other camp has misunderstood or manipulated certain doctrines.  If your religion was called the Branch Davidians, the first thing I’d recommend is you change it, and thereafter never say or do anything that reminds anyone of David Koresh.  Kind of like how Mormons won’t even joke with you about polygamy.  I’d recommend something similar for Islam:  slap a “reformed” in front of it and work on putting as much distance between you and the terrorist, jihadist, theocratic, misogynistic, revanchist, violent extremists as humanly possible.  Americans are capable of accepting Muslims just as well as they’ve accepted any other religion.  The issue is branding.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. You want Muslims to be like Zuhdi Jasser? are you kidding me?

  2. Sorry, but to reform Islam would entail junking Muhammad and at least half the Quran, a superhuman task since the Quran commands all who disobey even one word of it to be executed on the authority of the infinite god Allah, who controls all otherworldly punishments and rewards, and that makes him pretty hard to argue with. So you either have to junk Allah too or forget it. But if you did that, you’d no longer be a Muslim. Voila: the answer!

    Read the Historyscoper’s Islam Watch Blog daily for the best concentrated links to world news and op-ed articles on Islam and its clash with the civilized world.

    • You can’t reform something when you don’t know exactly what it is. Islam is a non-monolithic religion. You can’t argue for doctrinal changes (or “reform”) when there already are various doctrinal differences between Muslims of the same sect!

      > Islam and its clash with the civilized world.

      Islam and the Muslims are very much part of that civilized world you speak of, especially since all of the West would still be in the Dark Ages had it not been for Muslims.

      Rather than laughably branding yourself as a “civilized” person because you run a blog, it would be better to go learn a religion and culture from its people, rather than from right-wing blogs and xenophobic authors. And if you’re so worried about the uncivilized, go civilize some pygmies in Africa.

  3. This is just a horrible article. The onus isn’t on the minority group to “rebrand” themselves, but for the majority to work on its prejudices. Would you have told the Jewish population when they first arrived in America to “rebrand” themselves as Messianic Jews just so they would be acceptable to Christians?

    The main obstacle that Muslims face is the ignorance among the majority of Americans who don’t understand Islam. Islam is not a religion with a pope or a central figure, who can just decide whether to be “moderate” or not. Islam is a deeply personal faith. The only reason people congregate at mosque is to pray together, not because they share similar doctrinal views. You can have complete variations of doctrinal differences (with the exception of sectional differences between Sunni, Shia, etc.) within the same mosque. This is because Muslims don’t make it their priority to tell other Muslims what is correct doctrinally. If you want to believe something, you may do so.

    The difference between Muslims and al Qaeda and their like is that the extremists believe in the use of violence to achieve their political goals. Yes, their goals are political. They have said so themselves when you read their own writings. They say that they attacked America for purely political reasons and seek to justify their attacks on religious grounds because they know that a great majority of Muslims find their views unconscionable. The extremists want to defend their political motivations with religious reasons so that they won’t be considered to be acting against the religion. It hasn’t worked. Majority (and I mean 99%) of Muslims do not agree with their views about Islam.

    Yet, we still have Americans believing otherwise. Zuhdi Jasser is not an example of a moderate Muslim. He’s an example of a right-wing Muslim. Muslims don’t agree with much of what he has to say because they view him as someone who has been very successful in capitalizing on the mass hysteria about Islam and Muslims in America.

    In the end, you can’t persuade the irrational. Right-wing Americans are not interested in listening to moderate Muslims. They are more interested in converting them because of their preconceived notions about Islam. You can’t discuss anything with such people.

  4. Yes! Muslims need better PR. That’s very true and no one can debate that. After all, the statistics speak for themselves, as Tim referenced the Pew Research study that nearly 40% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam! Talk about an uphill battle!

    Now imagine if any of you were in my shoes as an American Muslim, trying to make a living and raise a family and be a good citizen and positive member of society (just like any other American). Imagine if you had all your normal life routines, but then you and your fellow members of a faith, just because you believe in God in a certain way, have this huge burden upon you, to defend yourselves and differentiate yourselves from lunatics who claim to believe in God also in the same way as you do. And if you fail to differentiate yourself in a way that’s “good enough”, your freedoms are on the line, and you are treated as less of an American.

    The burden is on us every time something happens, to come up with explanations or differentiations, which we work hard to do, but of course, these are never good enough. Sometimes I wonder, why isn’t it “good enough” for us to stay on the positive side and explain WHO WE ARE and WHAT WE STAND FOR, rather than always being put on the defensive to explain the crimes of terrorists? I have more in common with any one of my numerous Christian or Jewish fellow Americans that I live near or work with every day, than I do with a so-called Muslim who calls for violence.

