2016-06-30
I met Zuhdi Jasser when my organization, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, conducted anti-terrorism training for the Muslim community of Phoenix, Ariz. What surprises me about Dr. Jasser's article is that he has seen firsthand how American Muslim organizations are working around the clock to combat terror--not through what he calls "rote statements" and "empty pronouncements" but through direct work with local Muslim communities across the country, helping to fortify them against individuals interested in propagating extreme ideologies that distort Islam's teachings.

Both public condemnations of terrorism and work within the Muslim community are necessary in these times. Many Americans still wonder why Muslims haven't condemned terrorism, and many American Muslims don't know what to do to demonstrate their interest in being part of the solution to the problem of extremism. Efforts to condemn terrorism are not merely public relations stunts; they are part of a genuine and far-reaching movement by American Muslims to ensure the security of their communities and their nation.

During the Pheonix event, for example, local Muslim leaders invited law enforcement officials, who expressed excitement about the progress of our National Grassroots Campaign to Fight Terrorism. The cornerstone of the campaign focuses on teaching mosques, through illustrations of best-practices from mosques around the country, how to demonstrate their financial and ideological transparency. It also encourages local Muslim leaders reach out to law enforcement officials in order to demonstrate what we already know--that mainstream American Muslims have nothing to hide. The campaign has been endorsed by the largest Muslim umbrella organization in the U.S.--the Islamic Society of North America--and has also been lauded by the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Organizations like MPAC are deeply engaged in dialogue on the national level about combating terror. We are involved in meetings in Washington with counterterrorism officials, and we speak around the country to Muslim communities to raise awareness about our American Muslim identity. It is out of our Islamic obligation that we take our social responsibility as American citizens very seriously.

As Americans, it is our duty to ensure the security of our society. As Americans, it is our duty to ensure that hatred and violence are not promoted among our communities here. As Americans, we have our own voices and our own opinions. In the pursuit of security, however, we must be wary of alienating the very elements within the American Muslim community that we seek to galvanize and mobilize (or even reform). Filling space in the media with vented frustrations is not acceptable for those who claim to be leaders, especially while organizations that work at the grassroots level to develop effective counterterrorism programs and actively combat extremism continue to be undermined by skeptics and Muslim-bashers.

Islam teaches love, mercy, compassion, and justice, and those of us with the ability and opportunity to speak to the public should uphold these principles, especially when confronted by those who foment anti-American or anti-Islamic rhetoric. I love my country, America, and I love my faith, Islam. I want my children to have an opportunity to love both and not be forced to choose one over the other, as if they are mutually exclusive. The rhetoric of mutual exclusivity is the rhetoric of extremism. For the sake of all of our children, let's not fall into that trap.

The term "Islamo-Fascism," utilized by Dr. Jasser, is as interesting as it is vague. It is the latest example of too-often-used terms--such as Islamism, Islamist radical violent extremism, and radical Islamic fundamentalism--that do not aid in solving the problems they're intended to describe. There is so much time spent labeling, and yet each label is insufficient, failing to contribute to productive efforts to address the problems.

Winning over bin Laden's audience
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  • The United States is spending millions, if not billions, of dollars on public diplomacy programs to educate the Muslim world about America and its values. If we turn around then and utilize incendiary terminology like "Islamo-fascism," then we do a disservice to these counterterrorism efforts. The main parameter for success in this public diplomacy is whether the message will resonate with Muslim communities around the world. If I were a betting man (Islam forbids gambling), I'd wager that the term "Islamo-fascist" will fail to get much traction in Cairo or Karachi and will only serve to alienate people there. I am sure that even in Mr. Jasser's hometown of Phoenix that term will not resonate among Muslims. As American Muslims leaders, we have a responsibility to speak the language of the people we serve in order to realize the change that we all agree is necessary.

    Too often we use the "Islamic" adjective to describe terrorists and terrorism without ever using the "Islamic" label when describing moderates. In doing so, we are giving in to the exploitation of Islam by extremists like Osama bin Laden, who want to cloak their nefarious and destructive ambitions in Islam and strip moderates of their Islamic legitimacy. We should be promoting the views of those who seek change without terrorism by giving them a voice and a place in the public sphere rather than marginalizing them.

    It's not the meaning of terrorism or fascism that should be the center of debate. We all know these evils, and we all work to reject these strains of social ailments in our communities. What we should be debating is the term "moderate." Is it a moderate who goes to powerful politicians and right-wing groups to tell them what they want to hear and to support the status quo policies? Or is it a moderate who tells our administration, our Congress, and our media what they need to hear and how they need to change their policies and perspectives to be more effective in ridding the world of terrorism?

    I argue for the latter. As long as any Muslim religious leader renounces terrorism as an instrument of change, we should be working with that person, even if his views are "conservative." By winning the support of so-called "conservatives," we will be able to reach out to those segments of the community that need the most attention.

    Leaders who simultaneously oppose religious extremism and openly criticize our government's policies are our strongest allies in winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. We cannot afford to work with false moderates who only support U.S. policies in order to gain millions of dollars in financial aid, and then turn on us once they achieve influence in the region.

    It is not bin Laden we aim to change, for that is a fantasy. Rather, we should be winning over the audience bin Laden works to influence, an audience who will determine whether we succeed in anti-terrorism efforts or not. I hope Dr. Jasser agrees. We need to fine tune our language in order to be more effective in that struggle, rather than relying on sweeping generalizations and finger-pointing. That style is getting old and it does not advance America's interests in the Muslim world one inch.

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