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Moderate Muslims and Arabs Emerge from the Shadows By: Cinnamon Stillwell
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 22, 2004


After 9/11 it was generally understood that cultivating moderation throughout the Arab and Muslim world was crucial to winning the war on terrorism.  Suddenly, the elusive moderate Muslim was much sought after.  But after coming to the disappointing discovery that their numbers were few and far between, many Americans became cynical about their existence.  “Where are the voices raised in protestation?” they wondered as the crimes of Islamic terrorism stunned the rest of the world. But even as the West comes face to face with the barbarity of Islamism, the disingenuousness of the Arab media, and the conspiracy-theory-driven Muslim masses, voices of reason have begun to emerge from the chaos. That many of them originated in the West is not surprising; only in a political environment friendly to free expression can such voices truly flourish.

But even amidst the dictatorships of the Arab world, a brave few have refused to conform.  Fed up with the scapegoating – of Americans, Jews, Christians, and the West – that passes for governance and journalism in their countries, some Muslims have begun writing their own narratives. They suffer intimidation, harassment, and even attacks at the hands of fellow Muslims, but by refusing to cave in to the extremists, they can perhaps pave the way for future generations to follow.

Daniel Pipes, Middle East scholar and Bush appointee to the U.S. Institute of Peace (although often falsely accused of the opposite), routinely gives moderate Muslims and Arabs their due. In his article "Moderate Voices of Islam" Pipes calls attention to such writers and activists because, as he puts it, "Promoting anti-Islamists and weakening Islamists is crucial if a moderate and modern form of Islam is to emerge in the West."  Indeed, it behooves those who wish to advance U.S. victory against Islamic terrorism to highlight such voices.  For such a struggle cannot be won on the battlefield alone, but must also be fought ideologically. And in order to do so, reform should be encouraged from within.

 

In the United States, organizations such as CAIR (The Council on American-Islamic Relations), beholden to Wahhabist interests in Saudi Arabia, have for too long set the agenda for American Muslims. Issuing selective condemnations of terrorism or none at all, and opposing every U.S. effort to combat Islamism, these groups are part of the problem, not the solution. In contrast, organizations like the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) are shaking the foundations of the American Islamic establishment. Not only do these groups renounce Islamic terrorism and the ideology that fuels it, they also express unconditional support for their country – America, that is.

 

The Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism has become increasingly visible on the national scene, with its spokespersons appearing regularly on Fox News and beyond. The American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) put on the first Muslim-sponsored “Rally Against Terror” in the country earlier this year in Phoenix, Arizona.  Although the turnout wasn’t huge and members of CAIR reportedly tried to infiltrate the crowd, AIFD should be commended for its efforts.  In his articles for the Arizona Republic’s “Plugged In” weblog, AIFD chairman M. Zuhdi Jasser routinely condemns Islamic terrorism, as well as critiquing Arab journalists who provide backhanded support for Islamism.

  

Arab and Persian intellectuals living in the United States are also making their mark. The brilliant Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is one of the most eloquent voices in American journalism. Born in Lebanon, Ajami’s books, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, The Arab Predicament and The Vanished Imam, provide insight into an Arab culture seldom understood by most Americans.  His articles for Foreign Affairs and the Wall Street Journal are a both essential and pleasurable reading. 

 

Another professor originally from Lebanon, Walid Phares, a Christian, is now a terrorism analyst and Middle East expert for various mainstream media outlets in the U.S.  His articles appear regularly at Frontpage.com and he is a senior fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.   He is represented by Benador Associates, a public relations firm that features many of today’s brightest political stars.  The writings of fellow Benador expert, Iranian Amir Taheri, provide an indispensable source of knowledge on Iran and the Muslim world.

 

Unsurprisingly, Muslim women have been some of the most powerful voices of moderation among their peers. Canadian Irshad Manji has become well known for her groundbreaking book, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, which provides an honest examination of the religion and its drawbacks. As a gay woman, Manji is intimately familiar with the prejudices her own culture elicits.

