Killing the Extremist Idea that Threatens America: The Misalliance of Muslims and Secularists

 
 

The deepening relationship between American Muslims and secular liberals ignores fundamental issues of faith and freedom. Part one of two.

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The film The Stoning of Soraya M contains one of the most distressing and ominous scenes in cinematic history. The film tells the story of Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old mother of seven who lived in a small Iranian village, not long after the Khomeini Shiite revolution. Falsely accused by her husband of adultery and convicted in a sham trial orchestrated by the village imam, Soraya was sentenced to death by stoning.

The film version of the execution is difficult to watch—and not simply because of the violence, which is vivid and terrible. What wrenches the soul is the Satanic betrayal of the innocent Soraya by those she loves. The first stone is cast by her own father. Then, in excruciating sequence, by her two young sons.

How can a father come to revile and brutalize his daughter? How can young boys cooperate in the torture and execution of their mother? Their actions were not caused by deprivation, tribal rivalries, rage at modernity, or anti-colonialism. They stoned Soraya because they believed God desired them to do so.

Most Muslims, no doubt including many Iranian citizens, reject such acts as fundamentally anti-Islamic. For one thing, stoning is not sanctioned in the Koran. For another, most Muslims claim Allah to be a God of mercy and human cruelty an abomination in his eyes.

And yet the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country of 72 million people, routinely holds that stoning is an Islamic obligation. Iran’s government supports terrorism, opposes Israel's right to exist, and seeks nuclear weapons, all in the name of God. “Let this land burn,” said Ayatollah Khomeini of his own country. “Let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

Iran is not alone. Just last month the Afghan Taliban stoned a young unmarried couple (they had tried and failed to elope). According to the New York Times, after the execution the national Ulema Council and Afghan government officials issued a joint statement calling for more Shariah punishments, including stonings and amputations. These punishments occur in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and, on occasion, elsewhere in the Muslim world. It is no coincidence that Islamist terrorists and their ideas flourish in such countries.

Some Americans—mainly Muslims and liberal intellectuals—argue that the actions and ideas of Islamic extremists have nothing substantively to do with contemporary Islam. All religions have extremists, they say. The real battle today is not within Islam over its meaning and role in the world, but between moderates of all religions and extremists of all religions.

The moderates-against-extremists argument has some merit. Indian Hindu puritans, for example, have been responsible for massacres of minority Indian Muslims. The brutal assault on Muslims by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was fueled by Christian-Orthodox-driven nationalism. Sri Lanka is home to a violent and radical Buddhist movement. But none of these phenomena threaten international order—and the American homeland—as does Islamist terrorism.

Most American Muslims are good citizens who, like others before them, have profited greatly from our system of religious freedom. Religious conservatives, of all people, should understand this, even if they oppose the proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.

But some American Muslim leaders are ill serving their country by imputing extremism to traditional Christians and Jews who oppose the project. In this they are, perhaps unwittingly, joining hands with aggressive secularists who, at the end of the day, will not stand with them. They do not seem to realize that their mortal enemy—and the enemy of their country—is not religious conservatism but Islamist extremism; that there is a war of ideas within Islam for its very soul; that they should be on the front lines of that war at home and abroad, precisely because of their love for Islam and for America; and that their greatest allies can be conservative Evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews.

American conservatives, as a result, should think twice about how they articulate their opposition to the Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero. It is a grave error simply to conflate the likes of Hassan or Al-Awlaki with U.S. Muslims in general, or with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (leader of the project) in particular. There is virtually no evidence to support the charge that he and his wife, Daisy Khan, are seeking to establish radical Shariah courts in the United States, or provide a sanctuary for extremist Islamist ideas. Although Rauf and Khan have said some highly inflammatory things, their lives of service and outreach belie the charge of extremism. On balance, the evidence suggests that they have been good Americans, seeking to live out their faith in a productive—and very American—way.

Unfortunately, their reaction to those who oppose their project, and to the concerns their opponents express about Islam, risks diminishing the effectiveness of their work. They, and too many other American Muslim leaders, are too quick to don the victim's mantle. And they seem to suggest that Islam has nothing to do with the extremism that threatens the United States, both from abroad and from within. (Not all Muslim leaders accept this view, of course. See this piece by Salam Al Marayati.) Ironically, many are beginning to stand with the secular left in America—a group which, although it may see temporary benefits in supporting Muslims against Christian and Jewish conservatives, will not at the end of the day countenance any religion in the public square, including Islam.

Take my friend Eboo Patel—a highly talented and accomplished Muslim leader who has created interfaith youth action groups across the country. Eboo wrote recently in the Washington Post that “the forces of intolerance in America have used the time since 9/11 to destroy the bonds of our diverse nation. They have established a well-funded, highly organized ‘Hate your Muslim Neighbor’ campaign.”

Or listen to Imam Rauf speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations: The “real battle front … is between moderates of all the faith traditions against the extremists of all the faith traditions.” By “extremists” Imam Rauf doubtless means both Al Qaeda and American religious conservatives who are heading the opposition to his project.

Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, said on national television that opposition to the Islamic Center “is like a metastasized anti-Semitism. … It’s not even Islamophobia; it’s beyond Islamophobia. It’s hate of Muslims….”

I recently participated in a symposium at Georgetown on the Islamic center controversy. My colleagues on the panel included two scholars of Islam who opined that the American people, duped by conservatives, were "fearful," "angry," and full of hate for Islam.

There are many examples of this kind of rhetoric coming from Muslim leaders. Can they really believe that they are hated and reviled by the conservative Evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews who oppose this project (or by liberals like Harry Reid and Howard Dean, who also reject it)? Do they really think that the 70 percent of the American public who oppose it have been duped? Is it not possible to credit their opponents’ concerns without concluding that they hate Islam or Muslims, that, in the infamous words of the Washington Post, conservative Christians are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command”?

Do these Muslim leaders not see the intellectual dishonesty, and the strategic danger, in comparing, even implicitly, America's religious conservatives and Al Qaeda? Can they not understand that the real war is not between opponents of the mosque project and themselves; rather, it is a war of ideas for the soul of Islam, in which they should be fully engaged?

The irony is that, when all is said and done, none of this suggests that the Imam, or other American Muslims with such views, are extremists. Rather, it shows that their views reflect the belligerent moral confusion, and angst about traditional Christianity, that is characteristic of the American left. This very American social pathology was graphically on display after the reelection of George Bush in 2004. Writing in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd referred to Bush's victory as "a jihad in America;" Garry Wills opined that America was, like Al Qaeda, captive to "fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, [and] religious intolerance...."

It would be a tragedy if Muslims became so absorbed in this fantasy that they render themselves incapable of performing a task that they are well suited to perform, one that is vital to America—fighting Islamist extremism at home and abroad. The kind of ordered liberty in which they live, and the freedom they enjoy, would, if it took root in Muslim lands, provide a powerful antidote to the malevolent idea that threatens America. But the temptation to stay out of this fight is proving to be surprisingly powerful among some segments of the Muslim community.

It would be equally tragic if American conservatives—especially Evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews—did not recognize the vital role that American Muslims must play in defeating Islamist extremism. Unfortunately, many conservative Christians seem reluctant to engage with Muslims, ceding the "inter-religious dialogue" to the left. Moreover, some conservatives appear to have concluded that all of Islam is irredeemable. They seem to believe that Islam itself, not Islamist extremism, threatens America. This is a tragic and destructive error.

Thomas F. Farr, a former American diplomat, is Visiting Associate Professor of Religion and World Affairs in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and chairs its task force on International Religious Freedom. This article is the first of two installments. You can find the second installment here.

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