Muslims Against the Ideology of Terror

Voice of America – ON THE LINE  / Host: Eric Felten 

Host: Muslims against the ideology of terror. Next, On the Line.

Host: Leaders of a dozen groups representing Muslim Americans and Arab Americans of other faiths met in Washington to speak out against terrorism and in favor of democratic freedoms. Zainab Al-Suwaij is the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. She said the conference was an effort to confront the fact that Many people use Islam as a reason to kill innocent people. One of the speakers at the conference was Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Jasser: I as a Muslim feel that this religion that I cherish, has been in recent times hijacked and has become one of the worst offenders in adding misery and oppression to the people of the Middle East. It is not necessary for me to catalogue all of the sad records of brutal killings, endless hatreds of other faiths and the continuing second-class status of women, that defames Islam. You all know it. The truth is that the tribal culture and

despotic regimes have hijacked our peaceful religion.

[Applause]

Host: One of the conference organizers was Kamal Nawash. He says that the most effective voices against Islamic extremism are those of moderate Muslims.

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Nawash: Now of course, I’m a Muslim and I consider myself a devout Muslim. I run an organization called the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. And this organization was created to eliminate broad-based support for extremism and terrorism within the Muslim community. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, we admit that we have a problem with extremism and support for terrorism in the Muslim community. Rather than deny that we

have this problem, rather than go on the defensive and accuse everyone else in the world of recognizing this problem as being anti-Islam, we’re saying: No. We have a huge problem. Most of the terrorism in the world today is being conducted by Muslims.

I say this, I say this because we are the only ones who can defeat this. We are the only ones who can defeat this. If John, or Schlomo or

Jose, if they told bin Laden or Hamas that, “You know what, we reject you. You’re a criminal organization, or you’re a terrorist organization.” It won’t work. Unfortunately it won’t work. You still should say it. Don’t not say it. But it won’t work. It has to be Muslims that do it. It has to be Muslims that come out ?quot;

[Applause]

Host: Joining me to talk about Arab and Muslim American efforts to promote tolerance and moderation in the Middle East are Ammar Abdulhamid, a visiting fellow with the Project on U.S. Policy toward the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. Walid Phares, a professor at Florida Atlantic University and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. And joining us by phone from Phoenix, Arizona, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Welcome. Thanks for joining us today. Walid Phares, who was at the conference and what was the thrust of what people had to say?

Phares: There were about seven-hundred and fifty delegates from all over the United States. The conference title was Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy. It really started from two ends. One end were the representatives of Middle Eastern American communities, mostly minority ethnic groups and religious groups in the Middle East, but from the other end came also, Muslim organizations, I may say, new Muslim organizations who were here to say that they are against terrorism and for democracy and human rights and they joined efforts and created that huge event in Washington, D.C.

Host: Dr. Jasser are you there by phone from Phoenix, Arizona?

Jasser: Yes I am Eric, thank you for having me.

Host: Thanks for being on the show. You spoke at the conference and what was your sense of what the thrust of what people had to say was?

Jasser: I think the conference was historic. The Middle Eastern American immigrants that are now in our third generation, many of us, really have not had an opportunity to voice our appreciation to this country for the freedoms that they’ve given us compared to the nations that most of our families escaped. And our nations still sorrowfully, are still under dictatorships almost across the board. And we finally have been able to have the strength, really after the change in American foreign policy after nine-eleven, in which the coddling of dictatorships is no-longer happening, and we’ve really been empowered as Middle Eastern Americans to come forth and say: We stand for freedom. We stand for liberty and for secular democracies. And really it’s, I’ve found it to be very educational in that you have a group of Americans who know as Middle Easterners that the source of terrorism is dictatorship, that these dictatorships have in fact created parasitically the terrorist organizations to hijack Islam as a religion and create a milieu in which it props them up. And we came together in America, really the only place that we could have done this, to say: This is not Islam. This is not Christianity or Judaism. This is not what we stand for as people of freedom. And we want to see those governments change and we want to see terrorism go away.

Host: Ammar Abdulhamid, what kind of voice do Americans, Muslim-Americans, Americans of Middle Eastern descent, do they have an impact on attitudes in the Middle East?

