Why America Needs More Muslims
The absurd controversy over the proposed Islamic center in New York shows that many Americans need to meet some Muslims.August 16, 2010 | LIKE THIS ARTICLE ?Join our mailing list:
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There is already a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center — it’s been there since 1985. Men and women pray together at Masjid al-Farah; its services are led by a woman, Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi. The New York Times described it as “among the most progressive [mosques] in the city” and “a quintessentially New York combination of immigrants and native New Yorkers, traditionalists and spiritual seekers.”
While a small number of Muslims embrace an idealized view of a “pure” Islam that prevailed in the seventh century, most of the world’s Muslims are, to varying degrees, like “cafeteria Catholics” — adhering to some teachings and ignoring others. On one extreme end of that spectrum are the followers of Osama bin Laden and his fellow travelers. On the other extreme are the people behind Park 51 (formerly known as Cordoba House), an Islamic community center that will feature art spaces, a theater, a gym and pool, and a mosque, or prayer space. The Park 51 people are as different from bin Laden’s crowd as a Christian extremist who blows up an abortion clinic is distinct from a good Unitarian. That’s what makes the contrived outrage over the project especially crazy.
Masjid al-Farah represents the open, tolerant face of modern Islam. This is the brand of Islam represented by the Cordoba Initiative, the organization behind Park 51; the site was chosen, according to the organizers, “for exactly what happened here on 9/11 and what America stands for.” They added that the project “is a victory of American tolerance over hatred.”
If not for virulent bigotry — bigotry based on a profound ignorance of Islam and the Muslim world — the whole thing would be a non-story, an eye-wateringly dull local zoning issue. The ignorance fueling this outpouring of hatred can only thrive because most Americans — other than those who live in Dearborn, Michigan, parts of New York and New Jersey or Southern California — have never met a Muslim, or wouldn’t know it if they had.
There are fewer Muslims in the United States than there are Buddhists — they represent only 0.6 percent of the population. Research into how the public views another vilified minority — immigrants — tells us that a little firsthand experience with the “Other” goes a long way toward dispelling the cloud of falsehoods that cynical demagogues use to prey on people’s fears and anxieties about that which is foreign. According to a Pew survey, citizens who live in areas with high concentrations of immigrants hold far more favorable views of their contribution to American society than do people who live in areas where there aren’t many who were born elsewhere. It’s not a matter of demographics or politics; the authors concluded that “exposure to and experience with immigrants results in a better impression of them.”
Absent personal interactions with adherents of another faith, many people have nothing to go on but media-driven stereotypes. Hollywood invariably depicts Muslimsas either violent extremists with AK-47s chattering in their hands, or sex-crazed provincial oil-billionaires throwing wads of cash around while lusting after white women. According to a recent Quinnipac poll, 55 percent of New Yorkers believe that Islam is a peaceful religion and 22 percent think it encourages violence, but among those who personally know a Muslim, the numbers shift 18 points, to 68-17.
Depending on what statistics you prefer, there are between 1.3 and 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and like Christians, Jews, Hindus and members of all other faiths, the overwhelming majority are simply living their lives and trying to raise their kids right, and they harbor no violent ambitions. Anyone who has counted Muslims among their friends knows — or should know — that the United States was attacked not by Muslims, but by violent fundamentalists. Violent fundamentalists are a grave danger, but they aren’t unique to any single religion.
In Fundamentalism in Comparative Perspective, scholar Lawrence Kaplan notes that fundamentalism — a term he says is too vague — “has certain uniform themes.”
In the United States, [fundamentalists in the early 20th century] directed their attention to liberal developments within established Protestant churches. They set down uncompromising fundamentals, mainly connected with biblical inerrancy, that defined what they considered the basis of “true Christianity.” Clifford Geertz, in his Islam Observed (1968), suggests the use of the term “Scripturalism” to describe the rise of a radical, uncompromising purism that sought to reestablish in both Indonesia and Morocco its version of the original Islam of the Prophet. More recently, as Professor Coleman observes, the Integralism movement shares this same kind of desire to rid the Catholic church of its “false” values and teachings…. Thus, in one of its primary manifestations, fundamentalism arises as a reaction against either the introduction of modern concepts into traditional religions or, more commonly, against the adjustments of doctrine that are often carried out by reformist elements who wish to make long-standing precepts more suitable to contemporary tastes.