 

Asra Q. Nomani, an accomplished reporter originally from India, caused a stir last year in her Morgantown, West Virginia, mosque when she refused to abide by the usual gender-segregated seating. She continues to speak out for women’s rights in the American Muslim community and to oppose what she calls the attempted “takeover of many U.S. mosques by conservative and traditionalist Muslims.” 

 

In the Netherlands, Somali-born Dutch MP Ayann Hirsi Ali has been a strong proponent of Muslim women’s rights.  An ex-Muslim who left Somalia to escape an arranged marriage, Ali has paid a high price for her outspokenness.  She’s accompanied by a security guard at all times and has had to go into hiding on several occasions, most recently in the wake of Theo Van Gogh’s murder by an Islamist with ties to terrorism.  Ali and Van Gogh had collaborated on Submission, a controversial film that criticizes the treatment of women under Islam.  Ali was threatened directly in a note attached to Van Gogh’s body, titled “An Open Letter to Hirsi Ali” and has since gone underground.  She may yet be rewarded for her bravery by the growing outcry in the Netherlands against Islamic extremism.   

 

Lest it be thought that such figures only defend America while still clinging to animosity toward Israel, there, too, is progress.  Freelance writer and public speaker Nonie Darwish – a former Muslim born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip who later converted to Christianity – has lived in the United States for over 25 years. Darwish set up a Web site with the unlikely title ArabsforIsrael.com, which seeks to bridge the gap that others all too often deem unbridgeable.

 

Even more surprising is Walid Shoebat, a former PLO terrorist who now lectures on behalf of Israel. He, too, converted to Christianity and became a devoted Zionist in the process. Providing firsthand experience of the hatred and anti-Semitism that is instilled in Palestinians from the time of their youth, Shoebat’s testimony is a powerful indictment against Islamist intolerance. 

 

The past several months alone have produced a slew of articles written by Arabs defending the state of Israel. Israeli Arabs in particular, mostly Druze and Bedouin, have broken ranks with those who continue to demonize Israel.  As a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and U.S. News and World Report, Israeli Arab Khaled Abu Toameh continues to provide rare unbiased reporting on the Middle East.   

 

Lebanese Christian Brigitte Gabriel delivered a moving homage to Israel during a speech last month at Duke University’s “Counter-Terrorism Speak-Out.”  And Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria, urged Arab self-reflection in his article “Israel Cultivates Nobel Laureates, Arabs Cultivate Suicide Bombers.”

 

The Arab media, although not typically known for moderation, have produced some pleasant surprises lately. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, became famous in the West when his column "Innocent Religion Is Now a Message of Hate" was published in the British newspaper the Telegraph. Written in the wake of the Beslan horrors and first published in the pan-Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, al-Rashad’s article caused quite a stir with its opening statement: "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims." Up until that point, only non-Muslims had dared to utter such a revolutionary (yet obvious) fact and they were immediately labeled "racists" for doing so. Al-Rashad’s admission paved the way for a more honest approach to the problem of Islamic terrorism, although his omission of Israeli citizens leaves something to be desired. 

 

Aisha Siddiqa Qureshi’s unprecedented article in Muslim World Today, "Liberal America, Europe Slowly Rebelling Against the Values Required for Civilized Existence," offered a potent warning to the West and to liberal Jews in particular about underestimating the destructive capabilities of Islamist hatred and aggression. That such an article was circulated among American Jews was wonderfully ironic.

 

The war in Iraq, far from producing extremism, as is often claimed, has in fact led to a growth of moderate voices. And unlike the pessimism of much of the Western media on the subject, many Iraqis have expressed gratitude for the liberation of their country through various organizations, Web sites and Web logs on the Internet.

 

The Iraq-America Freedom Alliance (IAFA) is made up of American and Iraqi organizations and individuals that support the War on Terrorism and, as they put it, "a free, democratic and pluralistic Iraq that is at peace with the world." The Future of Iraq Portal Web site provides what is probably the most complete listing of links focused on "empowering the Iraqi people." An Iraqi dentist who goes by the name of "Zeyad" provides "daily news and comments on the situation in post Saddam Iraq" with his Web log HealingIraq.com. Another Iraqi dentist, "A.Y.S.," provides a similar take on "Iraq after the liberation" at Iraqataglance.com. His header reads "Liberation, Freedom, Democracy – Now we have the right to act as we choose."  And over at The Mesopotamian, blogger “Alaa” pledges “To bring one more Iraqi voice of the silent majority to the attention of the world.”

