On March 25, seven American Muslim activists joined me in founding a new, and much-needed platform for moderate Islam in America. Our organization is titled the Center for Islamic Pluralism. We have a website, www.islamicpluralism.org, at which our inaugural press release may be read, and have gained tax-exempt status as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Our founders represent the main Muslim communities in America: Sunnis and Shias, born Americans and immigrant Americans, of Arab, Turkish, and south Asian descent, as well as "new Muslims" -- Islam eschews the term "convert" -- originating in the U.S. and elsewhere in this hemisphere.
We define moderate Islam in the American context as an Islam that finds its proper and equal place as one among the many religions represented in America, with rights neither greater nor lesser than any other.
Moderate Islam recognizes its own history, the need to evolve, and the urgency for an intellectual revival, especially with regard to non-Muslims, women, and political governance. The CIP emphasizes pluralism to signal that it believes not in the tolerance of non-Muslims, but in their true acceptance as fellow believers in the one God, creator of the universe.
In addition, Islamic pluralism defines our approach to intra-Muslim relations. We seek mutual respect and dialogue between Sunnis and Shias, among Sufis, or spiritual Muslims, of both traditions, and full recognition within Islam of those who define themselves as cultural and secular Muslims.
Dialogue is the foundation of our activity. We come to this work with no preconceived program or demands, aside from our commitment to moderation, our loyalty to Western democratic principles, and our firm defense of American citizenship and obedience to American laws.
Many Americans wonder about Islamic claims to be a "religion of peace." This statement is credible only to the degree that Muslims work to make our faith truly one of pluralism. Unless there is an Islam as American as the faiths practiced by Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists, there will be no Islam in America. This means that the welfare of our community depends first and foremost on tearing down the barrier erected between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans by the extremist ideology of the "Wahhabi lobby" -- a devious "community establishment" that preaches separation of Muslims from American life, law, and loyalties.
Extremist adherents argue that there can be no American Islam, and some gullible American media echo this spurious assertion. Radical Islamists claim that an American Islam would represent a betrayal of Islamic purity, a deviation fostered as a tool of American policy. For example, we have been accused of a "Campaign to Dismember Islam" in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram of March 29, 2005, unfortunately available only in Arabic -- unfortunately because we do not fear such ridiculous attacks, and are happy to have Muslims read them. These charges are absurd; they reflect the desire of the Saudi-financed Wahhabi conspiracy to impose a single, totalitarian version of the faith of Muhammad on global Islam. Senegalese Islam, Moroccan Islam, Bosnian and Albanian Islam, Turkish Islam, Central Asian Islam, Indian Islam, and Indonesian Islam are a few examples of the diversity of distinct religious modes and habits in the worldwide ummah, or Muslim community. There is no reason an authentically American Islam cannot take its place in this mosaic.
Even in the Arab world, under dictatorships and Islamist regimes, Muslim pluralism survives and struggles for its restoration. Inside Saudi Arabia, the epitome of Islamist ideological obscurantism, Shia Muslims and non-Wahhabi Sunnis, as well as Sufis, contend with harsh repression, pushing like shoots of grass that break through pavement. Within Iran, prominent Shia scholars have long dissented from the scheme for clerical rule invented by Khomeini; Iraqi Shias never accepted the concept. Even Syria, although ruled by a military dictatorship, shows considerable differentiation in its forms of Islam.
Unfortunately, hard-line Wahhabi ideology dominates Islam in only two countries today: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. And that defines the other side of our mission: to foster a new relationship between American Islam and our country.
Unlike the radical Islamists of the "Wahhabi lobby," represented by such aggressive and militant groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada, and others, we do not fantasize an Islamic conquest of America; nor do we preach the supremacy of Islam. We call for nothing more than a place at the big table of American religions. We do not demand control of the whole table, or a table of our own, separate from other Americans. We welcome sincere interfaith cooperation with Jews, Christians, and others, whom we believe share in the grace of almighty Allah. We affirm, in the words of Qur'an 2:62, "Believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans -- whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right -- shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or to regret."
