The following is an edited transcript of the nineteenth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on January 28, 1999, in the Russell Senate Office Building with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., moderating.
CHAS. W. FREEMAN, JR., president, Middle East Policy Council
Today, we are turning our attention to a subject that is not much discussed but that deserves an airing. Internationally and in the United States, Islam is the fastest-growing religion. More and more world issues seem to involve conflicts with a religious tone to them, as was the case in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and may be the case elsewhere, for example, in the Middle East. The Muslim community, wherever it is, has a set of views and issues to which it pays attention, which distinguish it from other religious communities. In the United States it has been less than clear to most of us exactly what the American Muslim community consists of, whether it has a consistent, overarching vision of American interests and foreign policy, and, if it does not, whether it is in the process of producing such a vision and emerging as a political force.
RICHARD H. Curtiss, executive editor, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
This is a very good time to be talking about the potential of the American Muslim community, because the last month has been perhaps the most exciting time in the political development of that community. I'm going to indulge in a bit of hyperbole and suggest that the battle of Burger King, which the American Muslim community, assisted by the Arab American community, just won, might be compared to the battle of Badr in 624 A.D. It was the first victory of the vastly outnumbered Islamic community in the Arabian peninsula. At that time, 300 Muslims were attacked by 1,000 Qoraish tribesmen from Mecca, who were their oppressors. The 300 Muslims won, and it was a great shot in the arm to that tiny, beleaguered community. Unfortunately, it was followed by a lot of setbacks, but in the long run the Muslims finally, at the battle of Yarmuk in present-day Jordan, secured the west and, at the battle of Qadisiyah in present-day Iraq, opened the east.
I'm going to digress a bit to show you why I think this is so significant. Just a year and a half ago, I was in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates talking to a middle-level civil servant who had some of his education in the United States. He asked me in a state of near despair, "What do we have to do to get the United States to adopt an evenhanded policy in the Middle East? We're not asking the United States to be pro-Arab or pro-Muslim, we're just asking the United States to judge each Middle East issue on the basis of human rights and traditional American policy, not on the basis of which side is Israel on." I said, it really isn't as difficult as it may look to you from here. There are two totally different ways that American Middle East policy can be nudged toward evenhandedness. The first is right in the United States. There are now at least 6 million American Muslims, perhaps as many as 8 million. On foreign-policy questions they're pretty much in tune with up to 2 million Christian Arab Americans. What they have to do is put themselves on the American political map.
Obviously, this involves getting every member of the American Muslim community to register to vote and making sure that in the primary election the registered members vote, that every registered Muslim has transportation to the polls and, if necessary, a wakeup call on primary-election day. Then doing exactly the same thing in the general election. Fortuitously, American Muslims are heavily concentrated in the key electoral states. There is a huge number of registered Muslim voters in California. There also are large numbers, well-organized, in New Jersey, somewhat organized in New York and in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. It would be impossible in a close presidential election for a candidate of either party to win without the electoral votes of those states, particularly California. And it may well turn out that it would be impossible for any candidate to win in those other states without the support of the Muslim community.
The last step in making that Muslim community effective politically is to be sure that, when those newly registered Muslim voters go into the polling place, they're carrying in their hand a list of the candidates who are considered best on Islamic concerns in their locality, a list put together by local Muslim leaders.
I went on to tell this gentleman in Abu Dhabi that there is another way to do it. The 22 Arab chiefs of state could meet at least once a year to make sure that their political and economic policies are coordinated. This would mean deciding which countries in the world are supporting human rights for the Palestinians - if that's the primary concern, as I think it is right now - which countries are not, and making sure that major business orders go to companies from the countries that are supporting human rights for Palestinians and not to businesses from the countries that are not. At this point this middle-level civil servant in Abu Dhabi stopped me. He said, no, no, no, forget the Arab chiefs of state; we are never going to get our act together. Tell me more about what American Muslims can do to make American policy evenhanded.
Only three weeks later, I was in Northern California on a speaking tour of 11 university and college campuses in that area talking about the 50 years of Palestinian dispossession. After each talk, members of the local sponsoring groups - Muslim or Arab student organizations -would take me to lunch or dinner, and the first thing they would ask was, what can be done to make American Middle East policy evenhanded - not pro-Arab, just evenhanded, judging every issue on its merit and not on which side Israel is located?
I was struck by the coincidence of the questions, so I started exactly the same answer I gave to the man in Abu Dhabi. Balance the very powerful Israel lobby with the other, and nudge American policy toward evenhandedness. Just as in my talk overseas, one of these Muslim or Arab Americans would say, stop, stop, stop. It's too complicated; we're too scattered; we're too diverse here in the United States. Let's talk about what the Arab chiefs of state can do over there.
The good news is, they're both thinking about the same thing, and there are a lot of Muslims in both places. The bad news is that on each side of the ocean people wanted those on the other side to do the heavy lifting. The situation has changed in the last two or three months. Suddenly there is some heavy lifting being done on both sides of the ocean. I’ll start with the demonstrations protesting the opening of a Burger King franchise in the Israeli settlement at Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. The demonstrators were pointing out that all settlements in the West Bank are contrary to U.S. foreign policy over a very long period. All presidents that I can remember have called them obstacles to peace. These settlements are also contrary to international law. They're in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The recent action started with some letters to Burger King from a young Muslim teacher in Chicago. The idea was picked up by American Muslims for Jerusalem, a new organization based here in Washington, D.C., with the help of all the other major Muslim-American and Arab-American groups.
Demonstrations were organized at Burger King outlets in 11 states across the United States. The demonstrators were saying to Burger King, close the franchise that has been opened in an illegal Israeli settlement. And on the same day the demonstrations were held, Burger King instructed its Israeli management company to do exactly that. They did it even though several Jewish organizations had contacted Burger King in Miami, Florida, and said, if you give in to this demand of the Muslim-American and Arab-American groups, we will organize a boycott of your products by Jewish Americans. I assume that the management of Burger King did some basic arithmetic. They asked themselves, which is worse for us in the United States, a boycott by at least 8 million Muslim Americans and Christian Arab Americans, or a boycott in the United States by at most 5.5 million Jewish supporters of Israel. That might have been one of their calculations.
