That question lies at the heart of this week’s controversial hearing about radicalization in America’s Muslim community chaired by Rep. Peter King (R) of New York. Supporters call it a timely investigation. Critics call it a witch hunt.
But as Arab uprisings raise prospects for broader Islamist governance in the Middle East, both sides should use the hearings to reflect on how US policies toward Islamists overseas could inform the way we address Muslim activists here at home. Despite obvious differences, there are some parallels worth pondering.
Whether overseas or at home, we have typically muddled along, often pursuing the path of least resistance.
In Egypt, this meant supporting a dictator who kept the Islamists at bay. Here in the US, our approach has been more multifaceted, but ad hoc and opportunistic nevertheless.
A day of reckoning
Consequently, the day may come when we wake up, as we have in Egypt, to the realization that our aversion to more-demanding, far-sighted approaches leaves us with fewer and less-palatable options here at home than we would like.
At bottom, Islamists are Muslims who want to make the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad the basis of government. In Egypt, they are organized as the Muslim Brotherhood, exercising their clout through social, charitable, educational, and political channels. Islamists don’t enjoy similar influence here, but they have long been a prominent factor in the political life of American Muslims.
This does not mean that Islamists reflect the views of the majority of Muslims in either country. Nor does it mean that most Muslim-American leaders are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, though many have been and some may still be. The key point is that the leadership of the Muslim American community does have historical ties and intellectual debts to Islamism. Here, as in Egypt, Islamism has importantly shaped the discourse and the organizations that Muslims are now using to carve out civic and political space for their religion.
Does this mean that America’s freedoms are in danger from these same Islamists? We think not. But we are struck as well by the tendency of many in the United States, including the media and various government agencies, to ignore the Islamist influences on established Muslim-American organizations and their leaders. For example, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has origins and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, is routinely described and treated as though it were just another civil rights or advocacy organization.
The price of ignorance
In turn, such studied ignorance in the face of this easily verified history, has created a backlash among other Americans that something important is being hidden from them – a sure recipe for generating conspiracies and popular distrust of Muslim Americans more generally.
Not unlike former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s approach toward his opponents, this has led others to indulge such instincts and fixate exclusively on these organizations’ links to Islamism, however remote or attenuated.
These divergent responses are each in their own way inadequate. Not surprisingly, both sides reach out to Muslims who suit their purposes. Such “user-friendly Muslims” either denounce extremism, paint mainstream Muslim-American organizations in the worst possible light, or gratify some other positive or negative interpretation of Islam. One way or another, these individuals embrace some value or values that resonate with non-Muslims – whether secularism, humanism, feminism, pacifism, or gay rights.
The problem is that such Muslims tend to come from minority sects, like the Ahmadiyya and Ismailis, or the more numerous Sufis. Despite their many talents and often good intentions, these “represetatives” aren’t really representative: they lack meaningful connections to the vast majority of Muslim Americans. And while the leading organizations may not adequately reflect the views of all Muslim Americans, or even a majority, their well-established and ongoing relationships with Muslim communities across the United States afford them better street-level credibility than the “user-friendly” alternatives.
Separate fact from fiction
What to do?
First, our elites, ever prone to political correctness, must face up more forthrightly to the Islamist origins and lingering influences on mainstream Muslim-American leaders and organizations. Once this step is taken, we can begin to sort out genuine concerns and threats from presumed ones.
Although Islamists might seek to convert their fellow citizens to their faith, they do not pose the threat that many Americans might assume. Muslims are simply too few in numbers to produce any real change in this deeply Christian country. Moreover, as we have seen with other immigrant groups, and to the credit of the American way of life, the passage of time, the pursuit of successful careers, and the raising of families in tolerant and religion-friendly communities have smoothed the rough edges of many an Islamist. After all, if the Muslim Brotherhood has earned much less than majority support in the fertile environment of Egypt, what exactly do we have to fear from Islamists here?
For their part, Muslim Americans must face up to the full implications of the Islamist origins and history of their leadership. To be sure, for many, this is a legacy of struggle and pride. Yet here in America it is also a source of confusion among many Muslim Americans as to their obligations to Muslims around the globe – the ummah – and to their fellow Americans.
At a time when Americans, including some Muslims, are in combat overseas against Muslim adversaries, Muslim Americans cannot afford to consider themselves as a community apart. If they are to realize full citizenship, it is not enough for Muslims here simply to assert their rights but also to address questions whose continued neglect fuels understandable anxieties about Islam among their fellow citizens.