American Muslims are not Islamists – a dangerous assumption

Lt Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s pick to be national security adviser was reported by CNN to have said in August, 2016 that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” – in other words, that every Muslim is a potential Islamist.

islam-will-dominate-the-worldThis conflation of Islam and Islamism is very dangerous. Tell people over and over again that they are terrorists and extremists in the making and you might get what you wish for. In short, Islam is a faith practised by the aforementioned 1.7 billion people. Islamism is a relatively recent revivalist movement, spearheaded in the 20th century by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The ideology of Islamism seeks to detach Muslims from their home countries and nation states arguing that they should, instead, adhere to a globalised identity and strive to create some kind of caliphate. It developed in reaction to the very obvious decline of Muslim majority countries by the 19th century that allowed them to be overwhelmed by European colonial powers. Early Islamists even argued for modernisation and a degree of westernising in order to catch up with Europe.

ottoman_empire_bBut the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, the last Islamic caliphate, gave rise to a yearning among Islamists for the restoration of some kind of Muslim polity where religion and state would be fused – a caliphate under sharia law. But it needs to be emphasised that this was not a majority position among Muslims. And today, while elements of Islamism might find support among many Muslims, it is way off the mark to label all Muslims as Islamists in the making.

 

 

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Why US presidents should visit mosques more often

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It is extraordinary that it took until February, 2016 for President Obama to make his first official visit to an American mosque – right at the end of his second term in office. Islamist propaganda has always cast the War on Terror as a war by the West against the whole of Islam on a global scale. Arguably, by not visiting a mosque during most of his term, the President had unwittingly bolstered that narrative. After all, why not visit a mosque?

In the United States as of 2014, according to Pew, there were 2.75m Muslims. By 2050, they will surpass those who identify themselves as Jewish. They are mostly anti-extremist, even believing that their faith leaders have not done enough to speak out on this issue – again, according to Pew. On the other hand, there is a widespread view that post-9/11 anti-terror legislation has impacted disproportionately on Muslims.

Obama finally decided to cross the threshold of a mosque in response to comments made by Donald Trump while running as the Republican presidential candidate. He told the congregation:

If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.

Muslims themselves have moved decisively towards a reconciled identity in the US adopting increasingly liberal attitudes on homosexuality and abortion. Politically, they trend towards the Democrats and in spite of high rates of business formation and suburban lifestyles nevertheless believe in bigger not small government.

But in spite of these encouraging signs of assimilation, Republicans are noticeably cool about their Muslim fellow citizens and even Democrats are not reportedly warm. Democrat attitudes to Muslims could best be described as neutral compared to outright suspicion among Republicans.

It is wrong and dangerous to conflate American Muslims with Islamist extremists. Successive surveys have revealed a community that is happy to adhere to American values and salute the flag. Yet Obama left it very late in his presidency to reach out to Muslims. Even George Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington after 9/11 to boldly state that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam”.

If we want to drive Muslims into the hands of Islamists, there are two proven ways to achieve this:

  1. Put the whole of Islam and Islamist extremism in the same bucket and depict both as some kind of civilizational threat
  2. Encourage a sense of victimhood among Muslims slowly convincing them that it is impossible to live as a Muslim in the United States (and only caliphate governed by sharia law will offer real protection)

The antidote to the above is to make a clear distinction between the majority of law abiding, patriotic Muslims as opposed to Islamist extremists – and deal with them very differently. Avoidance of victimhood narratives is also critical, instead disseminating stories of success and aspiration.

It would also help if presidents of the United States set foot more often in Muslim community venues to evidence that they are as much a part of the fabric of the US as Catholics, evangelicals and Jews.

Anger at a list of alleged “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”

On October 27, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center published what it claimed was a “field guide” to the fifteen “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”. A post on the SPLC website website explained:

Ever since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, American Muslims have been under attack. They have been vilified as murderers, accused of conspiring to take over the United States and impose Shariah religious law, described as enemies of women, and subjected to hundreds of violent hate crime attacks.

It went on to allege that a network of anti-Muslim extremists and their “enablers” had been demonising the entire Islamic faith, characterising Muslims as terrorists and determined to undermine the US constitution. The SPLC got together with three other organisations – Media Matters for America, the Center for New Community and ReThink Media – to compile this field guide primarily aimed at journalists.

A stated aim of the guide was to encourage newsrooms not to use these voices as they would spread falsehoods about Islam and encourage hate based violence. The fifteen names included anti-immigrant voices like Ann Corcoran as well as high profile blogger Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both of whom have attempted to forge links to Europe’s Far Right and have been banned from entering the UK. But more contentiously, the field guide listed Majid Nawaaz, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir member who has campaigned in the UK against the Islamist ideology he once adhered to.

Nawaaz works at the Quilliam Foundation, a group that takes a strong position against both Islamist ideology and the salafi-jihadism of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Its anti-Islamism and support for the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy has earned Quilliam the ire of Islamist-inclined groups who reacted very favourably to the field guide and bated Nawaaz with his inclusion in the list of anti-Muslim extremists.

The problem with the field guide is that while Geller and Spencer are undeniably hostile to Islam as a faith, Nawaaz is a practising Muslim. He opposes Islamism as a regressive ideology within Islam as opposed to denigrating his own faith. He wants Islam to be reconciled with liberalism and western values, a far cry from the implied allegation that he seeks to provoke hate crime against his fellow Muslims.

So what was the evidence against Nawaaz from the SPLC?

  • Nawaaz reportedly claimed: “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics”. This is an argument about the tactics employed by Islamists but makes no general statement about Muslims as a whole.
  • He called for the niqab to be removed in “identity sensitive” areas like airports and banks. Many feminist Muslims would take issue with this intrusion into women’s rights and in light of events in France, where niqab bans have been championed by the Far Right, one hopes Nawaaz would drop this suggestion in future
  • He tweeted the infamous Jesus and Mo cartoon, leading to death threats against himself. Here, the SPLC falls into the Islamist trap of defining Islamophobia beyond attacks on Muslims and their property to calling for blasphemy laws, the like of which were scrapped a hundred years ago in Europe and have been viewed as undemocratic and unconstitutional in the United States
  • The SPLC mentions his trip to a strip club, reported in April 2015. What relevance this has to being an alleged “anti-Muslim extremist” is anybody’s guess.