I suspect an even more decisive calculation was the fact that they knew they have 2,419 outlets overseas, of which only 46 are in Israel. Much larger numbers are in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and even in some non-Islamic states like Malaysia that have Muslim majorities that probably would close down the Burger King outlets in support of the American Muslim boycott. It didn't take long to order the Burger King company in Israel to close that franchise. Burger King, incidentally, said it had never been informed that its franchise was in an Israeli settlement. They were just told it was in Maale Adumim, Israel, with no mention of the political complication.
Even before the news had become public about the victory of the battle of Burger King, a Sprint Company promotion of long-distance telephone rates to Israel, which featured in the advertisements a photograph of the Dome of the Rock, the third most holy place to the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, was closed down by the company when Muslim organizations protested.
Even as we talk, three American organizations, the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee (ADC), the American Council for Jerusalem (ACJ) and the American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ), have all written letters to Walt Disney Productions in Orlando, Florida, asking questions about a new display to open September 30, partly financed by the Israeli government, which will be the centerpiece of the Millennium Village at Epcot Center. They're asking whether it is possible that this display features Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or contains any Israeli government language calling Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel. If this is the case, they are saying, this would not be acceptable to American Muslims.
Walt Disney Productions is stalling. They have said, we can't tell you what's in this exhibit because we have an agreement with the Israeli government and with the sponsors of other new exhibits that nothing in them will be revealed before the opening on September 30. That isn't good enough. And suddenly out in the United Arab Emirates, where they have read about this problem at the Epcot Center, the minister of information, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the son of the president of the UAE, has announced that if this unacceptable language is used in the centerpiece display at Epcot Center, the UAE (where 50 percent of the people are under 15) will boycott all Walt Disney products. Sheikh Abdullah has called upon all the members of the Arab League and all the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference - some 50 countries - to join in this boycott.
I predict that when the doors open at Epcot Center's Millennium Village on September 30, if there was any such language, it will have been removed [this proved correct]. If by any chance it hasn't been removed, then the battle really is joined. A giant American company with major sales in the Middle East, a company that attracts huge numbers of tourists from the Middle East every year, will be at war with all of the Arab states. I have no doubt who will win.
American Muslims really have won their battle of Badr: that first small battle, the battle of Burger King. I believe that within the next five or ten years they're going to win their battle of Yarmuk, and their battle of Qadisiyah. The result will be a more balanced, evenhanded U.S. Middle East policy. As a retired foreign-service officer who served 31 years for the U.S. government, most of it in the Middle East, I am quite sure that the happiest people about restoring balance and evenhandedness to U.S. Middle East policy will be those U.S. government officials who have to enforce and explain it.
AMB. FREEMAN: The American Muslim community is not just Arab, but African-American, European-American, Asian-American. There are a wide variety of issues around the world, other than the Arab-Israeli issue, that might attract the attention of the American Muslim community. I'd cite, for example, issues in the Balkans, Turkey, Indonesia and so forth. It is clearly a subject with far broader implications than simply the Middle East. But I, for one, hope that you are right; that countervailing forces will restore some freedom of maneuver and objectivity where those things have been Jacking in American policy.
ABDURAHMAN ALAMOUDI, president, American Muslim Foundation
The Muslim community has seen a great many changes in the last few years. Before the founding of the American Muslim Council in 1990, you hardly heard the voice of a Muslim, especially in Washington, D.C. As Congressman Paul Findley says, the American Muslims are a sleeping giant. We are slowly waking up. And the American Muslim Council was the catalyst. When we started the organization our main goal was, as it still is, to help the Muslim American community focus on national issues, issues that are important for us as Americans.
In 1992, somebody in the Bush administration said, Dr. Alamoudi, you come and lobby for Bosnia and for Palestine. Aren't you Americans? When will you come and talk to us about those issues? So the American Muslim Council always tries to focus the Muslim community on national issues. Unless we have an impact on our local issues - school board issues, county issues and national American issues - it will be very difficult for us to have a real impact on foreign policy. The Muslim community is getting into that now with the leadership of African-American Muslims.
Also in 1992, the American Muslim Council made its first foray into political activism by attending the national party conventions. We had our first hospitality suites at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1992. We galvanized the Muslim communities in New York and Houston and, by extension, throughout the world.
We also surveyed the Muslim community that year. Muslims were evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. We Muslims are mainly conservatives, but we have a soft heart for social issues, so you see Muslims across the whole spectrum of American politics. When the World Trade Center bombing happened, it was a wake-up call for us, an opportunity to educate and galvanize the Muslim community, but also to go outside that community and start a dialogue with the media. An hour after the bombing, I was at CNN talking to a reporter by the name of Steve Emerson and his producer. I told him, just half an hour ago you painted the Muslim community with a broad brush. I went there, made my case and talked to Emerson.
What the American Muslim Council did at that time was to survey American public opinion on Islam. Before doing that we had a debate in our Board of Directors meeting. They asked, why do you want to ask this question just a month after a horrible incident that affected us as American Muslims? We were devastated by that, because it has nothing to do with our religion, it has nothing to do with the American Muslim community. We are against all forms of terrorism. Our religion, like all monotheistic religions, is against terrorism. But we asked Americans what they thought about Muslims and Islam. About 15 percent of Americans said they wanted nothing to do with Islam. Another 15 to 20 percent had no problem with Islam. But the silver lining was that 60 percent of Americans didn't know anything about Islam. So we had to go out there and market ourselves as Americans, as Muslims and as good neighbors. When we did that, it really motivated us and other Muslim organizations to start working on the media and others.