    But in the end, the onus IS on the American Muslims, to speak out and perhaps (if nothing else) at least say and prove to others what I have just stated above: that we don’t need to answer for the crimes or motivations of terrorists. I disagree with Tim that the mainstream Muslim organizations like CAIR and ISNA give only dodgy answers; this is untrue ( They speak and have spoken very clearly against terrorism in the most harshest of terms, issued Fatwas against terrorism, and even against radicalization and all the other ugly things. But what I do agree with, is that they are not effective “enough” obviously because the proof lies in the statistics and the numbers don’t lie. So the effort is there but the result is lacking.

    So maybe the Muslims need to hire a good PR firm. Maybe some good music videos or hollywood films could do the trick. Maybe a tv sitcom.

    But then again, just because the onus is on the Muslims to clean up their image, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with the way the instutions in this country treat this issue, especially the ultra right-wing. To my right wing Americans, I say: You blame Muslims for not speaking out enough but you will keep holding your panel discussions on topics dealing with Islam and Muslims, but (go figure) without any Muslim voice present. When Muslims speak out and engage as patriotic Americans, such as Suhail Khan the outspoken Muslim republican activist in Washington, they are increasingly marginalized and maligned. You accuse Muslims of being a broken record and constantly speaking of Israel, but then you keep perpetuating the same on your side by hiring pro-Israeli pundits as self-professed experts on Islam and the “threat” of Islam, or referencing them or giving them a stage in nearly every right wing blog and think tank on the internet. Why don’t you engage directly with Muslims, and by that I mean mainstream Muslims who hold their faith dearly but also hold American values at heart and know this place as their only home. Muslims like the 40,000+ who attend every year at the ISNA Convention in Chicago. This is from 2004 when Hamza Yusuf Hanson spoke there (please spend 20 minutes and watch both parts 1 and 2, it’s important for you to realize how Muslim leaders in America address their faithful. These kinds of events and speeches represent the mainstream of American Muslims, and these messages have been broadcast internationally especially to the Middle East where there are also increasing movements to speak out against and eradicate terrorism):

    Regarding Zuhdi Jasser, first of all you are mistaken that he has no criticisms coming from the right wing:
    Even Debbie explains that he is funded by the Clarion Foundation, and he serves on their advisory board along with Daniel Pipes.

    Zuhdi Jasser does say many good things that resonate and agree well with the peaceful voice of moderate mainstream Muslims– but the funny thing is, the other mainstream Muslim leaders are saying the exact same thing. The problem is this: who is listening? Obviously, the right wing hears Jasser because he sits on the board of Raphael Shore, but doesn’t hear what the Muslim leaders are saying because they refuse to listen.

    Muslims are not monolithic! Some of us are liberal, some of us are conservative, we have different views on health care and the economy, just like you. We also have different views on foreign policy and on the Park51 issue. Some Muslims agree with most Americans that it is insensitive to put a mosque there only a few blocks away from Ground Zero. Other Muslims say hey, you tell us we don’t have good PR, so what better PR than putting a multi-cultural center open to the public and to promote better understanding of Islam, in the one place where it matters most!

    Is it un-American now for Muslims to disagree on this issue? Does our stance on this issue define our patriotism or our stance on terrorism? I personally am against Park51, but I can understand the other view. That’s what America is all about, isn’t it? There are also Muslims with various differing views on Israel and Palestine and what should be done to resolve that crisis.

    And this is precisely the problem with the right wing, Zuhdi Jasser, and others who believe that in order to be “moderate” and anti-terrorism, the only good Muslim is the one who is pro-Israeli, pro-Iraq War, anti-Park51.

    Is it not good enough that Muslims can be anti-terrorism, peace loving, law-abiding, citizens but with varying views on politics?

    Reform isn’t what’s in order because it is not a doctrinal issue– the terrorists don’t espouse a different doctrine: they simply rationalize the same doctrine to carry out political motives. The Branch Davidians did mainstream Christians a favor by differentiating themselves with a different doctrine. The terrorists, al-Qaeda and others, have no doctrine that they teach (in fact, most of them are secular and don’t even know the religious texts or have any scholars supporting their actions). They are not religious people, and even when they speak they speak of political motives. But they use religion as a scapegoat to give themselves legitimacy among the mainstream (similar to how KKK members would call themselves the “true” Americans, should Americans have changed their names to combat this?). To that end, they are not successful because most Muslims denounce them…but apparently they are successful in scaring everyone else.

  5. Muslims need better PR, Muslims need to do this, Muslims need to do that. This is clueless gibberish passing itself off as analysis. And quoting the great oracle Dennis Miller too! Which Muslims are you talking about? The Shias, the Sunnis, the Sunni Wahhabis, the Sufis, the Indonesian Muslims or do all the billions of followers of Islam look the same to you? Why do Muslims have to denounce park 51 mosque? It has nothing to do with terrorism, and is an attempt to bridge the gap between Islam and the local population, in fact exactly the sort of thing that you seem to be gibbering about. Americans are conflicted about the mosque, because right-wingers such as Limbaugh, Geller, Beck, Fox news and no doubt the Orange county Federalist Society have made it their business to keep them fearful and ignorant.

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