WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 (UPI) — An American Muslim scholar finds it “condescending” to dismiss hate speech from Muslim leaders as “rhetorical” while holding Christian and Jewish leaders to higher standards of discourse.
“For a long time, Muslim American organizations have been allowed to get away with all kinds of hate speech against the U.S., against Jews, against Christians — all forms of anti-Semitism — and somehow it’s been accommodated within the whole program of multiculturalism,” Ahmed al-Rahim told a forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center this week.
Al-Rahim, born in Beirut to an Iraqi Shiite family and raised in Texas and New York, is a founding member of the American Islamic Congress, an organization formed after Sept. 11, 2001, in the belief that American Muslims should take the lead in rejecting Muslim extremism and promoting democracy in the Muslim world.
It claims 1,000 members across the country. Its mission, al-Rahim said, is a broad definition of Islam that includes all American Muslims, engagement in the political process, and “to be self-critical.”
Al-Rahim is preceptor in Classical Arabic Language and Literature at Harvard and is completing his Ph.D. at Yale on Islamic intellectual history in the Mongol period.
“The politics of these American Muslim organizations has been very defensive,” he said, promulgating an “essentialist,” monolithic image of Islam that the media reflect. “Their agenda is Wahabi, it’s political.”
Reporters who would not ask for the Christian or Jewish positions on issues accept statements from Muslim organizations that lack nuance.
Ethics and Public Policy Center President Hillel Fradkin suggested that the “extraordinary” diversity of Muslims in the United States — roughly 30 percent African-American, 30 percent from South Asia, and 20 to 25 percent from the Arab world — precludes a definitive “Muslim position” on most issues.
Al-Rahim said U.S. groups set up to monitor hate crimes against Muslims don’t regulate their own language or show concern about language coming from the Muslim world. For example, he said, when retiring Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad urged the Muslim world to unite against the Jews, no Muslim leader denounced him.
Muslim leaders should be fighting for human rights in the Muslim world, he said. “Muslim organizations in this country do not deal with these issues in any way.”
He also said Muslim leaders should be defending the rights of minorities in the Muslim world. “As American Muslims, we’re a minority here, and we enjoy tremendous rights.” But he said the leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the American Muslim Council — “they’re all connected” — do not apply this example to Copts in Egypt, Christians in Sudan, or Berbers in North Africa.
Al-Rahim said many American Muslims are afraid to condemn violence and hate speech. “I’ll give you a concrete example. One of our board members (Tarek Masoud) published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Sept. 14 (2001) after the attacks, basically apologizing to America for what had happened and apologizing for the reaction of the American Muslim organizations in not condemning these attacks right away.”
Al-Rahim said Masoud received no fewer than 20 death threats. When Al-Rahim arranged to meet Masoud, the latter — fearing al-Rahim would assassinate him — sent e-mails to friends saying, “I’m meeting with Ahmed al-Rahim. If anything happens …”
The Iraqi-American community was very involved in lobbying for the war to topple Saddam Hussein, al-Rahim said.
“We lobbied Congress. We lobbied individuals in the Pentagon and other places. We felt this was a way we could bring about change in the Muslim world.” He said a Zogby poll before the war showed that 60 percent of Arab Americans were for it. He called the effort “a victory for Iraqi lobbyists.”
“If the U.S. cuts and runs, it’s going to be a disaster not only for Iraq but for the region,” he said.
Al-Rahim was in Iraq for two months this summer working on education. “I have to say that the majority of Iraqis were very conflicted about the U.S. On the one hand, they were happy to have the U.S. there; they were happy to see Saddam gone. And they realized that if the U.S. left, Iraq would fall apart. But they were unhappy with how slow things were going. They felt the U.S. could do things much quicker, particularly the issue of electricity. They expected that a superpower could bring in the right technology, and that just didn’t happen.”
But generally, he said, Iraqis wants the United States to stay “until it gets the job done.”
Al-Rahim described what it was like growing up as an American Muslim.
Although his family was secular, he started attending mosques in Houston after the Islamic revolution in Iran gave Shiites new confidence.
The message he received in the mosques was intensely political. He was 19 when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini died in 1989. “The mosque had arranged a summer trip for us to go to Iran to commemorate the 40th day of his passing — and also to commemorate the installation of (Seyed Ali) Khamanei as a leader.”
At the site of the former U.S. Embassy, the American Muslim youths chanted, “Death to America!” as Khamanei gave a fiery speech. “It was as if we were at a rock concert,” al-Rahim said. “There I was. An American citizen in Iran … chanting, ‘Death to America!’ That was the identity I got at the mosques.” He found this troubling.
After Sept. 11 he came to realize that “those words actually mean something. There are Muslims out there who are willing to take those words to their logical ends.”
He considers it a good thing that the U.S. government is beginning to crack down on such infractions as “smuggling money to Syria and other places.”
Al-Rahim said American Muslims should be creating Muslim cultural centers where students could learn about their tradition and history, “not necessarily in a religious way but as part of who they are and where they come from.”
He called for the development of a chaplaincy program in colleges and universities. “There is really no way for imams to be certified in this country,” he said, noting that they can “get off the plane” from anywhere in the world and become head of a mosque.
“A lot of foreign imams are preaching something that is not at all relevant to what American Muslims have experienced.”
His imam in Houston was from Iraq. “In no time” he was leading the community in support of groups like Hizbollah, he said, adding “There was no accountability.”
Much of the funding for U.S. mosques comes from Saudi Arabia and Iran, al-Rahim said. “The American Muslim community needs to be satisfied with smaller mosques that they can control and where the leadership is not imposed from the outside.”
Al-Rahim said that after 9/11 the American people embraced Muslims, but the established Muslim organizations did not reciprocate that embrace. However, “average Muslims did a lot to reach out to their American counterparts. … Individuals can only do so much on a local level,” he said. “It needs to be institutionalized.”
“The issue has to do with authority. American Muslim converts tend to see authority coming from the Muslim world. And they are very afraid of speaking up and saying, ‘I understand things differently.'”
He said African-American Muslims could contribute greatly to U.S. mosques because they understand the issue of civil rights. “But they are not given positions of leadership. And what they end up doing is proving that they are more extreme than the extremists, because that’s how you are ‘authentic.'”