In 1992 and again in '93, the genocide in Bosnia galvanized American Muslims. The Bosnia task force organized a demonstration in Washington of 50,000 Muslims. There were those who wanted to work only within the Muslim community, but this was a humanitarian issue for us, as Americans, in which we could involve everybody. We were proud to bring together an interfaith coalition of Muslims, Christians and Jews. We were honored to have Rabbi David Sapperstein to work with us on this one and to take us through the halls of the Congress, the Department of State and some embassies to talk about the issue of Bosnia. We used those opportunities to activate the Muslim community. Our basic message was, we have rights, and we will work to get them, but we also have obligations.
While Bosnia and the Middle East peace process were central issues on the international agenda, growing discrimination was encountered at home by Muslims, especially by Palestinians after the Oslo accords started in 1993. In the American Muslim Council, we made a strategic decision that we were not against the peace process. It doesn't serve our cause, but we cannot always shy away from foreign policy. We came up with a statement saying, if the Israeli government and the Palestinians want, they can make peace, but there is no peace without justice. That put us on the map on this issue. Unfortunately, our government, the FBI, the Justice Department and others went on a rampage against our Palestinian brethren. Whoever was against the peace process for any reason was targeted by the FBI. Unfortunately, most of those who were vocal were Palestinian Muslims. So in the middle '90s, we had to counter the effect on Muslim civil rights of the anti-terrorism bill and immigration legislation and work against crimes affecting the community, especially the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Oklahoma City bombing happened on April 19, 1995, at 9:00 in the morning as I was coming to my office in Washington. I often ask Muslims and other minorities if they didn't feel in their guts at that moment, oh my God, I hope that we didn't have anything to do with it. What did the media do? For 60 hours we were maligned and stereotyped. There were more than 200 incidents reported by (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) and other organizations on how Muslims were mistreated. We had women and children who could not go outside their homes. Steve Emerson was assuring everybody that Muslims had done it.
But another silver lining for us was President Clinton. When AMC called the White House and said, don't rush to judgment, three hours later the president came out and said, don't rush to judgment. Did the media heed his example? No. The media continued to assume Muslim guilt for two and a half days, until Mr. McVeigh was apprehended. But that was another opportunity for the Muslim community. We did three things. We had a coalition of national Muslim organizations visit New York, Washington and Los Angeles, talking to all the major media. We explained who and what we are. We went into the Muslim community in Oklahoma City itself. There was a convocation on Sunday after the bombing, at which every creed was represented except the Muslims- all the Christian denominations, the Jewish denominations and so on. But, when we reflected on it, we came to the conclusion that we were partly responsible. In Oklahoma City we had three Islamic centers. Unfortunately, none of them had anything to do with local politics.
I don't know if at that time the mayor of Oklahoma City knew that we had three Islamic centers there. A woman in one of the Oklahoma City centers wrote to the White House asking if it could be a representative of the Muslims. The White House did nothing. But we don't blame others for our faults; we try to take responsibility and educate our community. And we have succeeded. We went into the Islamic centers and said, open up. Bring in the interfaith community. You have a church here next to you; you have a synagogue near you. Invite them here; invite the city council and others. I'm happy to report that some did. I wish I could say half of them; I wish I could say 75 percent. But the process has begun in the Muslim community.
In 1998, the main Muslim organizations came together in a coordinated council. We met with the Arab organizations, and we have a good institution that will coordinate our activism. I'm happy to report that the American Muslim Council, since '96, has counted more than half a million registered Muslim voters. Our main goal is to try to organize a bloc in the Muslim community.
When it comes to foreign policy, it's easy for Muslims. Although we are a very diverse community, we have a few issues that we want everybody, especially Congress, to be judged on in 5, 10, 15, 20 years. What Congress is doing on Islam and the Muslim community here will come to the forefront then. It is unacceptable to us for Islam and the Muslim countries to be the "green menace," now that the red menace is not there anymore. The other issue is the double standard in the Muslim world over issues like the Kurds and the Middle East peace process. We appreciate President Clinton's move to postpone the issue of Jerusalem. We hope now that we're discussing the final-status negotiations that Jerusalem will be looked upon also as a Christian and a Muslim site, and a capital city for the Palestinian people.
There are a few other issues, especially Kashmir and human rights. I was told by a high-ranking administration official at the Department of State that human rights and democracy in the Arab and Muslim world are not a priority of this administration. We Muslims cannot accept that. We will try our best to educate our administration that to pursue human rights and democracy in the Muslim world is in the best interest of our country. We believe we can be the catalyst -Americans who are believers in the American values of freedom and human rights and who strive to see those values respected in U.S. foreign policy. An America that remains true to its own ideals abroad would go far toward realizing the objectives of the American Muslim community.
JAMEEL W. A-JOHNSON, chief of staff, Office of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY)
With all this diversity, is it possible to forge a single agenda to further the Muslim cause? The Quran, the speech and philosophy of Allah, says that he made us into nations and tribes so that we would know each other, not so that we would despise each other. The best of you is the one who serves Allah best. It is the teaching within Islam that our life on earth and everything in it is a test. Making us into nations and tribes, people of different ethnic backgrounds from different places, different languages, different races, is also part of that test. It provides diversity in the Muslim community, creating both opportunity and challenge.
I come from an urban area, predominantly an Afro-American Hispanic community. I have an opportunity to reach into that community and discuss with people what Islam is all about and what our issues are. There are those who come from the Indian community and the European community. So the opportunities are there, because of diversity, to spread knowledge of what Islam is and what the Muslim people are about to various communities around the country and around the world.
At the same time, what tends to come up often is the challenge of diversity, which has been an issue in this nation since its inception, the issue of the Europeans versus the Indians and the African slaves. Sometimes because of this diversity, even though there have not been significant divisive issues, there has not been the necessary reaching out across the divide between communities so that we are able to focus on the issues that matter to us all.
