Moderate Muslims Seek Foothold in U.S.

By Daniel Treiman

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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What happens when you call a mass demonstration and only a few dozen people show up? That’s more or less what happened when Free Muslims Against Terrorism organized a Washington rally last month.

The group’s founder, Bethlehem-born Kamal Nawash, had hoped that the May 14 rally would send “a very clear message to the Arab and Muslim world that we don’t support this madness, we don’t support the use of terror.” But, according to The Washington Times, the rally only drew about 50 people.

Nawash’s outfit is just one group in an increasingly crowded field of new American Muslim organizations that call themselves “moderate,” “pluralist” or “progressive.” A number have sprung up since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — many in the past year — and are now working to find a foothold on the American Muslim scene. Some are stressing the need to condemn terrorism, while others are more focused on pressing internal religious reforms. Several of the new groups are reaching out to the Jewish community, a development that stands in stark relief against the backdrop of long-standing hostility between established American Jewish and Muslim organizations.

Leaders of the new groups bill them as alternatives to the established national Muslim organizations, to which they give various criticisms such as out of touch, overly conservative and even extremist. Some echo the criticisms made by Jewish organizations, which often have had a hostile relationship to the existing Muslim groups, accusing them of being cozy with anti-Israel extremists or of failing to condemn Palestinian terrorism.

While their rhetoric is impassioned, it remains to be seen how large a constituency any of these new groups represents — or whether they have any grass-roots appeal whatsoever. None yet have the capacity, nor necessarily the ambition, to take on the work that more established groups, such as the widely criticized Council on American-Islamic Relations, do on public policy, civil liberties and anti-defamation issues — work that observers say has won the established groups respect in the larger American Muslim community. And while these new Muslim groups share a professed commitment to pluralism, moderation and communal critique, some of their leaders are sniping at each other already.

The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, started last fall by several veteran community activists, is already causing a stir with its liberal religious and political orientation. But it still has no paid staff. That lack of organizational infrastructure is about the only thing it has in common with the Washington-based Center for Islamic Pluralism, launched in March by Stephen Schwartz, a journalist who writes on Islamic extremism for conservative media outlets such as The Weekly Standard. Schwartz, the author of “The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud From Tradition to Terror,” is set to address next week’s Washington gathering of the Zionist Organization of America, a group that fiercely opposes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians (see accompanying story).

Schwartz, who embraced the mystical Sufi stream of Islam while working as a journalist in war-torn Bosnia during the 1990s, is an outspoken critic of what he describes as the domination of American Muslim institutions by the Saudi-supported Wahhabi stream of Islam.

Schwartz and Free Muslims Against Terrorism’s Nawash already have come under attack by the the PMU’s pugnacious vice-chair, Hussein Ibish, who called them “malevolent figures” in a recent article he penned for a Muslim Web site.

Ibish told the Forward that, unlike Schwartz’s and Nawash’s groups, the PMU is “an authentic grass-roots effort.” He also criticized Schwartz’s relationship to scholar Daniel Pipes, a hawkish Jewish scholar whom Muslim groups have accused of being anti-Islam. Pipes has insisted he is a critic of extremism and not of Islam in general.

“The so-called Center for Islamic Pluralism is basically a creature of Daniel Pipes,” Ibish said.

Schwartz was equally eager to attack Ibish, who previously worked as the communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “No organization that has Hussein Ibish involved in it at all could be called progressive or Muslim,” Schwartz said. He said that Pipes’s Middle East Forum had agreed to allow his center to use its nonprofit certification while its own was pending but that ultimately no money was raised though the forum. And Schwartz vehemently rejected Ibish’s assertion that Pipes was responsible for his center’s founding. “It was conceived by me alone, and all of the organizational work has been done by me alone,” he said.

Ahmed al-Rahim, a founder of the Boston-based American Islamic Congress, attributed the infighting to the different political orientations of the new organizations, as well as to the greater willingness of some to speak out against the established Muslim groups. Still, he said, “any group that condemns violence, that is trying to be part of the American mainstream — forget Muslim American, just being American — I think is a good thing.”

Started by a handful of Muslim intellectuals after the September 11 attacks, the American Islamic Congress has maintained a low domestic profile after an initial burst of publicity. The group, with several Iraqi American leaders, shifted its focus after the American invasion of Iraq to education and women’s empowerment projects in that country. Now, however, the congress is beginning to turn its attention back to domestic issues with initiatives on hate crimes.

The Iraqi Shiite head of the American Islamic Congress, Zainab Al-Suwaij, was a vocal supporter of the Iraq War and spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention. In contrast, the PMU’s leaders include fierce critics of U.S. foreign policy and American support for Israel.

The new groups also differ in the nature of their critiques of the established Muslim community. Schwartz, Nawash and al-Rahim have been full throated in their respective criticisms of established Muslim groups. In a November 2003 lecture, al-Rahim accused established Muslim groups of promoting hate against America, Jews, Christians and Hindus.

The PMU, for its part, is arguably the ground-breaking of the new groups in its religious and social stances. Last month it co-sponsored a historic woman-led Islamic Friday prayer session, an event that sparked debate throughout the Muslim world and drew harsh condemnations from some overseas clerics. It recently launched a new initiative to encourage more women-led prayer sessions. But some of its leaders — while eager to attack Schwartz — are more restrained in their criticisms of established Muslim groups.

“At PMU we want to challenge the mainstream groups, and we want to provide an alternative to their discourse,” Ibish said. “We have a different, much less conservative take on religion and society, but we’re not going to gain advantage, lie and say that the mainstream groups are supporters of terrorism when we know, and they know, and I dare say pretty well everyone knows that really they’re not.”

Presented with the example of the American Muslim Council’s founder, Abdurahman Alamoudi, a self-declared supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah who was sentenced in 2004 to 23 years in prison in connection with a terrorism-financing case, Ibish backtracked. “Obviously there are a lot of people in the community who have come to realize that some of the attitudes that existed in the leadership and the groups that were established in the early 1990s is not sufficient and sometimes, as in the case of Alamoudi, it could be disastrous,” he said.

While they disagree with each other on several fronts, the new groups seem to be of one mind in their willingness to work with Jewish organizations.

The American Islamic Congress’s statement of principles calls for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and specifically extends a “hand of friendship” to the Jewish community. The congress seems to echo many supporters of Israel when it calls for “a proportional focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the greater context of problems that Muslims and Arabs face in their individual countries.” The group joined the Anti-Defamation League in co-sponsoring a 2003 memorial service for slain journalist Daniel Pearl, and now the two organizations are working on an initiative to improve hate-crimes reporting in Massachusetts.

Even the PMU, despite having a board that includes outspoken critics of Israel, has demonstrated an eagerness to engage Jews.

On a Web site he edits, the PMU’s executive director, Ahmed Nassef, inaugurated a regular feature called “Hug a Jew” as a rejoinder to antisemitism. Some skeptics have noted that the list of honorees consists largely of fierce foes of Israel, such as far-left scholars Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. But Nassef also has reached out to mainstream elements of the Jewish community.

Nassef was criticized by some Muslims for speaking at a policy conference sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. In response to critics, he wrote that Muslims cannot rule out talking with the “99.5% of American Jews” who support Israel’s existence.

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