2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission of the author from a speech given to the U.S. State Department's "Open Forum" on January 28, 2002.

When we speak of the rising voice of moderate Muslims, there are two important points: that it is rising because in the past it has been the silent majority, and that it is an authentic moderate voice as a result of acting in accordance with the Quran, not against it.

These two points are critical to the policy-making process and therefore to America's image and interests in the Muslim world. There exists a healthy and eager segment in Muslim countries interested in dialogue and constructive engagement, and in serving as a bridge between our society and the Muslim world. This voice is central to a more effective and representative US policy toward that region. More importantly, former special envoy to the Middle East peace process Dennis Ross stated that one main reason for Oslo's failure was that the environment around the negotiating table sharply contrasted with the environment on the streets.

Seeing that our embassies have become more isolated from the masses, and our channel of information is more technological than human, and our traditional means of relying on foreign government sources is not always reliable, then understanding the moderate Muslim voices become valuable.

Some observations on the moderate voice are in order. The moderate voice is not an elitist or Westernized voice. It is not a lonely or persecuted voice. And it is not a purely secular voice. It is a voice of the Muslim mainstream, grounded in a Quranic verse: We have willed you to be a community of moderation (2:143) and in the admonition of the Prophet Muhammad to stay away from extremism.

There are Muslim extremists, just as there are Christian and Jewish extremists. That is different from saying, however, that there is split in Islam, and unfortunately, moderates are at times defined as those who are not religiously observant or they are fighting, even repressing, other Muslims. The focus must remain on the interests at stake: ending the scourge of global terrorism, promoting Middle East peace, and preventing nuclear conflicts. Consistency on human rights and democracy will help us in achieving these goals. The moderate Muslim voice does not acquiesce to issues of freedom and justice. It is the inevitable voice of the future.

The word reform is found in the Qur'an. In Arabic, it is called islah and is the root meaning of the word maslahah, which means the public interest. Intellectual giants such as Wali Allah, Afghani and Abdu are among the most notable that used reason to create revivalist movements. Wali Allah of India helped to re-open the gates of ijtihaad and condemned blind imitation. Afghani challenged Muslims to think of Islam consistent with reason and science. Abdu believed in educational reforms throughout Muslim society.

These same concerns are raised today with respect to the plight of Muslims as illiteracy, poverty and a lack of effective political systems create an environment that is more susceptible to criminal activity. One challenge for Muslims today is to shift from the paradigm of the colonial model, which perpetuates the notion of Jews and Christians as agents of colonialism. The perception that globalization is merely a tool of Western imperialism, closely reminiscent of the past under colonialist rule, results in antagonism, instead of efforts of change in Muslim society.

One concern over Islamic movements is the apprehension that they will come into power with an anti-democratic orientation. As a reflection of support for the status quo, the official US government response is to remain silent when these groups are banned from political activity. When that suppression takes place, however, the transformation leads to more radicalized groups. Prevention of dissent in Saudi Arabia led to bin Laden's eruption in Afghanistan and hence the formation of the Al-Qaeda. Banning groups anywhere forces them to go underground and creates a more radicalized current. Despite the fact that these radical groups are real and are ongoing, the moderate voice, while remaining alive, has not been heard.

When 500,000 Muslims rallied in Pakistan last October for peace and moderation, it was a footnote in the press reports. In that rally, statements against terrorism and for tolerance were made, yet attention remained fixated on the few who burned effigies. After Sept. 11, Muslims from around the world expressed shock and remorse over the terrorist attacks, ranging from a moment of silence during a soccer match in Iran, to candlelight vigils throughout the Occupied Territories of Palestine. Statements of solidarity with the American people coupled with condemnations of the terrorist attacks were sent from practically every Muslim country.

Lack of widespread hostility toward Americans and even many aspects of American culture is one feature of mainstream Muslims. On a more substantive level, however, is the yearning for self-government and freedom, a sentiment found on the streets of every Muslim city. To some, a form of Islamic democracy is a means to achieve those goals. The moderate Muslim voice is based on the need for equity, civil society within each Muslim country and on rapprochement with the West on the global level.

Some may say that the expressions of moderation and support for the US are made for political expediency, for survival. But, to many Muslims standing firm against terrorism is an Islamic obligation. In principle, Islam has no room for terrorism. In practical terms, more Muslims die from terrorist attacks than any other group, whether instigated by Muslim extremists or Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Bhuddist extremists.