When you look at the major Muslim communities in America, you have both the indigenous communities, which predominantly tend to be African American, and the immigrant communities, which come from Asia, Africa and the Arab region. This has presented a challenge to us in regard to the political development of the Muslim community. The African-American community has its background in slavery and the Jim Crow period, when African Americans were made to fear becoming involved in the political process. During the late '50s and '60s, during the civil-rights movement here in America, more African Americans began to become involved in the presidential runs of Jesse Jackson and in registering to vote, and more African Americans were elected to office around the country because of their registering for the presidential election.
When I first became a Muslim back in 1988, a brother at the mosque told me, you're going to find that whatever the personality of a particular people before they became Muslims, that's what they're going to bring to Islam with them. African Americans typically have not had a background of being politically involved, so when they become Muslim, they tend to bring that lack of involvement in the system with them. They are wary of the system and lack faith that the system will work for them because it hasn't worked for them in the past.
Those in the immigrant community also tend to shy away from the system, even if they have their residency and visas and everything in place. This is natural, especially if they're coming from a nation in which the government was more oppressive. They tend to be wary of becoming involved and being outspoken against the government, especially those of lower socioeconomic status. You tend to not want the government to be aware of your business. It also takes people a while to become acclimated to what is going on in a new place. There is also the issue of cultural differences. Even though in Islam there's no prejudice or racism, people are still people, and prejudices and racism still exist. And people always tend to gravitate to what they are more familiar with.
I have no idea how many mosques there are in the United States, but in our district alone, the sixth congressional district of New York, there are at least nine. Mosques tend to develop based on the ethnic community, so you have Afro-American, Chinese and Pakistani mosques. It is not that if you are not from a particular community you are not welcome, but the leadership of the mosque tends to be based on a particular ethnic community. This tends to keep people from discussing what their various issues are and how they can come together to better their lives here as well as to affect policy through· out the world.
What issues tend to unite the entire Muslim community? One, as Dr. Alamoudi mentioned, was the issue of terrorism in Islam. The Afro-American community and the immigrant community are very strong and united on eliminating the image of Islam as fostering terrorism to gain political or social ends. The Quran teaches very clearly that you only fight against those who pick up the sword against you. You have the right to defend yourself. Allah does not favor those who are the aggressors.
A story from the life of the Prophet Muhammad is useful here. When he went to Taif to spread the word of Islam, he went first to the leadership, and they rejected it. Then he went directly to the people, and they also rejected it. They stoned him and ran him out of town, blood dripping down into his sandals. The Angel Gabriel came to him and brought the angel of the mountains with him and said, if you so wish, Allah will allow the angel to bring the two mountains together and crush the entire valley. But the Prophet said no, because even if these people would not accept the message today, perhaps one day in the future their posterity will. This is taught to us as Muslims - that we show mercy to people, that we do not attack indiscriminately.
One of the greatest barriers to the Muslim community's involvement in politics is the question of what we call biq, the understanding of the faith. There is among the scholars and the leaders of all communities the issue of whether or not Muslims should be involved in a non-Islamic political system at all. Groups and individuals differ on this. There was a time when the Prophet was offered the leadership of Mecca if he would stop teaching. He said, if you were to give me the sun in my right hand, the moon in my left, never would I give up my teaching. There were those Islamic scholars who say that this statement means that Muslims should not become involved in a non-Islamic political system, because otherwise the Prophet would have taken the leadership.
There are others who say that the Prophet made various treaties with non-Islamic parties in Medina and in Mecca. We use that to say that Muslims should be involved in the political system. But some are opposed to this, and they look at modern-day examples of Muslims attempting to use democracy to change the system and being oppressed for it. In Algeria, back in the early '90s, when the Muslims had become very involved in the political system, they did go to vote, and they won most of the seats in the municipal elections. Had the final election gone through, they would have won most of the seats in the parliament. This would have given them the opportunity to change the system, particularly to change the constitution. When this became known, the Algerian government aborted the elections and arrested most of the Muslim leaders. A civil war ensued.
Turkey is another example. In 1996, the Muslim Welfare party won more seats in Parliament than any other. The party's desire was for Islamic reform in Turkey. They were even able to elect a prime minister, but the military constantly forced them to pull back on Islamic reform. Eventually the party was outlawed and all of its leaders arrested. Once again, Muslims were oppressed for their involvement in the political process. This becomes a reference for those who are against Muslims being involved in the political process. But the other side says, we need to be involved in the Democratic party, the Republican party, the Reform party and to become part of the mainstream to achieve the changes that we want. Or perhaps the Muslims should come together with their own party and their individual agenda for the purpose of making changes. These two opposing views are yet to be resolved.
Should it be our goal to develop resources and establish a community so that we can live a life more in tune with Islam, trying to spread Islam throughout the United States, or should we simply have an agenda that moves us into the mainstream, so that we become part of the larger melting pot? Because of a lack of cohesion on that agenda, you typically have Muslim leaders going their own way. For instance, there is the community of Elijah Muhammad, the American Muslim Society, which is very involved with a predominantly indigenous African American Muslim group that grew out of the former Nation of Islam but has accepted orthodox Islam since then. They tend to be very politically involved, to the point where they have established a political action committee and have even considered running members for office. Other communities have decided to move away from being involved in the political agenda.
The indigenous community, which is predominantly African American but includes Hispanics, Caucasians and others, tends to be very involved in dealing with local issues concerning the practice of Islam: being able to attend services on Friday, women being allowed to wear Muslim dress. Several years ago in New York, when David Dinkins was still mayor, the Islamic Society of North America made a push to have the Islamic holidays recognized in the city of New York, so that employees who are Muslim could observe holy days and so that alternate-side parking would be suspended on those days. This initiative was successful. So now, when New York City comes out with its calendar of holidays it must observe for particular city ordinances, three days for Eid al Adha and two days for Eid al-Fitr are also on the calendar every year.
