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.