THERE ARE an estimated 6 million Muslims in the United States, and the vast majority of them lead lives of peace and moderation. Like traditional Muslims the world over, most American Muslims shun violence and place great emphasis on virtue, charity, and religious tolerance.
Which is why it is so dismaying that American Muslims are rarely heard to raise their voices against the terrorists and fanatics who are ruining Islam's reputation.
Suppose that on Christmas Eve a group of Catholic militants had hijacked an airliner and taken its 155 passengers and crew members hostage. Suppose they murdered one of the hostages in cold blood, then demanded the release of several radical priests who had been imprisoned for crimes committed as members of terrorist organizations.
If thugs claiming to act as devout Catholics ever did such things, the loudest cries of outrage in the United States would come from American Catholics. From the cardinals on down, the Catholic community would recoil in shock and disgust. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops would issue a statement explicitly denouncing the terrorists. No one would be left with the impression that decent Catholics turn a blind eye to violence carried out in the name of Catholicism.
In 1998, agents of Osama bin Laden bombed the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya (left), and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (right), killing 224. Yet leading Muslim organizations in the United States will not label Bin Laden a terrorist.
But when a group of Islamic fanatics, reportedly from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen terrorist group that wants Kashmir brought under Muslim control, hijacked an Indian plane and killed a passenger, America's Muslim leadership was largely silent. There was no outpouring of condemnation from the mosques. Prominent Muslim organizations didn't call press conferences to blast the hijackers for disgracing Islam. Once again Americans saw an occurrence of Islamic fundamentalist terror, and once again they heard scarcely any word of sorrow or revulsion from America's Muslim spokesmen.
Are the spokesmen the problem?
Among the best-known Islamic organizations in the United States are the American Muslim Council (AMC), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Although each sometimes functions as a straightforward clearinghouse for Muslim information and advocacy, they are also swift to attack anyone who is critical of Islamic extremism — even when the "criticism" is mere reporting.
For example, when the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998 by agents of Osama bin Laden, these groups did not cry out against the terrorists or express horror that 224 victims could have been murdered by people claiming to be Muslims. Rather, they seized the moment to lecture the media not to stereotype Islam. MPAC issued a dry caution against "tagging terrorism with a religious label" and pointed out that "some of the rescue workers … were Muslim." It has yet to acknowledge that bin Laden is a terrorist.
The FBI's recent arrest of two alleged members of the Armed Islamic Group, an exceptionally brutal terror group based in Algeria, evoked a similar reaction. The American Muslim Council released a statement condemning terrorism "by any individual or group of any faith" — but not actually mentioning the Armed Islamic Group or its horrifying record of bloodshed.
Once you notice the pattern, you see it repeatedly. MPAC, CAIR, and the AMC readily declare that "terrorism has no place in Islam," (as an AMC press release put it last week), but they never attack specific Islamic terrorist or radical groups. That is a clue to their real agenda.
Speaking at a State Department forum last January, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, leader of the Sufi-inspired Islamic Supreme Council of America, said: "How can you know a moderate Muslim from non-moderate? One who denounces extremism." It is an obvious litmus test. In Kabbani's view, the selective indignation of organizations like the AMC is no accident. "There are many Muslim organizations that claim to speak on behalf of the Muslim community," he warned. "But they in reality are not moderate, but extremist. They hijacked the mike … but they give a wrong idea about Islam."
Kabbani is alarmed by the inroads the Islamic extremists have made in the United States. But that is a problem that "can be solved if the West better understands Islam and builds bridges with the moderate Muslims, the traditional Muslims. This way, the Muslim community will eliminate the extremist threat from within."
Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, a prominent Sufi Muslim, is alarmed by the inroads being made by Islamist extremists.
Islamic extremists — scholars use the term "Islamists" to distinguish the radicals from traditional Muslims — are skilled at victim politics and media intimidation. They pounce on any criticism of Islamic militants with charges of bigotry and "Islamophobia." As a result, the media shy away from candid discussions of Islam; when they do venture into Muslim issues, they allow themselves to be guided by the polished Islamists. Rarely do Americans get to hear from traditional Muslim moderates, even though theirs is the authentic voice of Islam.
Kabbani's Islamic Supreme Council is one example of a traditional Muslim organization, deeply committed to peace and moderation, which deserves to be better known. The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, a leading sponsor of Muslim schools and youth programs, is another. They are not obsessed with politics and press coverage; it is not their way to seek out the media. All the more reason, then, for the media to start seeking them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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