We have had issues that have united the Muslim community across the board. Palestine, Bosnia and Kosovo. The Gulf War was another one. Questions remain: How do we overcome concerns about becoming involved and the lack of political sophistication among the indigenous and the immigrant communities? How do we bridge the cultural divides to establish one agenda so that Muslims can begin to vote in a bloc, working with their Arab brothers and sisters who may not be Muslim, and with their fellow members of the African-American community who have had similar concerns and live in the neighborhood, so we can pull together a stronger agenda to move the Muslim community forward?
AMB. FREEMAN: Most Americans would be startled, given the general view of Islam, to understand the point that you made so well, that there is a debate in the American Muslim community about whether to be involved in politics at all. Since the general image of Islam is of a very politicized religion, this is an important corrective, I think, to that false understanding.
HESHAM REDA, president, Muslim Public Affairs Council
The American Muslim community is a work in progress. We can talk about the American Muslim community and point to evidence that it exists. But there may be people who would point to other evidence that would show that it really does not function as a community at all. Even among the immigrant Muslims there are two blocs, the Indian and Pakistani on the one hand and the Arab on the other. There are also a lot of other ethnic groups within the immigrant community. This means less cohesion in its approach to issues. However, all of these groups are united by a sense of alienation to some extent from the political process here. In the case of African-Americans, it comes from the experience of racism. For the immigrant community, it comes from the fact that the whole society- the culture, the political process- are alien to them. Even dealing with a non-Muslim government is something that Muslims have a very hard time with.
How are we supposed to do this, when our experience has been to deal with Muslim governments, for the most part? Even in countries where Muslims are a minority, like India, we have a Jong history of Muslim rule. Consequently, Muslims have not dealt with a non-Muslim government for a very long time, nor have they developed processes that are effective for doing so. Added to this is the fact that there is a sense of fear of the political process in general. Most of the countries these immigrants come from are not democratic. If you get involved in politics, you are liable to face harassment of one sort or another and might end up in jail or even be killed. It takes time for these immigrants to overcome the culture shock, the difference in religion, dealing with a new government. On top of that, there is the fear that some of them have of becoming involved in the political process. It is a monumental task to organize such a community.
But despite all of these impediments, you find that today there is a sense of community. There are a lot of organizations active in the field right now, and they have matured enough that they are able to work together and start focusing on specific issues. They are able also to start to divide up the labor more effectively.
Quite often, Muslims are more concerned about issues of foreign policy than domestic policy. A large part of the community is of immigrant background, but in addition, quite often these are issues of life and death. For example, there was great concern among Muslims about the Gulf War, not because of support for Saddam Hussein and not only because it was happening among Arab Muslims. I witnessed great concern among all sorts of Muslims at that time, because it was an issue of life and death. The Gulf War mobilized the community to work in the political field much more than it had before.
On the heels of that came Bosnia, again an issue of life and death. Muslims became active in an unprecedented way, even by Gulf War standards. There was a large demonstration and many other activities the community organized - to work with refugees, to work with local agencies, not only politically but on social issues. That opened the door for an experience in the political process that had not existed before. Through the work of building alliances and organizing ourselves, we have matured quite a bit in the last two to three years.
I would like to take issue with the people who say that the Muslim community is divided among many foreign-policy issues. It is true that we have far more issues to focus on than the Jewish community, which is concerned mostly about Israel. When it comes to the Muslim community, we have Bosnia, Kashmir, Iraq and many other issues, including Chechnya and Kosovo, most recently.
But the Palestinian issue remains central, for many reasons. The first is religious: Jerusalem is a sacred place for Muslims, as it is for Christians and Jews. There is a very special place for that issue in every Muslim heart. In addition, strategically the struggle over Palestine is looked upon, at least subconsciously, as a struggle for the independence of the Muslim will. This is really a struggle over whether we are going to be, as a people, able to control our own faith, or whether we are going to be dominated by somebody else. This issue tends to divide Muslims and sap their energies in such a way that it has gained prominence over all others. Finally, we have seen that at least some elements of the Jewish community, particularly those who are extreme Zionists, have taken it upon themselves to be the main impediment to the progress of Muslims toward full participation in American life. This also adds to why the Palestinian cause is such a primary issue for Muslims.
This poses problems, of course, because it tends to poison relations with the Jewish community. I was in Minnesota before I came to Washington a couple of years ago, and there, working with the American Muslim Council and the Islamic Center of Minnesota, we were able to forge very good relations with the Jewish community. We did it mainly by focusing on domestic issues and agreeing to disagree on the Palestinian issue. When we were able to have an intelligent discourse on that, we tried to do so, but otherwise we focused on other issues. We worked together on a hate-crime bill in the Minnesota legislature, and we were able to pass it.
On the national level, however, there is much more susceptibility to pressure by extreme Zionist groups like the Zionist Organization of America, who put other Jewish groups under pressure not to cooperate with Muslim or Arab groups. This has been a large impediment. The relationship with the Jewish community is very important for the Muslim community. We are going through experiences that the Jewish community has gone through previously. We have a lot in common, in both matters of faith and politics, and we can certainly benefit from a good relationship. This is a project that we will continue to pursue, and we hope Jewish groups will work with us.
When we look at the community right now, we already see that it is not as divided as it used to be. The ethnicity issue is not as central, although in some ways it has become more dominant than before. When the community was quite small, you would go to a place and find one Islamic center; everybody had to be together. Once the community grew, we found ourselves being divided by ethnicity. We wanted a Pakistani mosque, an Egyptian mosque, a Turkish mosque, et cetera. But, as we have become more and more cognizant of Muslim identity and its place in this society, and as pressure has been put on the community by events like the World Trade Center or the Oklahoma City bombing, I think there has been more involvement, more closeness and more opportunities for all of us to work together.
