FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A small group of self-proclaimed secular Muslims from North America and elsewhere gathered in St. Petersburg recently for what they billed as a new global movement to correct the assumed wrongs of Islam and call for an Islamic Reformation.
Across the state in Fort Lauderdale, Muslim leaders from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Washington-based advocacy group whose members the "secular" Muslims claim are radicals, denounced any notion of a Reformation as another attempt by the West to impose its history and philosophy on the Islamic world.
The self-proclaimed secularists represent only a small minority of Muslims. The views among religious Muslims from CAIR more closely reflect the views of the majority, not only in the United States but worldwide. Yet Western media, governments and neoconservative pundits pay more attention to the secular minority.
The St. Petersburg convention is but one example: It was carried live on Glenn Beck's conservative CNN show. Some of the organizers and speakers at the convention are well known thanks to the media spotlight: Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble With Islam," and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian and author of "Infidel," were but a few there claiming to have suffered personally at the hands of "radical" Islam. One participant, Wafa Sultan, declared on Glenn Beck's show that she doesn't "see any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam."
The secular Muslim agenda is promoted because these ideas reflect a Western vision for the future of Islam. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, everyone from high-ranking officials in the Bush administration to the author Salman Rushdie has prescribed a preferred remedy for Islam: Reform the faith so it is imbued with Western values -- the privatization of religion, the flourishing of Western-style democracy -- and rulers who are secular, not religious, Muslims. The problem with this prescription is that it is divorced from reality. It is built upon the principle that if Muslims are fed a steady diet of Western influence, they, too, will embrace modernity, secularism and everything else the West has to offer.
Consider the facts: Islamic revivalism has spread across the globe in the past 30 years from the Middle East to parts of Africa. In Egypt, it is hard to find a woman on the street who does not wear a headscarf. Islamic political groups and movements are on the rise -- from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even in the United States, more and more American Muslims, particularly the young, are embracing Islam and religious symbolism in ways their more secular, immigrant parents did not.
I traveled to Florida to serve as the keynote speaker at an annual convention hosted by CAIR. On my way to the event, I spoke with Imam Siraj Wahaj, a charismatic intellectual from the Masjid Al-Taqwa in Brooklyn who has thousands of followers here and abroad. His words summarized the aspirations of mainstream Muslims in the United States and around the globe: "What we need to do is borrow those attributes from the West that we admire and reject those that we don't. That is the wave of the future."
Already, signs support Imam Wahaj's words. Muslims living in the West and those in the Islamic world are searching for this middle ground -- one that fuses aspects of globalization with the Islamic tradition. For example, Muslim women have far greater access to higher education today than ever before. In Iran, there are more women than men in universities, a first in the country's history. But as increasing numbers of Muslim women become more educated, majorities are becoming more religious while also taking part in what are called Islamic feminist movements, which stretch from Egypt to Turkey and Morocco.
These women, who often wear headscarves to express their religiosity, have found this gray area between modernity and traditionalism. They are fighting for more rights to participate in politics and greater equality in "personal status" laws -- the right to gain custody of children or to initiate divorce -- but also view Islam as their moral compass.
Similarly, the political future of the Arab world is likely to consist of Islamic parties that are far less tolerant of what has historically been the U.S. foreign policy agenda in the region and that domestically are far more committed to implementing sharia law in varying degrees.
In Europe and the United States, where Muslims have maximum exposure to Western culture, they are increasingly embracing Islamic values. In Britain, a growing number of Muslims advocate creating a court system based upon Islamic principles.
What all this means is that Western hopes for full integration by Muslims in the West are unlikely to be realized and that the future of the Islamic world will be much more Islamic than Western.
Instead of championing the loud voices of the secular minority who are capturing media attention with their conferences, manifestos and memoirs, the United States would be wise instead to pay more attention to the far less loquacious majority.
Geneive Abdo is the author of "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11."
SAN FRANCISCO – Geneive Abdo traveled the United States interviewing American Muslims for her latest book Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in American After 9/11.