 

Iran also produces countless Web logs and Web sites, both from inside and outside the country. In a welcome departure from the belligerence and extremism of Iran’s rulers, the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran provides a voice for the country’s dispossessed youth. Despite untold dangers to its members, the group maintains a Web site that offers a "vision of a free, independent, democratic, secular and industrialized Iran." The students also speak out against anti-Semitism and call for relations with Israel in the "post theocracy Iran" they dream of. One can only hope they’re receiving whatever support from the West is possible under the circumstances.

 

Another class of moderate Arabs is not composed of Muslims. They have either become converts to Christianity (like some of those described above) or renounced religion altogether and become secularists. Both groups are highly critical of Islam itself and encourage Muslims to question their faith.

 

One of the most famous of these is Ibn Warraq, who uses a pseudonym for reasons of safety. Inspired by the 1989 fatwa ordering the death of author Salman Rushdie by Iran’s then-leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, Warraq wrote his first book, Why I Am Not a Muslim. The title is obviously inspired by Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and in the book Warraq describes his transformation from Muslim to secularist. His second book, Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, is a collection of testimonials by ex-Muslims. Warraq has since founded the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, whose Web site, SecularIslam.org, elaborates on his thesis.

 

Another Web site, FaithFreedom.org, provides an extensive collection of articles, by both ex-Muslim and non-Muslim writers, that critiques Islam in general and Islamism more specifically. They describe themselves this way: "Islam and Quran [Koran] denounced by ex-Muslims as the root of terrorism." Whether or not one subscribes to the group’s beliefs, they provide a welcome source for unfiltered criticism of Islam.

 

Capping off this trend of growing moderation are two recent events.  One is the historic conference that took place in Washington, D.C., on October 1, 2004.  The Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy held its first forum in what organizers hope will be a continuing series.  Participants included many of the groups and individuals discussed in this article, all there "to show their support for the efforts to defeat terrorism and radicalism and to create a free and peaceful Middle East."  That they succeed in their efforts is critical.

 

The other is a petition signed by 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries titled "From Liberal Arabs to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the chairman and members of the Security Council."  First posted at two liberal Arabic Web sites on October 24, 2004, the petition is partially translated at Memri.org and reported on more extensively by Daniel Pipes.  It calls for an international treaty banning the use of religion for incitement to violence and even names specific offenders, or "sheikhs of death."  Such initial steps toward religious reform should indeed be recognized by the international community, whether or not the United Nations chooses to do so.

 

When the 9/11 Commission met earlier this year, one of its recommendations was for "a more focused foreign policy approach to reach out to moderate Muslims around the world."  And President Bush indeed made that a cornerstone of his first term.  After all, it’s no coincidence that these monumental shifts in the Arab and Muslim world have taken place over the last three years.  It seems that repeating the mantras of "freedom" and "democracy," not to mention elections in Afghanistan and soon Iraq, may just be having the effect that Bush and the so-called "neocons" desired. 

 

But despite such promising developments in the Arab and Islamic world, Americans should not be under the illusion that this evolution in thought is yet widespread. The Muslim world still has many crimes to account for, and all too often its people remain silent in the face of injustice. To impatient Westerners, change can seem excruciatingly slow to take hold in a culture so mired in the past. But the voices of moderation should not be ignored, nor should they be stifled. Just as the West grappled earlier with its reformation, so, too, must the Muslim world face its own demons. The question is can we wait for this process to occur before our own survival becomes tantamount? Only time will tell.

 

Cinnamon Stillwell is contributing editor to ChronWatch.com and a writer for Frontpage.com.  Her articles have also appeared at Opeds.com, IntellectualConservative.com, Jewish Press, and Israel National News.  She lives in San Francisco and can be reached at:  cstillwell@chronwatch.com.


Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at stillwell@meforum.org.



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