In addition, there is a new generation of Muslims starting to take its place here. They are the ones who are going to be able to unite this community. It may take 10 to 20 years, but they are going to be setting the agenda. They do not have the same sense of ethnicity that their parents and grandparents have. They are much more comfortable with the American environment. They have not experienced culture shock. They do not have the same sense of alienation. They speak the language better than their parents. But they have an Islamic identity within the American scene, born on American soil. They are going to be able to put all of these aspects together and pitch an American-Muslim agenda to this society.
An American-Islamic agenda is an ongoing project. In foreign policy it focuses more on the Palestinian issue than others. We also have a domestic agenda focusing mostly on the civil rights of Muslims. But this agenda is not complete. There are many, many issues that are being tackled in detail in different places, not in a very systematic way and not completely. On issues like education, drugs, crime and the society, we have diverse opinions, and not enough effort is being exerted yet.
Once Muslims find their place in the American mainstream, I think you are going to see more than one agenda among American Muslims: a conservative agenda, a liberal or progressive agenda, et cetera. This is in evidence already; there are those trying to establish dialogue, for example, with the Christian Coalition with limited success. There are people who are already working with groups like the National Council of Churches and the Interfaith Alliance, for example, and other groups that tend to be more on the liberal side. When it comes to the Democratic and Republican parties, as mentioned earlier, you find that there is identification with the so-called "family values" advocated by Republicans, even though Muslims probably would pitch them in a different tone, in some instances more strongly than the Republicans do. But social issues and compassion for the poor are also very important for Muslims.
The Democratic party has been able, especially during the Clinton administration, to gain a lot of respect and support among the Muslim community because it has been so inclusive, and because this administration has opened the door for Muslims to participate much more than any previous one. That has gone a long way toward gaining support for the Democratic party. Advances by the Republican party have not been as forthcoming so far. But dialogue is happening. Hopefully it will continue and will be more fruitful.
The main motivating factor for the Muslim community and for the new generation of Muslims would be to make the society around us better. This is a duty that is imposed upon us in Islam. It is a task given to us by God; consequently, it is something that we have to take care of. We have to show that this is something we will work toward with the rest of society. We will need to form large alliances around these issues and work together on them. This may not work well for foreign-policy issues except when it comes to focusing on something like human rights, because human rights are in Islam, and Muslims embrace this. The problem is that the terminology is new. The issues have to be redefined and rephrased in such a way that people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, can understand them. This is part of the ongoing project.
Q: How can the under-representation of Muslim viewpoints in think tanks and in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy be remedied?
MR. CURTISS: The establishment of specifically Muslim or Arab-American think tanks has begun, and in such activities there is always a kind of survival of the fittest. Those which are most effective will probably thrive and prosper, and those that are least effective will not. For instance, the Palestinians have found their fit in Washington at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, which now is extremely active. It seems to have about two prestigious programs a week and brings in people from the government and from academia, which is what you want. I see virtually no representation of Muslims in the established think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute, but each does have one or two Muslim scholars in residence. It's the newest game in town, but I think the progress is perceptible. When you look back over the 15 years that I've been doing a magazine and reporting on these events, the progress is astonishing.
MR. JOHNSON: There's a lack of presence in terms of organizing and lobbying on various issues. I speak to a lot of the Muslim groups around the D.C. area, but, I don't often see Muslim groups coming to lobby, whether they be from the local level or Washington based. The International Relations Committee, on which my member sits, is dominated by certain ethnic groups that do not include Muslims, so there's no input from the inside.
AMB. FREEMAN: As Dr. Alamoudi said, to become more effective in this area, American Muslims will have to do things the American way, and politics in the United States is colored green, which by coincidence is also the color of Islam. The question arises whether the American Muslim community will follow various Christian and Jewish communities in becoming active in funding efforts to propagate a particular viewpoint internationally. If one totals up what the Christian right spends to propagate its views on foreign policy, the figure would be in the tens of millions of dollars. On the single issue of Arab-Israeli relations, I suspect the American Jewish community spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to influence policy. I wonder what tradition on spending may arise in the American Muslim community, assuming the question can be resolved of how involved in politics Muslims should be.
Q: Is the American Muslim community, and particularly the American Muslim Council, promoting the ideal of an Islamic republic or Islamic government abroad? What is your position on this issue, specifically with reference to the status of Islamic regimes on human rights, the rights of women and popular participation in government.
DR. ALAMOUDI: I think for the near future and for the next l 00 years, the Muslim world will be served by secular regimes more than by Islamic republics. That doesn't mean that we don't recognize majorities and minorities in the so-called Islamic world. The problem that I have is not with the Islamic republics, it's the American administration. They are not helping Muslims as they helped Latin America and Eastern Europe to evolve to a more democratic condition. The Muslim world will be served better by going into transition to full democracy for everybody, and we're seeing that. In Jordan there is a certain kind of democracy, whether we like it or not. In Iran they have a certain kind of democracy.
Whether we agree with them or they agree with our democracy is something else. We see Yemen having a certain kind of democracy. We see a certain kind of democracy in Turkey. A Muslim woman was elected to parliament, and they kicked her out just because of the way she expresses herself through her clothing. So on the issue of women in the Muslim world, I emphatically support Islam and the treatment of women, because women in Islam, as I see it, are equal. There is no differentiation between men and women in Islam.
MR. REDA: Islam has principles that govern all of these issues -democracy, human rights, women, terrorism and violence in general, et cetera. But what we are in search of, and in debate and dialogue about, is developing a comprehensive position. We believe Islam to be a religion for all people and for all! time. Consequently, it was not sent in such a way that there are fixed rules, despite the popular perception that everything is defined for all time. Rather, there are general principles and very few fixed rules, which we are able to establish in different times and places. For example, when it comes to an issue like democracy, we do have principles in Islam that governance should be in consultation, for instance. It doesn't say that you are supposed to have two houses of parliament and how to elect them and so on. During the time of the Prophet, he used to gather people in the mosque and ask them what they thought about something. More than once he would be overruled by the people, and he would go along with what they wanted to do. There we have the example of his own application of the principle. In the United States in the 1990s and in the twenty-first century, we have to look into how we are going to apply these principles, not the issue of whether we believe in democracy itself or not. I think that is settled for most of us, although some of us still have to come around. But how to apply it is something that we have to have a clear position on. In the United States, democracy is functioning for the most part. We would like to see things worked on, like campaign finance reform, but that is an ongoing process. You will see more and more Islamic positions put forward on these issues which can be understood by everybody, not just Muslims.