When 200,000 Bosnians were killed by paramilitary groups and 20,000 Bosnian Muslim women were systematically raped by forces under control of the Serbian government which is closely linked to the Serbian Orthodox Church, that to the Bosnians is terrorism. When 100,000 Algerians perished because of the problem of terrorism, the main victims are Muslims.

The prognosis for Muslims worldwide is bleak, for conditions are more ripe for anarchy and lawlessness than stability and economic advancements. Refugees emanate from Muslim countries more than any other part of the world. The Muslim masses want Islam to be a vehicle for change. While terrorism has become a problem in the Muslim world, it is erroneous to explain this problem of violence as one rooted in Islam or Islamic thinking. Rather, the Muslim world turns to religion as respite from economic hardship, political instability and other consequences of failed states.

It is popular of late to quote verses out of context from the Qur'an to somehow argue that war-mongering and terrorism are central to Muslim belief and practice. Those who perpetrate violence in the name of Islam distort and abuse the texts in the name of their cause, but the texts themselves are not to blame and should not be the subject of scrutiny, since legitimate Muslim scholarship utterly rejects the aberrant interpretations. Qur'an and hadith are clear in terms of supporting conflict only as a last resort in order to defend oneself against clear military aggression. Numerous restrictions apply, including the prohibition against killing civilians, destroying buildings and fighting other Muslims.

Because many Muslims seek forms of government that incorporate Islamic law to one degree or another, the concept of Sharia needs more thoughtful approaches in US policy-making. Sharia is a core of laws that comprise basic principles (based on Qur'an and hadith) and man-made laws that are derived from the basic principles (fiqh). Imposing Sharia violates the Quranic injunction: Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith. The notion of religious police, therefore, violates this code. The exploitation of Sharia leads to persecution of religious minorities and women.

There is this oversimplification done by both self-proclaimed experts and Muslim extremists that use Sharia as a political football fixating on the penal code and not the call for government responsibilities--for example, to be accountable to the people through a social contract. The five goals of Sharia, accepted by all Islamic jurists are to secure and develop life, mind, faith, property and family. These are consistent with human rights declarations and the U.S. Constitution. In a national conference the Muslim Public Affairs Council held over the winter break, one speaker presented the thesis that the U.S. Constitution is the closest human document that fulfills the goals of Sharia. His message was well-received by all 1,000 participants.

While it is wrong to impose the Sharia on non-Muslims or Muslims against their will, it is also wrong to disallow Muslims, who seek Sharia as a way of advancing their societies, from participating in political affairs. Legal systems based on Shari'a are a reality of the 21st century in that they already exist in many parts of the Muslim world. To suggest that the only acceptable form of government involves the absolute separation of church and state is to ask for more tension and rejection.

Other challenges are facing us as Americans interested in U.S. policy in the Muslim world. American values of freedom, human rights and justice are cherished by all of us as citizens of this great country. Those values are not perceived to be America's foreign policy goals.

Anti-American sentiment is a problem, and not just in the Middle East or South Asia, but also Latin America and Southeast Asia and even Europe. On a positive note, the Bush Administration has been very constructive and thoughtful in building an international coalition against terrorism, in seeking international authorization for the attempt to defeat international terrorism. As a result, Afghani men and women are now free to choose their form of attire and seek rights to education.

The President has also stated that he would like to deal with root causes of terrorism such as poverty. That's important because it begins to build a dual track approach in counter-terrorism policy-one that brings the culprits to justice and another that deals with the inequities in the world. Nothing justifies criminal activities, especially terrorism, but when we dealt with uprisings in Los Angeles, report after report told us the same thing-eliminate injustice, poverty and hopelessness and the propensity for rioting will dissipate.

Assertions that Wahhabism is the problem are misguided attempts to seek easy solutions. Before, Shiism was the problem, and perhaps tomorrow Sufism will be the problem. Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab created a historical interpretation to purify his environment during impure conditions. He is considered progressive for his time and place, and rigidity came afterwards. The more we fight these isms and not deal with real sociological factors, the more difficult it will be to see a resolution to the conflict.

