First, America still faces dangerous Islamist enemies within. Secondly, American Muslims who wish to secure their country against terrorism owe it to themselves and their fellow Americans to police their own communities. More basically, American Muslims who wish to contribute to America's culture of liberty owe it to themselves to promote religious toleration within those communities.
The Current Conflict
All responsible Muslim leaders in the United States rightly condemned the 9/11 attacks. They also rightly expressed their concern that their own civil liberties not be violated in an anti-Muslim backlash. Responding to their concerns, government officials from President George W. Bush on down have been quick to assure Muslims that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam, and so far there have been relatively few instances of assaults or vandalism against Muslims. According to the FBI, the number of anti-Islamic incidents that took place in 2001 was only half the number of anti-Jewish incidents, and most of the incidents did not involve violence.
Government respect for the civil liberties of Muslims has been a more troublesome issue and should be of concern to all Americans. This unprecedented war is being conducted against terrorist networks that cross national boundaries and against any country or party that harbors or supports such networks. How, then, should the U.S. government treat American citizens or resident aliens who have aided, trained with, or fought for terrorists? As criminals? As enemy combatants? As saboteurs? The need to protect us from terrorists while protecting our civil liberties is a work in progress.
But perhaps the most difficult aspect of the effort lies in discovering and disrupting the plans of Islamic terrorists within the United States. Obviously, that requires intensive scrutiny of America's Muslim community, with attendant danger to the rights of the people involved, and many Americans are rightly concerned that provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act and the 2002 Homeland Security Act weaken or circumvent constitutional safeguards of civil liberties. Nevertheless, by helping law-enforcement agencies police these communities, and by promoting a tolerant form of Islam, Muslim leaders could help achieve several important goals: they could stem encroachments on their co-religionists', as well as their fellow citizens', constitutional rights; they could aid the war against terrorism; they could allay suspicions concerning Muslim loyalty to our free and pluralistic society; and their tolerant form of Islam could provide an exemplary model for the rest of the Islamic world.
The Groups We Choose
But should Muslims have to allay such suspicions? Should American Muslims who do not share the beliefs of radical Islamists have to go out of their way not to be mistaken for such radicals? Shouldn't individuals be judged on their own beliefs and actions? Aren't they right to resent being called upon to "renounce" or "denounce" certain of their co-religionists and to report the suspicious activities of neighbors in order to prove their solidarity with other Americans? The questions are reasonable, but the matter is not so cut and dried.
One way that individuals ensure their society remains free and civilized is by making clear, rational, moral judgments. And when a country's and society's values are being challenged, such moral judgments are all the more important. As philosopher Ayn Rand said, "One mustspeak up in situations where silence can objectively be taken to mean agreement with or sanction of evil." Today, this imperative applies with special force to American Muslims, because of their circumstances.
While we cannot pick our relatives or ethnic background, members of a free society do choose the other groups and individuals with which they associate. Some memberships involve only a loose identification with a particular belief system—liberal, conservative, libertarian, agnostic, atheist. Others are of the card-carrying variety—the Teamsters Union, the Chamber of Commerce, the Freemasons, the National Rifle Association, the NAACP. Some groups are based on narrow common interests—the local bowling league or soccer club. Others evidence an allegiance to fundamental principles—and religions are as fundamental as one can get. Although most of us initially belong to the religion of our family, it is by choice that adults in a free society remain in a particular faith, change to another one, or reject religion altogether. Thus, every American Muslim adult is rightly assumed to be a Muslim by individual choice.
But what does that mean, to outsiders and to the person himself?
To others, the names of the groups to which we belong convey different degrees of information about our assumptions, beliefs, interests, and likely behavior. To call someone a "Protestant" is generally taken to mean he is a Christian but neither Catholic nor Orthodox. "Baptist" gives us more information, and "Southern Baptist" still more.
As for ourselves: When we choose to belong to a particular group, we take on the responsibility of answering for the group's basic beliefs and activities. In any healthy group, of course, a range of views will be tolerated and outsiders will understand that a given member does not share every single opinion of the other members. Still, prudent members will be careful that their group's "brand name" is not tarnished. When the beliefs of some members begin to diverge too much from the beliefs of the majority, the natural outcome is for the diverging members to leave or be asked to leave, and to form new associations more in keeping with their beliefs.
