Pointing out the recent stories concerning Terry Jones’s plans to protest outside Dearborn, Michigan’s largest mosque—and noting that a local CAIR leader, Dawud Walid, among others, rightly and admirably criticized the legal attempts to shut down Jones’s speech—commenter BSK invites me to defend my argument that American Muslims have a “messaging” problem. As readers will recall, I previously pointed out that many Americans harbor suspicions whether “moderate Islam” bears any problematic underlying connection to the “radical Islam” or “Islamism” practiced by our shadowy ideological enemies. I argued that, even if we assume no such connections exist in reality, one of the reasons connections do exist in perception has to do with a “messaging” problem and, further, that moderate Muslims might be able to take steps to address it. Given Dearborn Muslims’ apparently unequivocal message supporting Jones’s First Amendment right to voice his message—even while they strongly condemn that message—BSK and James Hanley suggest that those critical of Muslim messaging should at least acknowledge that Mr. Walid and other moderate Muslims got the messaging basically right here. (See also here, here, and here.)
It’s a good point, and it deserves a response on a few different levels.
First, as to the Dearborn controversy in particular, I agree that the responses from CAIR and other members of the Dearborn Muslim community to Terry Jones generally have been correct and fairly well stated. This certainly needs to be acknowledged. And while acknowledging Muslims got it right with respect to Dearborn, it should further be acknowledged that Muslims also get it right with respect to most issues of public concern that touch on Islam generally. In other words, it should not be suggested that the example of the Muslim response in Dearborn is an outlier. To the contrary, moderate Muslims provide a consistent voice of reason that generally reflects a sound grasp of American principles of free speech, free exercise of religion, traditional moral values, and personal responsibility. Thus, with respect to the content of Muslim “messaging,” American Muslims certainly do a much better job than Muslims in other parts of the world. (E.g., I still say that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad’s response to the Itamar settlement attacks was cagey and backhanded.)
On another level, however, it might be said that while moderate Muslims often do get the messaging right, their ability to get that message out to a wide audience has been unfortunately limited. I have heard this argument made in conjunction with the observation that American Jews, for example, have by contrast been very successful at messaging to a wide audience. This is a corollary to the thesis of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby, panned by several critics as a conspiracy theory based on anecdotal evidence. At any rate, I understand that many Muslims harbor frustration that, despite having roughly the same numerical population in the U.S. as Muslims, American Jews have a much greater and more favorable presence in the media and politics. BSK points out other factors that have generally aided broader Jewish acceptance in the U.S., such as that Jews are often identified as “white,” and thus more palatable to white America; Americans have sympathy for Jews as victims, whether directly or indirectly, of the Holocaust; and that Judaism has not been ideologically associated with acts of terrorism like Islam has.
The generalization related to me by one Muslim, on the other hand, is that American Muslims, for whatever reason, tend to prefer to “keep their heads down” by focusing on their own families, businesses, and private communities, and generally do not seek to draw attention to themselves. That is certainly not a wrong position to take—quite the contrary. But perhaps it is naïve under the circumstances, and perhaps more moderate Muslims should seek to get involved in media and politics and think tanks and the like. Then again, perhaps BSK is also right that more people who complain about American Muslims’ “messaging” problems should spend equal time pitching in, underscoring how Muslims share our core values, and acknowledging where Muslims get the messaging right. To that end, I appreciate and accept the invitation to so acknowledge.
To circle back around to just a couple more points about the substance of Muslim messaging, this segment from Fox’s Dearborn affiliate shows Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini responding to Terry Jones’s concerns over the spread of Sharia. In that response, Imam Al-Qazwini points out that Jones does not have a sound understanding of Sharia (which Jones admitted), and that Sharia does not mandate “stoning” as Jones claimed. Fair enough. But the response fails to address the broader concern about Sharia, which really involves two questions: What is it? And do American Muslims want it imposed in this country? These are both complex questions, so I don’t fault Imam Al-Qazwini for not engaging them in depth. But there does seem to be a generally sense of avoidance of these questions by the moderate Muslim community.
However, there might be a good reason for this. For example, it may be that Imam Al-Qazwini calculated, probably correctly, that it would be imprudent at this time to put Americans to a choice between their religious principles and their constitutional principles. That is, whatever values Sharia involves, surely American Muslims would be entitled to enact them into law according to the same democratic process that American Christians, for example, believe entitle them to democratically express their own values—such as the definition of marriage. Bringing such questions to the fore would stir up a lot of moral, legal, religious, and political passions, thus potentially subjecting American Muslims to more ill will rather than less. Thus, caution on the Sharia question is probably wise.
Along the same lines, Tom Van Dyke points out another detail about the Dearborn story that helps illustrate why more “messaging” is still needed. According to the Detroit Free Press, Imam Al-Qazwini “cautioned the Dearborn Police chief that some Muslims in his mosque feel that the burning of a Quran is worse than 1,000 deaths,” and “expressed concern about how some young members of his mosque might react to Jones.” These statements were offered in support of the county’s request to enjoin Jones’s demonstration on the basis that Jones’s speech, combined with the beliefs of local Muslims, would reasonably lead to violence.
Again, it is not Imam Al-Qazwini’s duty, or any other Muslim’s duty to predict or explain how other individuals might act upon their religious beliefs. But the fact that such statements are being made in our courts, and relied upon in court rulings, suggests there is still some real work to be done to dispel the perceived connections between Islam and violence. Attempts to dismiss these perceptions as nothing more than bigotry are woefully inadequate and fail to advance the cause of American Muslims or civil discourse generally.