AMB. FREEMAN: As a non-Muslim sympathetic to Islam, I think there are serious questions involved in the matters that have been raised. Do American Muslims see the Iranian Islamic Republic as an expression of Islam or as a perversion? Was the American government's response to the Algerian election correct or incorrect? Should the American government welcome, oppose or act case by case in response to various movements abroad that profess to be Islamic? What should be the position of American Muslims on groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who take an extreme view of some of the issues that have been raised?
MR. JOHNSON: A government is not Islamic just because it says it's an Islamic government. It can use any title it wants, but if it is not in keeping with the speech of Allah and with the Prophet Muhammad, it is no more an Islamic government than the Nation of Islam is Islam. How do you judge? You judge by what Muhammad said to judge by. He said, I'll leave you with two things, a book of the speech of Allah and my Sunna. And if a government is not following those things and ruling the way he ruled and the way the four rightly-guided caliphs ruled, then you know it's not an Islamic government, even though it may be run by people who are Muslims and because they use the term.
MR. CURTISS: We have a very lively letters column in our magazine, and probably 40 percent of our readers at this point are Muslim. On some issues like Iran, whatever we write brings a storm of protest. Whatever point of view an author takes, we find that there are many other Iranians who think differently about the current Islamist government. On the Palestine problem, there seem to be quite unified views. As the Muslim community tries to unify, they obviously will have to avoid highly controversial matters like Iran and to some extent Turkey and concentrate on the things they have in common: Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia and Kosovo.
DR. ALAMOUDI: Our request from policy makers is to have no double standards when it comes to foreign policy, whether it is with Saudi Arabia or Iran or the others. There has to be a dialogue, be it on Iran, on Libya, on Sudan. We in the American Muslim Council were for the coalition during the Gulf War, but we were not there because we thought that the coalition would devastate Iraq and leave Saddam Hussein in power. It is a very grave double standard when a president asks the people of a country to rise up against their leader and, when they do that, does not give them cover. We are concerned, as the Muslim community, with democracy. And we believe if there is democracy in the Muslim world, the Muslim people will be intelligent enough to choose the government that they want.
The notion that if Muslims come to power they don't leave or take turns has been discredited. In Turkey the Muslim party was deposed by the secular military. In Yemen the Isiah party came and left, as in Jordan with the Muslim Brotherhood. So the notion that if Muslims come in they will stay forever is not accepted by us as American Muslims. What we want to see is for our government to help people in the Muslim world develop democracy.
Q: Is there any distinction between the bombing of the World Trade Center and acts of terror committed by Hamas in Israel or Israeli-occupied territory? Is there an American Muslim position or an organizational position on those issues? Has the American Islamic community taken a position on the question of whether Israel has a right to exist?
MR. REDA: I think we have made it clear that we condemn terrorism. But I think we have to be clear also on what we mean by terrorism. We should define it as violence committed against innocent civilians for political purposes. This is something that we as Muslims, American and otherwise, condemn, and we have done that often, whether it's the World Trade Center or something that happens in Israel or anywhere else. The problem comes when we try to ignore the definition for the sake of excusing one act and condemning another. When we talk about Hezbollah in South Lebanon fighting the Israeli army, this is not terrorism. This is legitimate resistance, and we cannot condemn that. When a bus of civilians is attacked, that is terrorism, and we condemn it. On the other side, when Israel attacks civilians in Lebanon or elsewhere, that is also terrorism. Much of what it's doing in the occupied territories is terrorism. That should be condemned also and should not be ignored by those who want to condemn only Hamas and Hezbollah.
As for Israel's right to exist, the Israelis themselves more and more are acknowledging that Israel was born in an injustice done to the Palestinian people. I think Israel's right to exist will be acknowledged more and more as this injustice is removed. The more justice that is given to the Palestinians, the more legitimacy Israel will gain. I don't know whether the process we are seeing right now will lead to that or not. Let's hope it will, even though the omens are not very good so far. If it does, then certainly you will find people embracing a peaceful existence and legitimate presence for Israel in the area. If it doesn't happen, and if there is no justice, there is going to be no acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Israel. Legitimacy for Israel is dependent on the injustice done to the Palestinians being undone.
DR. ALAMOUDI: Nowhere has the AMC or any other Muslim organization said we are for terrorism. We have issued a lot of joint statements with Christian organizations. Unfortunately, our friends in the Jewish organizations would not join us on this. We have always emphatically stressed that we are against all forms of terrorism, even state-sponsored terrorism, as when the U.S. administration bombs a factory, or when the Russian government or the Milosevic government does what they do. We would appreciate from our friends on the other side a dialogue on this issue. It is very unfortunate when the whole Muslim community is held captive to an anti-terrorism bill that comes out just because a few interest groups want to use the TWA Flight 800 crash in New York or the Oklahoma City bombing and so on for their own purposes. It is unfair, it's undemocratic, it's un-American to condemn IO million people as a terrorist community, just because one or two have done something wrong.
On the issue of Hamas, if it commits any action against civilians, we are against that. But, as Hesham Reda mentioned eloquently, if Hamas has anything to do with self-determination for the Palestinian people, that's American. We Americans here fought the British on the issue of self-determination. When the Palestinians, the Palestinian authority and Israel signed the peace accord, I was one of the first people who said, it's about time this administration reopened the dialogue with Hamas. We Americans believe in dialogue. There has to be dialogue with Hamas, with Sudan, with Iran, with Libya. Keeping them out and calling them names will not serve our purpose at all.