Taking a Stand
Political and social issues often force us to confront our relationship to a group and its members. In the 1940s and 1950s, members of the American labor movement were put in that position by the evils of communism and the dangers of the Soviet Union. Despite the unmistakable evidence of what communism entailed, a number of union leaders remained communists and Soviet sympathizers. After 1948, therefore, the Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled eleven affiliated unions because of their leaders' communist ties or sympathies. In the decades that followed, the major American labor organizations, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, expelled members associated with communist groups. Further, those union members tended to favor anti-communist foreign policies, which suggests that their expulsions of communists were not simply opportunistic attempts to appeal to American public opinion but reflected the depths of their beliefs.
The anti-communism in the hearts and minds of most of these union members reflected a deep moral, emotional, and intellectual, though sometimes inconsistent, conviction that a free, open society—in which individuals can think what they want, say what they want, work where they want, and associate with whom they want—is the best kind of society. They might have wanted more money from the boss, but they also wanted the autonomy and comfort afforded them by private property such as a house, a car, a boat, and perhaps some stock in their employer's firm. The values of these union members were consistent with the basic principles of the American regime.
In the 1960s, members of Southern churches likewise had to decide what stand to take on segregation and the civil rights movement. Should their church as an institution remain neutral, allowing its members to take their own stands as individuals? Or should it denounce segregation and foster tolerance in the congregation? If the latter course were taken, should the church expel openly racist members? If it did not, should those fighting racism leave the church?
When segregation went beyond talk and became conspiracy, church leaders and church members were required to take more drastic action. If they had evidence that fellow parishioners were planning assaults against blacks, they were morally and legally obligated to report the plotters to the FBI. Unfortunately, our intellectuals obscured this rather obvious fact by celebrating E.M. Forster's dictum that he would rather betray his country than his friend. And the media had earlier reinforced this view by making heroes of those who refused to "name names" of communists in the 1950s. The embodiment of this outlook was seen in the curtain of silence that for nearly four decades protected the bombers of a Birmingham church.
In the 1990s, Republicans who were trying to win local elections in the once solidly Democratic South faced the problem of white supremacists running with a GOP label. Should the party speak out or leave the matter to individual voters? In fact, when David Duke ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate from Louisiana in 1990, the national party endorsed his Democratic opponent. When Duke ran for governor of that state in 1991, the national party backed the corrupt Democrat Edwin Edwards. Better a crook than a Klansman! Republicans would not allow their party to be tainted by racists.
Since the issue at hand concerns American Muslims, it is necessary to look more closely at what it means to be a member of a religion, and of Islam in particular.
A religion is defined in part by its foundations and in part by what its members make of them. Islam, like Christianity, starts with revered texts—the Koran and hadith for Islam, the Gospels and other New Testament books for Christians. Because Islam, like Christianity, is a religious faith, these founding texts contain allegories and ambiguities that men must interpret and make sense of as best they can. These interpretations then become one element in what it means to belong to the religion.
But a religion is also defined in part by how its adherents carry out its message. The Gospels portray Jesus as a wandering preacher of (among other things) peace and love. Early Christians followed Jesus' words and example, focusing on salvation and not raising a hand against the Roman legions, often becoming martyrs. Later, however, Christianity gained the opportunity to guide temporal power and, in the Middle Ages, helped launch imperialist crusades, sectarian wars, and inquisitions that tortured and killed dissenters. Different eras gave different meanings to the word "Christian."
The early history of Islam seems almost to run the reverse. It began with Muhammad as a man on horseback, leading armies against the enemies of his faith. While the Koran, like the Bible, speaks of love, forgiveness, and eternal happiness, it also condemns Islam's enemies. Early Muslims therefore followed Muhammad's warlike lead in spreading the religion. Moreover, unlike the New Testament, the Koran and hadith contain detailed instructions for secular life and therefore lent themselves more readily to politico-religious states. Yet, after Islam had been established as the dominant religion from Spain, through the Middle East, and all the way to Asia, it managed to find a niche for non-believers in a way that medieval Christendom did not, and Islamic civilization entered on an enlightened period, cultivating science, scholarship, architecture, and other civilized pursuits.
