A challenge to moderate Muslims.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 4 2004 9:56 AM

Once and Future Islam

A Sufi imam challenges moderate Muslims to fashion a new, American faith.

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Sufis are known for their inner-directed orientation and disregard for worldly affairs. What's Right With Islam is necessarily a political testament as well as a personal one, but I wish that in treating the Israeli-Palestinian issue Abdul Rauf had been less beholden to Muslim world clichés. For instance, he states that the 1948 creation of Israel "began a most unfortunate schism between Jews and Muslims, who until then throughout most of their history had experienced a deeply intimate kinship with each other." While it's true that Jews fared relatively well in the Muslim world, compared to how they did in European Christendom, both the Ottoman empire and local Arab populations typically treated Jews as second-class citizens. Muslim anti-Semitism predates the founding of a Jewish state by at least a millennium.

Moreover, he sees the Israeli-Palestinian issue as "a metaphor for much of what is wrong between the Muslim world and the West." Therefore he believes that "eliminating suicide bombing will require that we address its underlying causes," which means re-evaluating U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Palestinians.

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If U.S. foreign policy were really the number one cause of anti-American terrorism, then there would be suicide bombers from those regions of the world most consistently screwed by American adventurism, like Latin America. But there is no Boricua Jihad, or Aztec Resistance Movement; the archbishop of Santiago does not call for unrelenting war against all Americans; there are no young boys in Ponce and East Harlem collecting the trading cards of glorious martyrs. Unlike the Muslim world, Latinos have not nourished a culture—encompassing religious institutions, primary schools, the mainstream press and government officials—that incites anti-American terrorism and praises the agents of it. An American Muslim leader who is serious about making an impact on American politics owes it to his various audiences to know where Washington's at fault and where it isn't.

This brings up the most interesting problem with What's Right With Islam. Who is this book's audience? Abdul Rauf recommends it to a variety of American readerships, from policymakers to feminists, but after Sept. 11 Americans have been so oversaturated with the message that Islam is a religion of peace that conscientious readers of the national op-ed pages arguably know more about moderate Islam than the Al Azhar students who gather Fridays in Cairo to call for jihad against Americans.

A potential audience, Abdul Rauf writes, "may be a young American Muslim woman or man confused between the picture of Islam … projected in the American media by Osama Bin Laden and that practiced by your sweet grandmother." Of course it's essential that, like all Americans, American Muslims engage the "Abrahamic tradition," instead of triumphalist politics. However, it seems to me that by and large American Muslims aren't all that confused. There are notable exceptions, but typically Muslim immigrants have come here to partake of the same liberties and opportunities that every ethnic and religious group has sought in America. Indeed, it's worthwhile noting that for many Muslims, their coming to the United States also meant fleeing places where there's an awful lot that is not right with Islam.

Sooner rather than later, Abdul Rauf needs to be talking to the Muslim world abroad, where it's at least equally important, but much more difficult to promote the Abrahamic tradition. And the competition is stiff: Several Arab satellite TV stations, like Iqra and al-Manar, are devoted to beating the drums of jihad against Jews and Americans. Maybe the American-owned Arab satellite Al Hurra network should give a regular show to Abdul Rauf and other members of his multifaith Cordoba Initiative—priests, deacons, rabbis—to advance a message of peace, cooperation, and mutual understanding. It's time for an American Muslim leader to translate the best of the American dream to the Muslim world. After all, Islam has had plenty of Martin Luthers, the next Muslim reformer needs to be a Martin Luther King.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.