There is no such thing as a homogenous “Islamic culture.” There is no such thing as “Muslim thought” or “Muslim beliefs.” The Islamic world is large and diverse, with modernists, progressives, conservatives and traditionalists. While the Internet is filled with ominous snippets from the Qu’ran that extol violence against infidels, similarly selective quotations can be found in any religion’s holy texts. The Christian Bible is replete with instructions in savagery — stoning wayward daughters and smiting homosexuals. But very few people adhere to those texts, and that’s as true of Islam as it is of other religions.
Consider for a moment how the principles of sharia have been distorted and demonized by people who don’t understand what it means. Just as there is no “Islamic culture,” sharia is not a coherent set of laws. The Hanbali school is traditional — it’s the news-making sharia practiced in Saudi Arabia and embraced by the Taliban. But in Central Asia, Pakistan, India, China, Turkey, the Balkans and the Caucasus, the more liberal Hanafi school dominates.
There are five “crimes” that are known as Hadd offenses, and these require, according to traditional law, severe punishments. When they’re handed out, they get an inordinate amount of media attention in the West, but as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Lawrence Vriens noted, “These sentences are not often prescribed… These punishments remain on the books in some countries but lesser penalties are often considered sufficient.”
Other practices that are woven into the sharia debate, such as female genital mutilation, adolescent marriages, polygamy, and gender-biased inheritance rules, elicit as much controversy. There is significant debate over what the Quran sanctions and what practices were pulled from local customs and predate Islam. Those that seek to eliminate or at least modify these controversial practices cite the religious tenet of tajdid. The concept is one of renewal, where Islamic society must be reformed constantly to keep it in its purest form. “With the passage of time and changing circumstances since traditional classical jurisprudence was founded, people’s problems have changed and conversely, there must be new thought to address these changes and events,” says Dr. Abdul Fatah Idris, head of the comparative jurisprudence department at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
The same kind of broad brush with which sharia is painted is essential to the entire controversy. While right-wing fear-mongers have tried to ruin Park 51’s organizers with libelous claims that they support terrorism — the go-to smear when Muslims are connected to any issue — the opposite is true. As the New York Times reported, Imam Faisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, “founded a Sufi organization advocating melding Islamic observance with women’s rights and modernity.” After 9/11 they began “focusing on connecting Muslims and wider American society. They spoke out against religious violence; the imam advised the F.B.I.; his wife joined the board of the 9/11 memorial and museum.”
George W. Bush, to his credit, made it clear that Islam was not a threat to the United States. “We respect the faith,” he said in 2002. “Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion,” he said. In 2006, he asked, “Will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change … or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists? America’s made its choice. We will stand with the moderates and reformers.”
That year, Bush’s State Department chose none other than Faisal Rauf to reach out to the Muslim world on behalf of the United States. A spokesman would later explain that he was selected because, “His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States.” As the American Prospect’s Adam Serwer noted, “These are the people whom Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney smeared as ‘connected to terrorism’ and having ‘dubious ties to radical Islamist organizations,’ whom National Review falsely portrayed as unwilling to give a ‘full throated denunciation of terrorism’ and Newt Gingrich, with his faulty understanding of history, accused of ‘Islamist triumphalism.’”
Last week, Bryan Fischer of the right-wing Christian group, American Family Association, wrote that the U.S should have “no more mosques, period.” “This is for one simple reason,” he explained: “Each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.”
It’s a belief that has gained dangerous traction, especially but not exclusively on the Right.
If 3 or 4 percent of the population were Muslim — if more people saw Muslims living and working in their communities — the public would react to such deeply un-American sentiments with revulsion. But at just over a half of 1 percent of the population, Muslim Americans remain, tragically, a ripe target for demagoguery by fear-mongers and small-minded bigots.