Coming home this evening I was shocked — shocked — to learn that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had not been invited to join Glenn Beck’s Black Robe Regiment. I mean, really! What does a Muslim cleric have to do to become a favorite clergyman of television’s most unhinged egomaniac? The standard must be dizzyingly high.
Speaking of Feisal Abdul Rauf, is he a moderate Muslim or not? If he isn’t, what is he? These are questions I and others have been debating in the comment threads of various recent articles I’ve posted on the subject of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” (which will be neither a mosque nor located at Ground Zero, but now you all know what I’m talking about, right?). They are also questions that have been taken up by New York Times blogger Ross Douthat, and Eunomia’s Daniel Larison.
Their exchange on Rauf, and what we should fairly expect from a moderate Muslim, has been some of the most fair-minded, insightful and enlightening commentary I’ve yet read on this subject, and I wanted to share some of it. Larison in particular states what amounts to my take on Rauf far better than I have been able to.
First, Douthat on August 25, from an article titled “Imam Rauf and Moderate Islam”:
To some extent, the controversy surrounding the Cordoba Initiative’s Lower Manhattan venture is really a controversy about how non-Muslim Westerners should relate to the would-be spokesmen for a moderate (or “moderate,” depending on your point of view) Islam. One school of thought, prominent among conservatives but associated with liberal thinkers like Paul Berman as well, holds that anything short of an absolute commitment to Enlightenment values is unacceptable from such figures, and that moderate Muslims must demonstrate this commitment, and prove their secular bona fides, by making a frontal assault on Islamic culture as it currently exists. To this school, explicitly-liberal figures like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji represent the beau ideal of moderate Islam, because they’re forthright in their critiques of Muslim societies’ failings, and unstinting in their insistence that the Western way of faith and politics is ultimately superior. A high-profile bridge-builder like the ubiquitous Tariq Ramadan, on the other hand, is much more suspect, and possibly beyond the pale — because he tends to use different language and strike different notes depending on his audience, because he often seems to be making excuses for illiberalism in the Islamic world, because he’s less-than-forthright in his condemnations of certain kinds of extremism, and so on down the line. To his critics, such bobbing and weaving is proof enough that his “moderate Islam” project is really just a flowery fraud and a Trojan Horse for Wahhabism, with no redeeming value whatsoever. And this critique is easily extended to many other self-described moderates as well — including, lately, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who arguably has a stronger claim to moderation than Ramadan, but who seems to share some of his more evasive qualities when the conversation turns to, say, Hamas or the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This school of thought strikes me as misguided. Manji and Hirsi Ali are brave and admirable, but what they’re offering (Hirsi Ali especially) is ultimately a straightforward critique of Muslim traditions and belief, not a bridge between Islam and the liberal West that devout Muslims can cross with their religious faith intact. If such bridges are going to be built, much of the work will necessarily be done by figures who sometimes seem ambiguous and even two-faced, who have illiberal conversation partners and influences, and whose ideas are tailored to audiences in Cairo or Beirut or Baghdad as well as audiences in Europe and America. That’s how change — religious, ideological, whatever — nearly always works. I hold no particular brief for Tariq Ramadan, and his critics have provided ample evidence of his slipperiness over the years. But we have to be able to draw intellectual distinctions on these matters, and if we just lump a figure like Ramadan — or any Muslim leader who has one foot solidly in the Western mainstream but a few toes in more dangerous waters — into the same camp as Islam’s theocrats and jihadists, then we’re placing an impossible burden on Muslim believers, and setting ourselves up for an unwinnable conflict with more or less the entirety of the Muslim world. The Andy McCarthy conceit, which holds that anyone (like Ramadan, and like Rauf) who cites or engages with illiberal interpreters of Islam automatically forfeits the title “moderate,” seems out of touch with the complexities of religious history; moreover, it’s a little like insisting circa 1864 that Pope Pius IX’s critique of religious liberty and church-state separation requires American Catholics to immediately sever all ties to the pope. It’s both dubious in theory and self-defeating in practice.