Abdulhamid: Unfortunately, no. I mean, let’s be blunt about it. I think they are an important voice and I think if we’re going to have any kind of reformation or new interpretation of Islam emerging, probably the American Muslims, European Muslims will be able to, because of the freedom that they have, will be able to bring the new ideas. But how will these ideas travel to the Muslim world? This is a different part of the question. There is this cut off, so far, between immigrant communities or indigenous American Muslim communities and the home base as you could say, or the Middle East in general. And so far, we have not seen really a lot of cooperation between civil societies, in particular in the Muslim world and in the United States. So the bridges are still non-existent. And in order for the Muslim community in the United States, in order for the Middle Eastern communities in the United States to have a say in what goes on back home, they really need to develop these bridges. They really need to identify suitable partners within the various Middle Eastern countries with whom they can carry on a dialogue, they can remain in touch with the realities on the ground in these countries. And see how they can influence policies and how they can support their group in their struggle for democracy in the Middle East.

Host: Well let’s hear one of the conference participants on this question. This is John Nimrod, who is Secretary General of the Assyrian Universal Alliance.

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Nimrod: This meeting tonight shows that the Americans of Middle Eastern descent are all involved and concerned about bringing unity, appreciation for what they’ve found in America and the kind of life that they’ve grown up with here. Now, they have then taken this and equated this back to their people back in their countries. And it gives them hope in the future.

Host: Walid Phares, we have by any measure of polls in the Middle East, you see tremendous antagonism toward the U.S. in Arab countries, other Middle Eastern countries at this point. How successful are efforts by Middle Eastern Americans going to be to have this conversation with people in the Middle East?

Phares: Well, at first symbolically very important to have a poll in the west, in the United States in particular. And the country which is vilified and attacked by Middle Eastern regimes or organizations or ideologies, voices like the ones you’ve heard right now saying that we are Americans and at the same time we do not abandon our roots in the Middle East and we want to establish bridges as Ammar said earlier. Bridges are extremely important, but we have to look at it from a historical perspective. This is only a beginning. It’s so diverse. You have people who, in the Middle East can barely coexist, who in the United States under this freedom and democracy are trying to send that message. But the problem in the Middle East is that democracy and human rights and freedom are not that much available. You’ve got to navigate between the freedom we have here, the freedom that we have not as much as we want there, and then establish those bridges. It is going to be difficult. That was the beginning of at least the American end of this equation. I must say that in the Middle East there are very courageous people who are struggling for human rights and democracy. They are now beginning to find partners in these communities.

Host: Zuhdi Jasser, what’s your sense of how to build those bridges so that your voices can be heard not just here in Washington, but back in the Middle East.

Jasser: Yes. I believe those bridges are going to begin with liberty-minded organizations like that met in Washington last Friday. And many of our organizations that met. We’ve already begun to develop a network and that network will have to be through, not only people here, but our contacts in the Middle East and through media also. I think that penetration of some of the media that we’re beginning to have that’s new — hear that since Iraq has gotten rid of its despots, Saddam Hussein, there’s now fifty newspapers, there’s a media that has been flourishing and I think just as you saw Eastern Europe a decade ago, or two decades ago begin to fall country by country without war, you can see in the Middle East, as we begin to penetrate media and we begin to have bridges to organizations just as Dr. Phares and Dr. Abdulhamid mentioned, we will begin to connect. And I think people need to remember there are still thousands of Arabs and Muslims all over the world waiting in line to come to America. So you have to remember that you need to take some of the opinion polls that are supposedly coming out of those countries with a grain of salt, because it’s a lot easier for them to cast disparaging tones on foreign countries than it is for them to be introspective in their own nations.

Host: Ammar Abdulhamid?

