February 22, 2004
It is a sad irony that the world's freest Muslims -- those who live in liberty in the West -- are so unwilling to publicly condemn the world's worst Muslims -- the militant Islamist fascists who believe in violent jihad, intolerant theocracy, subjugated women, and hatred of Jews and Americans.
If anyone should be raising their voices against the totalitarians and terrorists who promote such evil in the name of Islam, it is the millions of moderate Muslims who have the good fortune to live in America, Canada, and Europe. The image of Islam in the West would be greatly enhanced if more of them would speak out against the bigotry and brutality of the militants and forcefully advocate democracy and pluralism in the Middle East. But the vast majority are reluctant to do so. Some say nothing out of a misplaced sense of loyalty; others are afraid of being ostracized if they rock the communal boat.
All the more reason, then, to applaud those outspoken moderate Muslims who *do* lift their voices against the hatred and violence of the extremists.
I have devoted several columns to the importance of supporting and listening to these moderates. They are key allies in the war against terrorism, and anything that raises their profile or extends their influence helps to reduce the power of the Islamists. In a column that appeared nearly two years ago, I quoted Irshad Manji, a Canadian TV personality who had recently published an essay titled "A Muslim plea for introspection."
That essay has now grown into a best-selling book, "The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith," and Manji, who calls herself a "Muslim refusenik," has received a good deal of well-deserved publicity. She has also received hate mail, vitriolic insults, and death threats serious enough to require her to have a bodyguard. Muslims who insist on talking bluntly about contemporary Islam and its failings don't have it easy. That is another reason there are so few of them.
"We've got to end Islam's totalitarianism, particularly the gross human-rights violations against women and religious minorities," Manji writes. She is appalled by "the continuing scourge of slavery in countries ruled by Islamic regimes" and by "the Jew-bashing that so many Muslims persistently engage in." Islam desperately needs to undergo a reformation, much as Christianity did, she argues, and it is Muslims in the West who should be spearheading it. Why? "Because it is here that we already enjoy the precious freedom to think, express, challenge, and be challenged, all without fear of state reprisal."
Another courageous Muslim moderate is Ahmed al-Rahim, who co-founded the American Islamic Congress following the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. It is an explicit purpose of AIC to stop being silent "in the face of Muslim extremism" and to "actively censure hate speech made in the name of Islam." Al-Rahim, an instructor of Arabic language and literature at Harvard, urges Muslims to undertake the self-criticism that is a hallmark of maturity, and he pulls no punches in decrying the radicalism of many American Muslim groups.
In a recent address to the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, he noted that anti-American "hate speech and incitement" has too often been "promoted by many American Muslim organizations -- in public speeches at conferences, at mosques, at rallies outside the White House. And for too long, Muslim American organizations and leaders have been allowed to get away with it. This hate speech against America, against Christians, against Hindus, against Jews . . . has somehow been accommodated, not denounced," Al-Rahim said. "I believe it is a priority for the American Muslim community to hold its leadership accountable for what they say and what they fail to condemn."
It isn't always easy to distinguish between militant Islamism and genuine Islamic moderation. Some Muslim leaders and institutions claim to believe in pluralism and oppose intolerance, yet attack those who expose extremism as bigots and "Islamophobes." Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum says that often the only way to tell the real moderates from the fakes is by asking questions -- not vague queries ("Do you condemn terrorism?"), but specific, hard-to-duck ones. Such as:
Do you condone or condemn the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiris who give up their lives to kill enemy civilians?
Will you condemn -- by name -- such terrorist groups as Abu Sayyaf, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Al Qaeda?
Should Muslim women have equal rights with men?
Should non-Muslims enjoy the same civil rights as Muslims?
Do you accept the legitimacy of a non-Muslim government, such as that of the United States, and will you pledge allegiance to that government?
Do you agree or disagree that institutions accused of funding terrorism should be closed?
Who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks?
Ultimately, only Muslims can decide whether Islam's future lies with the militants or with the moderates. But those of us who are not Muslim can help the cause of reform and moderation by promoting and encouraging the moderates, and by repudiating the extremists they are brave enough to challenge.