I’ve often dismissed the idea that muslims in the West have any obligation to apologize for or routinely condemn on demand the actions of the extremist minorities who commit acts of terror in the name of the faith they claim to share. The American muslim community fights extremism every day by simply living their lives as model patriotic citizens. There’s no need for a mllion muslim march or other such symbolic nonsense; the new McCarthyism that demands we continually condemn this and denounce that only serves to perpetuate the prejudice and fear. We will sign no loyalty test and we will not submit to second-class status.
That said, there are indeed positions the American muslim community can adopt that will indeed be of benefit in the global fight against the muharib. In discussions with other muslim americans, this topic usually leads to suggestions about importing moderate imams, madrasah curricula, etc but I think that this is treating symptoms rather than cause. To be honest, I take the view that religious extremism is largely a reactionary phenomenon, grounded in 50 years of geopolitics and the colonial legacy; the Middle East in particular has never had an opportunity to develop along normal social and economic lines, due to the curse of oil wealth (an argument that Fareed Zakaria documented quite well in his book, The Future of Freedom).
I don’t think muslims can actively do more than they are already doing (muslims in the west, anyway). As far as muslims outside the West, I am not sure there is more they can be doing either. Extremists will never be silenced; the trick is to make their words fall upon deaf ears.
For starters, I think that muslims in the west can make a difference by making common cause in calling for an end to collateral damage and aerial bombardment of civilian areas in military conflicts, with the same moral reasoning as that used for cluster bombs or mines or white phosphorous. There was an excellent op-ed in the Guardian that lays out the case for this in detail. We must be honest and accept that such a rule (note: NOT a law! but rather a preference in the rules of engagement. Obama can achieve this with a single executive order) might well mean that in the short term, *more* ground troops will be needed, especially in conflict regions in the muslim world (I am thinking of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Darfur, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen…).
Second, muslims should recognize that despite the botched implementation (conceded by President Bush) during the Iraq War, it is in the best interests of everyone for “democracy promotion” to continue to be a central plank of US foreign policy. This does serve to reduce extremism and promote liberal values. The muslim community in the West often has a knee-jerk aversion to the idea (“bombs dont spread freedom”, etc) but thats a false extreme. As Secretary of State Clinton said, it’s “smart power” not soft or hard. Democracy promotion is by far the single best long-term solution to extremism of all kinds, not just Islamic. The muslim community can make a big difference by advocating it as policy AND keeping pressure on the Administration via their continued attention to its implementation. The default position of the muslim american community at present, which is “never criticize a muslim country / leave everyone alone and maybe they will leave us alone” is indeed pre-9-11 thinking that effectively removes us from the decision (and oversight) loop. We must not unilaterally exclude ourselves form the debate about how best to leverage American resources to promote the freedoms in the Islamic world that we ourselves enjoy.
Finally, I think that the muslim american community can regain a lot of credibility by making an explicit effort to cease the obsession with Israel as a central plank of foreign policy. For one thing, the exclusive outrage over the Palestinians’ plight obscures attention for other oppressed muslims, such as those in Darfur or the Rohingya. The Obama Administration deserves some space on the issue (Gaza did after all precede the Administration) and with the inspired appointment of George Mitchell (who has called for a freeze on settlements in the past) and President Obama’s explicit acknowledgement of the Arab peace proposals, there is reason anew for optimism in the long run. Remember how close we came to peace at Taba; it’s reasonable to believe that we might yet come close again, given the early focus that Obama has placed upon resolving it. For the muslim community, focusing on human rights beyond the limited sphere of Israel-Palestine, will position ourselves as a community dedicated to freedom rather than one unfairly painted as obsessed with Jews.
UPDATE: Haroon Moghul, one of the founders of the Islamsphere, weighs in on the issue here with ideas of his own. Also, in a somewhat more light-hearted, but still sincere, vein I propose an alternative branding to the war on terror: WOMBAT.