A third-generation Lebanese American, Ms. Abdo is now a senior analyst at the Gallup Organization's newly created Center for Muslim Studies.
Ms. Abdo recently talked with Shona Crabtree of Religion News Service about the growing religiosity among American Muslims and their increasing alienation from the mainstream. Here are excerpts.
You're a Catholic who wrote three books about Islam and worked as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East. What draws you to Islam?
What is fascinating to me about Islam is that it is also an ideology, one that has now become a very significant alternative to globalization. Not for the reason that the Bush administration might explain – that Muslims are jealous of our values or they are jealous of our prosperity – but people all over the world are beginning to realize that globalization, capitalism, consumerism, is very empty spiritually. It's an empty existence.
You say American Muslims have turned inward and become more religious since 9/11. How did you get them to trust you?
At the time, I was writing stories in The Chicago Tribune and Muslims in this country realized that a) I know a lot about the subject and b) that I'm trying to bring understanding to non-Muslims about Islam and Muslims. So they felt that the stories accurately reflected their ideas and their lives.
Your book represents American Muslims as religiously, culturally, racially and ethnically diverse. Give us a sampling of some of the people you interviewed.
I illustrate this diversity by profiling two sheikhs at the Zaytuna Institute (in Hayward, Calif.). One is a white convert from California, Hamza Yusuf, and the other is an African-American convert, Imam Zaid Shakir. There's also a young Palestinian activist, Rami Nashashibi, who is drawing other ethnic groups into the faith through his work in South Chicago. One of the activities of his organization is Islamic hip-hop concerts, which draw Latinos, African-Americans, Arabs and South Asians.
The point is that the Muslim-American identity, once dominated by a majority of African-American converts, has now changed with the influx of immigrant Muslims. The young generation is dealing with this change by creating a more united, multicultural community.
Why did you decide to leave journalism to be an analyst?
I decided to leave journalism because I feel it is a very limited way to convey complicated ideas.
Do Muslims get a fair shake in the American press?
Absolutely not. I think the press is just so overwhelmingly biased, and when it's not biased, ignorant, that it's such a profound problem it's hard to even really talk about it.
Keith Ellison, the Muslim who was elected to Congress, was interviewed on CNN. And the interviewer asked him, and I'm not quoting verbatim, but basically, please prove to us you are not a terrorist. He said, I feel uncomfortable asking you this question but I need to ask it anyway: How do we know you're not a terrorist?
But it's not only these outrageous stories. It's the way the press writes about Muslims – that there are good Muslims or bad Muslims. The good Muslims are the secular ones, they don't wear headscarves. The bad Muslims are the ones that go to the mosques. The narrative is, these people are a threat and if they're going to even be acceptable they have to accommodate, they have to compromise.
You seem confident that violent, radical Islam is not going to take root in the U.S. Why not?
Muslims here came for a different purpose, and they live here because they want to be Americans. European Muslims came to Europe for economic reasons. ... Just psychologically they still live in Pakistan, in Egypt. American Muslims, particularly the second generation, don't live here with the psychology of always going home. So they have a great vested interest in making successful lives here.
What do you wish more people in mainstream society knew about American Muslims and Islam?
Ultimately, I wish people would become much more educated about this faith because as Islam grows around the world, it becomes more necessary for people to become educated about it. People have to understand that the militant fringe that they see on television and read about are not practicing the true faith.
They should not confuse people who use violence for political purposes with the Muslim who is living next door or with the Muslims practicing in the mosque down the street. And that this distinction is very important; otherwise there will be a problem in this country.
When the News Media Focus on Islam's Internal Struggles
Journalists highlight the secular Muslim vision 'because it reflects a Western outlook that Islam needs to transform and modernize.'
By Geneive Abdo
The blame for September 11th, at one time based on President George Bush's theory that everything happening in the Islamic world is a response to Muslim envy of Westernization and a longing for the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire, has now evolved into a new explanation: The root of the problem lies not in a clash between Islam and the West, but rather an internal struggle within Islam itself.