Abdulhamid: There is a lot of truth in what you said, but I have to point out something. It’s important in trying to build these partnerships between organizations here in the United States and organizations back home. So that this partnership doesn’t turn into the kiss of death for these organizations back home, is that the U-S organizations should be moderate also in their views vis-?vis the possibilities of change and the regimes in the Middle East. If you are going to be completely dismissive of the regimes, and we are not seeking to create a dialogue with them, then we are only on the path of confrontation. This is going to be very difficult for indigenous organizations, this kind of line. It’s very difficult to adopt now, indigenous organizations because in the final analysis they realize how weak they are and they realize that they are, in the final analysis simply trying to carve out a space for greater participation. At this stage, there is no way we can indigenously agree or pave the way for a regime change. It’s going to take decades, basically, and we have to change mentalities and so on. So, some of these organizations and some of them in fact did take part in the conference, usually have an uncompromising language and discourse vis-?vis the regimes in the Middle East and that’s going to make cooperation difficult. We need to actually seek out — and especially when you consider the fact of internal oppositions in these countries are weak, the best way will be to seek out modes whereby we can maintain some kind of a pressure on this regime to change and amend their behavior and leave some room for dialogue with them. If we completely reject the idea of dialogue we are finding ourselves on the path toward confrontation. And frankly, it’s not something that indigenous forces would be interested in.

Host: Walid Phares?

Phares: It is a very legitimate concern. I mean, the era of the Soviet oppression of their people is very educational for us, how it happened. There were some dissidents who were vocal and wanted to go for a regime change, others said, No, let’s try to do reform, reformations leading to Perestroika, and of course leading to major reformation. What I suggest is happening in the Middle East is a rainbow. You have areas where there is no fear from regimes. You just mentioned Afghanistan and Iraq. The experiment is going to be different, it’s going to be education of these civil societies. Other places, such as Syria and Sudan, it’s more difficult. Lebanon is a peculiar situation. It has many communities. It has also those relationships with Syria that have to be reexamined. The principle is that we have two ends and each one will have to educate the other end as to what is possible, what is impossible.

Host: Zuhdi Jasser, to what extent did this conference reflect opinion and attitude in Muslim communities in the United States? There are other large Muslim American groups that were not part of the conference. And are there any divisions there?

Jasser: That’s an interesting question. I believe, and our hope with our Islamic Forum for Democracy is that there’s a silent majority of Muslim Americans that thrive in a secular democratic culture like America. And have been waiting for that message, where you have Muslims stepping forth and saying that the war we are fighting is not a war on terror, which is only a tactic, but a war on an ideology. And as Muslims, it is our primary responsibility to be in the front lines of combating those that are hijacking our faith. And you’ll find many of the national organizations that are supposedly representing Muslims seem to be condemning terrorism left and right, which is fine. But condemnation is purely language. The question is: How do we combat the fertile soil and incubators of terrorism? And the incubation for terrorism is theocracy. And I do believe that Muslims will agree, especially Muslims that are thriving in America, will agree that they escape the rule of the Mullahs and the so-called Imams and etc., and that in Islam, we don’t have any clergy. And that the best way to be closest to God is to leave your faith at home and have it be a very personal faith. And I would just add lastly in agreement with Dr. Abdulhamid and Dr. Phares, is that, you’re right, there’s a difference between the politics and diplomacy versus the reform of Muslims. And I do believe Muslim reform is really our focus and that we need to make sure that principles are going back to the root of our faith. And that principle will be that there’s no justification ever for the killing of innocents. That freedom of religion is for everyone, whether Muslims are ninety-nine percent of the population or six percent as they are here, or I mean, two percent. So, there needs to be a consistency of principles which the Muslim world, I think, still needs to mature to.

Host: Ammar Abdulhamid.

Abdulhamid: We really need to, I mean, this is fine, of course. And this meeting was a beginning of something, but if the idea is to actually begin to reform the traditional version, at least, of Islam then we need to get to the nitty gritty. This is a question not of a declaration of principles, only now we need to get to the details. What are the exact areas that are problematic in a traditional understanding of Islam? And what new ideas are we suggesting. There have been attempts at, in fact, renewing Islam ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, in fact the late nineteenth century. But every time a certain detail is mentioned or every time a certain idea is mentioned, like the separation of church and state or mosque and state — you know the version — and because there is no clergy in theory in Islam, but in practice there is in fact a strong clergy and it does have a lot of influence in the street. So, in the attempt to discuss new ideas, they have always been haphazard, there have always been crackdowns, there has always been denunciation. So we really need to begin to get down to the details, have a more systematic effort and really learn from the previous experiences that were haphazard in nature, how we could have a systematic approach to Islamic reformation, to a liberal Islamic reformation, to be specific.