The "Wahhabi lobby" today maintains American Islam in a state of conformist passivity -- a "silent Sunni majority" that has been prevented from joining actively in the fight against radical Islamist terrorism, and from enriching the traditions of our faith with new intellectual developments. In addition, and more unfortunately, representatives of the radical Islamist establishment dominate the media, academic, and official discussion of Islam with non-Muslims. Our primary aims are to challenge control over the mosques and schools in America in which Wahhabi Islam holds a monopoly, and to introduce moderate Muslim voices into the Western media and academic discourse, and as expert advisors to governments.
But we must also educate non-Muslims about the realities of our faith, disabusing them of secondhand clichés that have grown up throughout the West since September 11, 2001. I was somewhat dismayed to read a column on TCS recently reporting on a book by the French politician Edouard Balladur. The article itself was surprising in that its author, Olivier Guitta, seemed to deny the very possibility of a moderate Islam, although he wrote a column in The Weekly Standard not long before on the struggle against Wahhabism in Kuwait and Europe. While I have not read Balladur's book, Guitta quotes the following allegations from it:
- "Islam is not only a religion but also a way of thinking and a way of life.
- "Even for the most reformist modern Muslim, the Koran remains the biggest obstacle because of its untouched interpretation.
- "Islam needs a major reform like the other religions have already undergone.
- "Fundamentalists find the justification for their acts in the Koran: the submission of women, polygamy, the stoning of adulterers, etc."
With all the good will in the world, no intelligent, moderate Muslim can refrain from rejecting these allegations, and it will be the job of the Center for Islamic Pluralism to correct such misapprehensions no less than to combat extremism. Specifically:
- The Islamic way of thinking and way of life are as different from one another in Morocco, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iraq, Kazakhstan and Indonesia as the Catholic way of thinking and way of life are different from one another in Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, and Brazil.
- Quranic interpretation has existed throughout the history of Islam. Were there no differences in Quranic interpretation, there would be no distinctions between Sunnis and Shias, or between mainstream Muslims and Wahhabis. The very fact that the Saudi/Wahhabis publish their own version of Qur'an, embodying their eccentric and radical views, demonstrates this elementary fact.
- "The other religions" have not undergone a reform comparable to the Protestant Reformation in Christianity. Reform Judaism is a liberal movement within the Jewish community; it does not command the loyalty of most believing and observant Jews, who are, in Israel and elsewhere, mainly Orthodox. Reform and Conservative Judaism, which flourish in America, have no standing whatever in Israel. Orthodox Christianity has never undergone anything remote resembling reform; its self-definition as Orthodox represents a repudiation of such a conception. Buddhism has never experienced a reform of any kind; nor has Hinduism. Whether Islam requires reform is a fine topic for debate, but such must be informed, and not based on arrogant presumptions about the universality of the experience of the Christian West.
- Islamic fundamentalists depend on the warped and distorted Wahhabi interpretation of Qur'an, but the stoning of adulterers appears nowhere in the Book itself. The situation of woman's rights is advancing in many Muslim countries, and may be improved without contradicting Islamic scripture.
In his Weekly Standard article, Mr. Guitta also stated, "Even in the United States, those who take on the Islamic extremists must live in fear." In establishing the Center for Islamic Pluralism, our founders have refused to succumb to fear. Proving these points will be essential to our mission. In sum, we must educate American Muslims on their rights and duties as citizens of the freest country that has ever existed -- a nation that has assisted and welcomed Arabs, south Asians, Iranians, Bosnians, Albanians, and other born Muslims as no other land in history, and that has protected Americans who choose Islam. These tasks include the duty to inform non-Muslims about our faith in a way that is humble, respectful, and, above all moderate. Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) command us to moderation; we can do no less than to fulfill these high responsibilities in that spirit.