Looking at the two civilizations in the year 1200 A.D., as many have noted, one would surely have picked Islamic civilization to bring forth modernity and Christian civilization to oppose it. What happened, at just about that time, is that both cultures had the opportunity to incorporate the classical world's view of reason as a trustworthy source of knowledge. And to put the matter far too simply but still accurately: the Christian world seized the opportunity, while the Islamic world turned away (see Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages
, 1996, pp. 184-5). Institutionally, of course, the Christian Church resisted the scientific discoveries and enlightened thought that flowed from its compromise with sovereign reason, but it was forced to give ground again and again. Islamic civilization had nipped the "threat" of sovereign reason in the bud, and what gave ground were Islam's civilized traditions.
Today, Islamic countries in the Middle East tend to have non-democratic and repressive governments that do not respect the civil liberties and economic rights of their citizens. (The one partial exception is Turkey, which Kemal Ataturk established after World War I as a secular state.) Culturally, most of those countries are influenced by a version of Islam that emphasizes obedience to a creed, intolerance and hatred for those who do not follow the creed, and a disregard for the freedom and dignity of the individual. Worse still, radical Islamists—al-Qaeda members, for example—have recently gained access to modern technology and weapons. A primitive creed plus advanced implements of war makes a deadly combination.
That is the reality tolerant American Muslims must face as believers in Islam. They must recognize that, whatever Islam's foundational creed and early history, it is no accident that the modern Islamic world has bred terrorist fanatics who have murdered innocent people not only in the West but in their own countries; repressive regimes that impose medieval codes on women, denying them the most basic freedom to live as human beings; people who celebrate when their children strap on bombs and blow up themselves and other children. Thus, Americans rightly fear that those coming to America from the Islamic world might carry such cultural poison with them, that mosques and madrassas in America are promulgating such malevolent attitudes and harboring if not actually breeding terrorists whose goals are to murder Americans and destroy America.
Doubtless, the majority of Muslim immigrants desire the same things as other Americans: economic opportunity, safety, personal liberty, the control of their own destinies afforded by private property, and protection of those freedoms by limited governments with their powers checked by democratic institutions. Certainly, many American Muslims were horrified by terrorist attacks carried out in the name of their religion and wish only to live in peace with their non-Muslim fellow Americans. But although that may be true, it is no less true that some Muslim immigrants—perhaps a significantly dangerous number—are not so tolerant, and some are making war on the United States.
The Muslim Predicament
In these circumstances, what are their fellow citizens entitled to expect of American Muslims? To begin with, one would hope that American Muslims who were shocked on 9/11 by the crimes perpetrated in the name of their religion would make a top priority of examining the role that Islamic traditions may have had in producing the terrorists. This would be similar to the Catholic Church's examination of its institutional behavior during World War II and its expressed sorrow for any influence Catholic anti-Semitism may have played in preparing the ground for Nazi anti-Semitism. A column in the New York Times(Peter Steinfels, "Beliefs," December 7, 2002) reports that this is occurring: "Privately, many [American Muslims] have nursed painful questions about how such an aberration sprouted from the soil of Islam."
That is all to the good. Unfortunately, in the year since the attack, far too many American Muslims have been talking mostly about how American foreign policy needs to change if Muslims are going to be weaned from their sympathies for terrorists. But that is a red herring. What would we have thought if, after World War II, Germans had argued that yes, Hitler was wrong to murder millions of Jews, and yes, the Nazi regime committed some war crimes, but, after all, after World War I the Versailles treaty was too harsh on Germany and there were repressed German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland. We would correctly have judged that the Germans making such excuses were morally obtuse or worse.
In any case, changes in U.S. foreign policy—a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American withdrawal from Saudi Arabia—would not halt the war by Islamists. More than 200 people died in Nigeria because of a journalist's remark that Muhammad might like to marry a Miss World contestant. In Iran, the government passed a death sentence against a professor who said that people should not follow religious leaders blindly. A woman who fled from Somalia to the Netherlands, in order to avoid a forced marriage, was recently forced to flee the Netherlands because she spoke out against Muslim immigrants' oppression of their female relatives. These events have nothing to do with America's Middle East policy and everything to do with a hatred of the modern world.
