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City of Brass

In the context of my earlier thoughts about how the muslim community can help combat extremism, one more thing occurs to me; perhaps what is also needed is a
rebranding of the War on Terror. You cannot wage war against an emotion
or a tactic, and the Bush Administration’s alternative slogan of
“Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism” (GSAVE) isn’t much better. I propose the following: War On Muharib; Brave Against Terror (WOMBAT).

First, the war is explicitly on the muharib, not Islam or
muslims but rather a specific group that is condemned in the Qur’an itself.
This lets us communicate exactly what our intentions are to the muslim
world. Second, the right response to terror is not to run screaming or
indulge in feel-good symbolism like taking shoes off or demanding
loyalty tests of your fellow citizens; that stuff is truly letting the
terrorists win. Instead you simply want to remain brave in the face of
terror. (Brave is also a verb, as in to brave against something, so
it’s actually pretty concise yet meaningful). Lastly, the imagery is great, you don’t want to mess with a
wombat.

I think if all muslims
began using WOMBAT as our acronym of choice immediately it would help a
great deal. Ok I admit this is a bit silly, but far less so than WOT/GSAVE.
In contrast, WOMBAT actually makes sense.

Think about it; it grows on
you.

At the White House National Prayer Breakfast this morning, President Obama quoted (among other things) a Hadith of the Holy Prophet Mohammed SAW:

We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all
great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your
fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes
until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
And the same
is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for
humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one
another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those
with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging.
For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the
well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every
issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve
ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It
requires us not only to believe, but to do – to give something of ourselves
for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a
greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs
can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make
peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those
who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of
faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of
the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that I’m
announcing later today.

What is beautiful about this is that Obama explicitly ties together and emphasizes the common heritage of faith, and the sense of civic purpose that churches and mosques alike engage in as essential components in our social fabric. It’s also worth noting that Obama alludes to those who have no faith at all – after all, it makes no sense to exclude atheists from that sense of shared purpose.

The National Prayer Breakfast is quite a major event – also in attendance were former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (delivering the keynote address) and various lawmakers from the House and Senate (Democrats and Republicans alike). Christianity Today Magazine was in attendance and live-twittered the event (@CTmagazine).

The intriguing thing about the National Prayer Breakfast is that it isn’t an official government event but rather a private one put together by the somewhat secretive Fellowship Foundation, a Christian evangelical group headed by Douglas Coe, named one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People:

Coe, 76, has been called the
“stealth Billy Graham.” He specializes in the spiritual struggles of
the powerful. … Coe and his
associates sometimes travel (on their own dime) with congressional
members abroad and–according to investigations by the Los Angeles
Times and Harper’s–have played backstage roles in such diplomatic
coups as the 1976 Camp David accords. Yet Coe also befriends
dictators. “He would still hold out hope that these people could be
redeemed and try to work through them to help the people over whom
they have authority,” says Richard Carver, president of the
Fellowship’s board of directors. Some skeptical Evangelicals
criticize Coe’s indiscriminate alliances and his downplaying of
Jesus’ divinity in favor of his earthly teachings–which allows Coe
to pray with Muslim and Buddhist leaders.

I’ve posted the full transcript of President Obama’s remarks here.

I’d like to highlight one of the essential blogs in the Islamsphere – Muslim Media Watch (MMW). It’s a group weblog that tracks issues related to women and Islam, and features a broad stable of writers. One of the MMW editors, Fatemeh, does a weekly wrap-up of MMW posts at Talk Islam that serves as an invaluable quick briefing. It’s a great site and everyone should be reading it. 

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.

Related: on-going coverage of collateral damage at Talk Islam. Also, Scot MacLeod at TIME’s excellent Mideast Blog has a great roundup of analysis on the promise of the George Mitchell apoointment.