AMB. FREEMAN: In the United States, one of the ways by which religious communities have exercised influence on foreign policy is through the avenue of charity. Charity is central to the concepts of the Islamic religion, charity for other believers and even for the non-believer, as Jameel Johnson mentioned. To what extent is the American Muslim community following this American tradition of involvement in charitable activity abroad, and what mechanisms, if any, are they developing to pursue this?
DR. ALAMOUDI: The American Muslim community has quite a few organizations Mercy International, the Indian Muslim Charitable Organization, the Kashmiri Charitable Organization, the Islamic Africa Relief Agency- that collect money here and go and help. The Holy Lamp Foundation, based in Dallas, Texas, does a superb job in helping Palestinians. There is another organization called the Holy Lamp Fund from Chicago. There is the United Palestinian Appeal that helps Palestinians. The Holy Lamp Foundation has been put under tremendous pressure in the United States and in the occupied territories just for carrying a few hundred dollars to help people. We Muslims in America believe that we need first to have charity within the United States to help Muslims and then to open up to the wider community.
When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, the Holy Lamp Foundation was one of the first organizations that went there. The other Muslim organizations were all there as well. Charity is, as Hesham mentioned, deep-seated in the heart of the Muslim. Unfortunately, most people that are afflicted around the world are Muslims: 80 percent of refugees in the world are Muslims. We follow the lead of many religious organizations, Christian organizations mainly and some Jewish organizations. We Americans give more than $120 billion to charity. The American Muslim part of it might be small, but it will grow with time.
AMB. FREEMAN: Given all of the domestic problems that the African-American community experiences, Muslim and Christian alike, is there a viewpoint in the community on the issue of involvement in charitable activity abroad that is distinct from that of other Muslims, or does the African-American Muslim community share in the views that Abdurahman Alamoudi just mentioned?
MR. JOHNSON: The views are basically the same. In Islam, this community is one community, and if any part of the body is harmed, the whole body hurts. So you will find that the African-American community tends to engage in a lot of the high-profile issues, such as relief for Turkey after the quake, relief for Kosovo, relief for Bosnia. But, there is also a heavy focus on charity for local feeding centers, clothing centers, helping individual families right around the corner who are in difficulty, because that's what we see every day in the communities we come from.
Q: How can the rights of minorities both here and in the Muslim world be protected?
MR. REDA: Muslims are a minority here, and we appreciate the Bill of Rights and feel the significance of it in our lives. One thing that's happening in the United States is that we feel that we are being singled out as Muslims. When we talk about civil-rights abuses and secret evidence and other problems, Muslims and Arabs are targets more than anybody else. This is part of a larger picture, because with the threat of terrorism there is a tendency in the United States today to talk more and more about the acceptability of restrictive rules and surveillance. If we have another Oklahoma City bombing or something of that magnitude or several smaller incidents, like last month's shooting in the Jewish community center in Los Angeles, people will be much more willing to accept restrictive laws, and it will be possible to pass laws like the anti-terrorism bill that was passed not too long ago. Then we are going to be faced with less liberty in this country, not only Muslims and Arab-Americans, but Americans in general. There has to be a serious dialogue about it before such incidents take place and prepare the environment for the passing of such laws, which it will be very difficult to back down from.
Recognizing the rights of minorities is something that's already in Islam itself, something that the Muslim world needs to embrace more and more. This is part of the new development of Islam in today's world. We have to be tackling these issues. We have to come out with new understanding for the new circumstances that we are living in, so that laws that are applied in the Muslim world today will be in congruence with both Islamic principles and recognized principles on human rights and liberty.
DR. ALAMOUDI: Unfortunately, we are not doing enough, whether it is here or outside. But the leadership of the Muslim community is very sensitized on this issue. We have a problem, however, when people in the United States go into Congress and force the administration to come up with a commission on minority religious freedom. For example, in Morocco, because one individual was harassed one time, we have a commission to guard and protect religious minorities. In the American Muslim community most of us feel that the rights of the majority in the Muslim world are violated. If the United States would form a commission for majority rights, the minority rights would be well guarded in the Muslim world. But when you go to an Islamic community and start teaching them about the rights of Jews and Christians and Hindus and so on, when you have 120 to 150 million Muslims in India or 80 to 100 million Chinese Muslims who during the holy month of Ramadan are persecuted, it is difficult. It's very important that we do it, but it's hard to educate our community on that when we have the more pressing issue of human rights and democracy for the majority.
AMB. FREEMAN: What I have heard today is a description of the beginning of an important new voice in American foreign policy and of a community that is starting to exercise some influence, not just on issues that are commonly thought to be of particular concern to Arab-Americans or other ethnic groups, but more broadly on matters of concern to Americans as Muslims. And I hear that despite the division in the community, there are possibilities for cohesion. I was struck, also, by the trend toward cooperation at the local level with the Jewish community, the Christian community and others on issues of justice and anti-discrimination.
Finally, what I have heard in terms of a vision of foreign policy from this community on the issues of human rights and democracy, which are of concern to other religious communities, was no different than what I would have expected to hear from a Jewish or Christian group. The American Muslim community is correctly concerned about the ignorance of the American public about Islam and American Muslims and interested in promoting a more accurate knowledge of Islam. We at the Middle East Policy Council are not Muslims, but we also believe it is important for there to be more accurate and fair understanding of Islam and American Muslim issues.
The place of the American Muslim community within the mainstream of American society seems clear. What I have heard today places that community very much in the American tradition. And as president of the Middle East Policy Council, I would like to wish all of you who participate in that community every success in articulating your viewpoint effectively, both at the local and at the national level, so that it is factored into American policy on a more reliable basis than it has been in the past.