Host: How much of this debate within Islam is taking place in the Middle East, in other Muslim countries within the Muslim world, such as Indonesia, and to what extent are the voices in that debate happening in the U-S?

Abdulhamid: Actually, probably the only Middle Eastern country that to an extent, we can say, tackled in a serious manner this idea of reformation was Turkey, because of the particular make-up of Turkish society, because secularism has already been imposed by Ataturk in the early twentieth century and the society had to catch up, in a sense with the secular ideology and it’s still trying to do so. So the only country, really is Turkey, but even there we still have the debate was very localized. It did not have an impact beyond Turkish society. So, it would be very interesting to learn from the Turkish experience and to move it forward because it needs to be moved forward. In any serious manner, so far, there has not really been a consistent effort by any group of reformers out there to tackle this issue in a more systematic manner. We are now seeing perhaps the beginning, because there are a variety of voices out there that are calling for reformation, but they have not gotten together yet. So, perhaps it’s about time for this to happen. And perhaps the next conference we should be thinking of is a conference along the lines of: What is an Islamic reformation, or a liberal Islamic reformation? How can we bring this about? What are the ideas that need to be suggested? And perhaps it needs to take place here in the West, because I can not envision the possibility of it having a place or taking place anywhere in the Middle East at this stage.

Host: Walid Phares, is there more likely to be a reformation in the West than the Middle East?

Phares: A reformation geographically starting in the West, but about the Middle East. The Middle East Conference, by itself, is a mosaic reflecting realities in the region. Number one, of course you have the Muslim group at the conference, who’s main concern, as Zuhdi said, is about

how to deal with the reformation of Islam from the West, how to link up with the Muslim communities in the East, but then you have the others who are non-Muslims and also non-Arabs, Christian and from other backgrounds in Africa as well, because the Sudanese were there, had different circumstances [regarding] freedom and democracy and how to link up. It seems that one will help the other. Human rights and democracy will help the reformation of Islam and certainly reformation of Islam, if genuine, will certainly help human rights and democracy as well.

Host: Zuhdi Jasser, what’s your sense on the question of where and how a reformation in Islam might happen and what role Muslim Americans might have in that?

Jasser: That is the core mission of our organization when we formed a year after nine-eleven. And we formed on the precept that a secular society can be one of two, it’s either a pro-religious secular society, which is what we view America as, it’s foundations were formed on those escaping religious persecution, but yet, they came in order to be able to express their faith openly. And then there’s the anti-religious secular societies, which I would put France and Turkey in, which, for example, in Turkey, they prohibited a lady who had been wearing the hijab from being in their legislature. So, I believe, and our organization really believes it — and it’s interesting the word reform itself, you’ll find most Muslims cringe at. And that’s one of the first maturing aspects we need to get to, is we look at Muslim reform as not necessarily being change of the religion, but really in Arabic, which is called Ijtihad, which is the interpretation of the original religion in light of modernity or of modern thought. We believe that American society is the prime example of a society where I can be what I believe is a very devout Muslim, practice my faith, praying and fasting and attending Mosque regularly, yet not bring religion into the public sector, whether we became a majority or not. And still honor the U-S constitution, which is blind to religion. That’s really where the war is, is that, we look to reforming the Muslim mind that really still is fixed on that precept that everything in life revolves around Islam. And sure it does in your heart, but in a secular society, it can’t be the language of discourse with non-Muslims. Because that becomes discriminatory no matter how fair, or how democratic they try to be.

Host: Well, I’m afraid that’s going to have to be the last word for today. We’re out of time. But I’d like to thank my guests: Ammar Abdulhamid of the Brookings Institution; Walid Phares of Florida Atlantic University; and joining us by phone from Phoenix, Arizona: Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can reach us through our Web site at w-w-w-dot-v-o-a-news-dot-com-slash-ontheline For On the Line, I’m Eric Felten.