So we have those with a political agenda lumping everything into one basket claiming that Islamism is the problem, leaving us under their mercy to define it in the most imprecise, convoluted and confusing way possible. In the early 1940s and 1950s, Arabists were frowned upon in the foreign policy community. It was wrong to assert Arab identity or Arab sympathy then, and it seems wrong to identify or sympathize with those who want to assert their Islam in the global arena. Those who continuously raise this red flag promote the clash of civilizations. In that manner, rather than bringing solutions to the table, they only bring more fuel to the religious war theorists.

These self-proclaimed and unqualified experts on Islam only increase divisiveness and the gulf of misunderstanding. They point to one poisonous piece of candy in a box so people will be afraid of the whole box. The importance of including American Muslims and Arab Americans in the decision making process, therefore, will help debunk some of the myths being promoted by these opportunists and will also bring us closer to a model of cooperation with the Muslim world, not one of confrontation. The international terrorists of 9/11 used the cover of the American Muslim community. The only effective way of dealing with their likes in the future is for successful community policing methods.

For effective counter-terrorism policy to take shape, terrorism must be viewed as a global problem. It is wrong for rogue states and extremist groups to use it and it should be wrong even if our allies use it. Double standards, however, will impede our progress in counter-terrorism policy. Hindu militants, such as the Tamil Tigers, caused the greatest amount of terrorist fatalities in the 2000 report on patterns of global terrorism. Kahane Chai, the Jewish extremist group that was founded in America, has links with the Jewish Defense League, which has allegedly aimed to eliminate moderate Muslim voices, including leaders of our organization. They were actually successful in killing Alex Odeh of the American Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee in 1985. His assassin remains at large to this day. And when the Irish Republican Army was on the terrorist list, it was given room to allow fund raising for it's political wing, Sinn Fein. When the U.S. government is viewed as soft on terrorism with some groups, the result is an undermining of U.S. credibility among the masses.

While the moderate Muslim voice opposes the double standard, it rejects the extremist exploitation of the legitimate grievances among the Muslim masses. It is time to talk specifics, especially in terms of advancing the human conditions of people, including people of all faiths, in the Muslim world. We must come with reasonable and constructive stands on how to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Coexistence is essential for Jewish and Muslim people to gain security for themselves, and let's not forget that Christians in the Holy Land have been reduced to a fraction of their original population since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967. It is not realistic to expect peace while not expecting the end of Israeli settlements or of the military occupation. Nothing shapes the psyche of the Muslim world more than the events related to the Palestinian issue, and nothing else impacts America's image in the Muslim world as much as the Palestinian problem.

As this crisis spirals out of control each day, the notion that the U.S. is an honest broker rings hollow throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, the passive approach reflecting the absence of any will at all to bring meaningful pressure to bear on both parties will prove to be a disastrous policy that betrays Palestinians, Israelis and even Americans, who, by virtue of their tax dollars that support Israel, have an interest in seeing peace and justice advanced in a sustainable way.

Kashmir is yet another country that deserves our attention. It is a potential flashpoint for nuclear conflict. The situation can degenerate rapidly with more flare- ups over border disputes, violent clashes, or even extremist religious rhetoric, be it Muslim or Hindu. For so long, Kashmir has been ignored as a policy issue, even though it is a region that constitutes the greatest military concentration in the world, around 600,000 troops. Kashmiris must have a say in the future of their land, and Pakistan plays an instrumental role in dealing with this conflict. Pakistan, with all its internal problems, must be viewed as the close and friendly ally it has been throughout the Cold War and in the war on terrorism. To treat it as the problem or the scapegoat for the troubled Indian subcontinent will damage our image even further and our interests in the long run.

In dealing with Muslim countries, Muslim groups and the Muslim masses, it is important to recognize that the use of reason, a pillar in the foundation of our secular society, is not alien or modern to Muslim cultures. The Quran stipulates that the use of reason is one of the commandments of God, alongside justice and decency. The Quran also challenges people to use reflection, and it defines itself as a book made for those who think.

It is time to include American Muslims in not only the celebrations in Washington, but also in the difficult discussions that will affect the future of the United States and the world. I feel privileged to be a Muslim living in America, as many American Muslims do. We can live Islam according to our human understanding and be responsible American citizens at the same time. This expression can be admired and gain the respect it deserves from Muslims worldwide.

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