What Muslims Must Do
American Muslims face the challenge of making certain that neither their religion nor its reputation are tainted by fanaticism and the terrorism it breeds. In Christianity, creeds and denominations have been used with considerable success to establish different public identities for different groups. Today, for instance, we grasp immediately that a Baptist will tend to favor traditional lifestyles, while a Congregationalist is likely to be more accepting of variant lifestyles. Perhaps Muslims seeking to protect their reputations need to undertake a similar conceptualization of different tendencies. Of course, Islam has long been divided into Sunnis and Shi'ites, as well as several minor sects. But these are not particularly salient distinctions with regard to today's issues. Far more relevant is the classification of contemporary Islam that Daniel Pipes offers: traditionalist, reformist, secularist, and fundamentalist ( In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power
, p. 113).
These, however, are broad scholarly designations, not precise and emotionally powerful self-identifications.
Muslims may wonder why they should have to undertake such an effort. Is it simply so that non-Muslims in America will not attribute to them views they do not hold? It may seem unfair that they should be responsible for preventing such misattributions, but Gresham's law is at work in personal reputation no less than in the reputation of coinage. In any mixture, the bad wins out by appropriating the reputation of that which is good in the mixture. Denominational identification can pre-empt this by preventing a conceptual mixing in the first place.
For instance, on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, a major conference was held at the Finsbury mosque in London, a hotbed of hate that is frequented by al-Qaeda sympathizers and members. Called "A Towering Day in History," this moral obscenity was attended by a thousand Muslims to celebrate al-Qaeda's deeds (Farrukh Dhondy, "London Muslims 'Celebrate' 9/11," City Journal, Autumn 2002). How advantageous it would have been for American Muslims if that event, instead of being journalistically identified as "Islamic," had been specifically characterized as the work of an Islamic denomination known for its crazy ideas and evil behavior, rather on the order of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, or as the exclusive product of Wahhabism, the particular poison peddled by the Saudi government.
But branding one's views not only avoids unwarranted blame, it also wins for one's group the merits to which it is entitled.
Thus, American Muslims urgently need to undertake three tasks. First, they need to establish clear and public distinctions between clerics, mosques, and fellow Muslims who adhere to the values of an open society and those who do not. No doubt, mistakes in judgment will be made. Opposition to an American war with Iraq or some other American policy is not a litmus test that separates the radical from the reasonable and says little about an individual's commitment to the value of liberty. But sympathy with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad speaks volumes, none of it good.
Secondly, once the relevant distinctions have been made within the community, American Muslims who wish to enjoy the esteem of their fellow citizens should make these distinctions known to the public and the police. Occasionally, it may happen that a person who expresses sympathy for al-Qaeda is no worse than very stupid and very deluded. But that should not excuse him from being publicly ostracized by his community or privately reported to the FBI. In this connection, it is reassuring that Jean Abi Nader, former head of the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, has said that when it comes to enhancing national security, "the Arab-American community from the beginning has been on board. We've met with the Justice Department and we continue to meet with them on a regular basis" (CNN'sAmerican Morning with Paula Zahn, November 18, 2002).
Lastly, American Muslims should follow the lead of men like Abou El Fadl. They should preach and promote the universal human values of free speech, inquiry, and exchange; individual liberty; toleration; and representative government. And they should use their cultural institutions to raise a new generation of Muslims who will incorporate these principles into their hearts and minds, in the same way that millions of other immigrants—Catholics from Italy and Ireland, Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, Buddhists from Asia, Hindus and Sikhs from India—have done and continue to do. Tolerance does not mean agreement with other religions or lifestyles. It does mean a deep commitment to respecting the rights and freedom of those with whom you might disagree.
In the past, other immigrants to America provided the compatriots they left behind with examples and arguments for individual liberty, tolerance, free markets, and limited government in their home countries. America indeed was the shining city on a hill for the rest of the world. American Muslims are uniquely positioned to export to their brothers overseas a more enlightened Islam that will vanquish the hate on which terrorism is based.
If more American Muslims do not take up this task, it suggests moral flabbiness or obtuseness. It also might suggest that support and sympathy for bin Laden and his cause are widespread among a substantial segment of the Islamic community in this country. It might suggest that many American Muslims are frightened that their homicidal co-religionists will target them with fatwas, death warrants against those like Salman Rushdie who dare depart from the orthodoxy. Indeed, Abou El Fadl has received many such threats from Muslims in America. If this is the case, Americans had better know that the Islamist element in this country is powerful enough to generate such fear among American Muslims and thus probably powerful enough to launch more terrorist attacks against all of us. But the fact that men like Abou El Fadl and others have the courage to speak out should be an example for others, since silence in these circumstances indeed can be taken as sanctioning evil.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.