This notion, advanced by American journalists here and abroad, is quite convenient not only for the U.S. government but for public morale. If the problem lies in Islam's conflicted identity as a 1,400-year-old religion trying to reconcile its doctrine with the modern world, then United States' foreign policy over the last half-century in the Middle East and in some predominantly Muslim countries is not at fault. It is also convenient for another reason: The internal Muslim debate allows the media, and by extension public opinion, to take sides in the struggle with the intention of influencing the outcome. There is no doubt that an intensive struggle exists within Islam that ranges from theological issues to the role of clerics in governing a state. But this should remain a Muslim issue, not one the West should decide.
In the early days of the Iraq War, for example, the Iraqi Sunnis were "good" Muslims who should prevail in governing the state over the Shi'ites. Similarly, in Western societies with increasing Muslim populations, it is the "secular" (good) Muslims who should be welcomed as full-fledged citizens while religious "bad" Muslims, who wear headscarves on the streets of London and New York, should be shunned for their backwardness and unwillingness to adopt the fundamental principles of Western liberalism.
This "good" Muslim "bad" Muslim characterization is particularly evident with stories about Muslims living either in the United States or in Europe. In reporting the internal divides among Muslims, the "good" Muslim is often described as "moderate." These are Muslims who take pride in their national identity as American, British or French, who at the very least are willing to compromise Islamic ideals in order to fully integrate into a Western society and, at the most, publicly criticize other Muslims and Islamic doctrine.
One glaring example was coverage on CNN's neoconservative Glenn Beck show in March. Beck devoted an hour of live coverage to what was called "The Secular Islam Summit," held in St. Petersburg, Florida. Some of the organizers and speakers at the convention have received massive media attention in recent years. Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble With Islam Today," and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian and author of the best-seller "Infidel," were but a few there claiming to have suffered personally at the hands of "radical" Islam. One participant, Wafa Sultan, declared on Glenn Beck's show that she does not "see any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam."
This secular Muslim vision is highlighted because it reflects a Western outlook that Islam needs to transform and modernize. But for the vast majority of Muslims, such coverage is offensive not only because a small fringe is given massive exposure, but also because it is the media, not Muslims, who have the power to decide who speaks for Islam. Giving attention to the minority of "secularists" overshadows the views of the majority.
The tendency to champion "secular" or "moderate" Muslims is also apparent in journalists' coverage of the struggle within Islam over gender equality. Time and time again, Muslim women opposed to wearing headscarves are profiled as brazen activists who dare to challenge the great numbers of those wearing hijab, who say they do so out of devotion to the faith. According to typical portrayals, particularly reporting about Muslims living in the West, the headscarf is the litmus test; those who wear it are less interested in full integration than those who do not.
In the United States, a divisive issue within the Muslim community concerns where women should pray in a mosque. Across the country, the consensus is that women should pray in a different space, whether it is behind men, in an adjoining prayer hall, or even in a basement. In conservative mosques, the often male-dominated mosque governing boards require women to pray in a space isolated from the imam delivering the sermon and the male worshipers. As part of this internal struggle, an African-American Muslim activist, Amina Wadud, in the spring of 2005 decided to bring the issue out into the open by leading a mixed congregation of Muslim men and women in prayer in New York City. The incident sparked a fierce debate that included religious scholars from the Middle East who denounced her actions and declared her an apostate.
For the most part, the extensive news coverage of this incident sided with the female activist and dismissed criticism from Muslims who said her actions violated the principles of the faith. Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a scholar in Doha with a wide following, issued a fatwa in response to the prayer service, saying that all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence were clear: Women may lead prayers only before other women. Many Muslims expressed similar views on Islamic Web sites. "We need not judge Amina Wadud only by what she is doing this Friday," wrote one writer on the site of Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language cable network. "We need to judge her by the pending issues on the agenda of her sponsors and supporters. To us, they have crossed all limits. To them, they have just taken the first step towards transforming Islam into a 'progressive' and 'moderate' form according to the wishes of the enemies of Islam."
Muslims in the United States are trying to respond to this distorted media vision by gaining greater access to broadcast and print. More Muslims are appearing on television and writing opinion pieces in newspapers. But it has not been easy for several reasons. Until September 11th, the fractured Muslim leadership in the United States was unaccustomed to participating in either foreign policy debates or public discussions about their faith. Over the past six years, they have been compelled not only to become public figures but also to break through the walls of exclusion that showcase other voices. Muslims often tell me that there are certain top-tier newspapers in the United States that rarely accept op-eds reflecting mainstream Muslim opinion. This opinion ranges from Muslim views that the United States's foreign policy agenda is based upon Israel's interest in the Middle East to sentiment that Muslims should be allowed to be Muslims, irrespective of Western conventions.
While Muslims have been successful in publishing more frequently in smaller and more localized publications, they have also arrived at another alternative, however limited. Muslims are creating their own media. An imam in Chicago created "Radio Islam" in the fall of 2004. Despite its mostly Muslim listeners and the frequency—an ethnic radio network broadcast only in the Chicago area—the daily show opens with the idea that everyone is talking about Muslims and Islam. "Now it is time for you to talk," says the radio announcer. A leader from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., is host to an NPR program in Florida. And a Lebanese radio host broadcasts weekly from Pacifica radio in Los Angeles. These are only a few examples.
Is there a solution to enlightening those in the media and the public? Not in the near future. The generation of journalists now covering Muslims in the East and the West are generally uneducated about contemporary Islam, and universities in the United States have been slow to establish new faculties since September 11th. And there is another, more profound, obstacle. Even if American reporters immersed themselves in courses on Islamic studies, the baggage they—and their editors—carry of viewing this religion and ideology through a Western prism, rather than on its terms, is likely to remain. What is required is a new intellectual enlightenment about an ideology and faith that is vastly different from anything Americans have encountered.
Geneive Abdo is a 2002 Nieman Fellow. For nearly a decade, she reported from the Middle East and in Iran. She is the author of three books on contemporary Islam, including "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11,"
published in 2006 by Oxford University Press.
How a decades-old crisis of authority affects the campaign against terrorism
By Jay Tolson U.S. News and World Report
Americans have heard it repeatedly since September 11: The acts of terrorism inflicted on our shore were the murderous consequences of an ongoing struggle within Islam. At its most dramatic extremes, that conflict pits radical jihadists against moderate Muslims. But a quieter front in the struggle is probably of greater import. It involves the millions of Muslims who are being wooed by the proselytizers of a puritanical, and often highly politicized, strain of the faith. This volatile blend of Saudi Wahhabi Islam and political Islam-dubbed Islamism by one of its early-20th-century founders-is the assembly line of future jihadists, some experts hold, and its agents are busy indoctrinating young Muslims from Lahore to Los Angeles.
Law of the land.And what does this majority want? Well, for one, Abdo explained, the implementation of Islamic sharia law as the law of the land for Muslim countries and even the restricted use of sharia within some western countries. Abdo concluded that Muslims living in the West are unlikely to be fully integrated into their societies, while nations in the Muslim world are likely to be "much more Islamic than western."
Muslim American advocates have critiqued the press coverage of the Pew study, saying it focused too much on the bad news and not enough on the good. The bad news, however, bears repeating: 26 percent of Muslims age 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing can be justified. Thirty-eight percent of that group believe that Arabs did not carry out the 9/11 attacks. These data, combined with the rising religious conservatism of young Muslim Americans, have led some experts to argue that differences between Europe and America have been overblown, that affluence and education do not inoculate a society against radicalization."This idea that all those who are middle class are exempted from extremism has always been false," says Geneive Abdo, author of "Mecca and Main Street." "The leadership of the extremist movements have always been highly educated Muslims."