But making these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned. Instead, dialogue needs to coexist with pressure: Figures like Ramadan and now Rauf should be held to a high standard by their non-Muslim interlocutors, and their forays into more dubious territory should be greeted with swift pushback, rather than simply being accepted as a necessary part of the moderate Muslim package. (This is particularly true because Westerners have a long record of seeing what they want to see in self-proclaimed Islamic reformers, from the Ayatollah Khomeini down to Anwar Al Awlaki, and failing to recognize extremism when it’s staring them in the face.) And what’s troubling about some of the liberal reaction to the Cordoba Initiative controversy is that it seems to regard this kind of pressure as illegitimate and dangerous in and of itself — as though the First Amendment protects the right of Rauf and Co. to build their mosque and cultural center, but not the right of critics to scrutinize Rauf’s moderate bona fides, parse some of his more disturbing comments, and raise doubts about the benefits (to American Islam as well as to America) of having him set up shop as an arbiter of Muslim-Western dialogue in what used to be the shadow of the World Trade Center. Now, Larison the next day, from an article titled “Forays Into Dubious Territory”:
Of course, critics have the right to scrutinize Rauf’s qualifications as a moderate and parse any of his comments. That’s what has been happening for most of the summer. It would help matters a lot more if the scrutiny were honest and the parsing fair. The critics might be meeting with less resistance if they weren’t attempting to interpret a few of his comments in the worst possible light in order to misrepresent his overall record. There would probably be less frustration with Rauf’s critics if they didn’t impute statements to Rauf that he didn’t make. Were most opponents of Park51 merely “raising doubts” about the benefits of the project, rather than demonizing it as a monument to Islamist victory, it would be a lot easier to take them seriously.
On the one hand, Ross urges us not to believe that “all religious cultures are identical, or that the intellectual climate in contemporary Islam is no different from the intellectual climate in Judaism or Christianity,” but he wants to apply “a high standard” to high-profile moderate Muslims, which in practice means that they are supposed to act and speak as if their religious culture is no different and the intellectual culture in Islam is the same. At least, that’s what his call for “swift pushback” against “forays into dubious territory” suggests. If all religious cultures are not identical, might it be the case that what Ross judges to be a foray into “dubious territory” is actually a “necessary part of the moderate Muslim package”?
The call for pushback brings us once again to the matter of what constitutes “dubious territory” and whether or not American Muslims are going to be permitted to say politically controversial things without being absurdly vilified as fanatics. As far as I can tell, what Rauf’s critics want is not merely someone who is a moderate Muslim, which presumably means someone moderate in his interpretation of Islam as a religion. What they would apparently also like is someone who has no sympathy for the political causes or grievances of any other Muslims in the world. If moderation is defined in that unreasonable way, there probably aren’t very many moderate Muslims after all. Now Douthat on August 27, from his article, “More on Rauf and Moderate Islam”:
The harder question, and the one that’s on the table in the case of Feisal Abdul Rauf, is how we should judge American Muslim leaders when they talk about regimes and movements in the Islamic world that are anti-Semitic, terrorism-sponsoring, theocratic and so on down the line. And it’s both telling and appropriate, I think, that nearly that nearly all of the criticism of Rauf that’s found traction outside of the Pamela Geller vortex (where everything the imam says is proof of a vast Islamist conspiracy) has focused on exactly these kind of issues — on his comments during Iran’s election crisis, on his non-responsive response to a question about terrorism and Hamas, and on his remarks, at different times, about America being “an accessory to 9/11″ with “more Muslim blood on its hands” than al Qaeda has non-Muslim blood.
Yes, he’s also been attacked from the Andy McCarthy/David Horowitz wing of conservatism on other fronts, and for other comments — for his views on Israel’s future, for his criticisms of the PATRIOT Act, for his loose ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, for his general critique of American policy toward Muslim dictators, and so on. But these criticisms have attracted much less attention, and appropriately so. Right or wrong, those are exactly the kind of views and ties that you’d expect from any bridge-builder between Islam and the West. And Larison is correct that it’s unreasonable and counterproductive to demand that moderate Muslims suddenly adopt the editorial line of Commentary, as some conservatives seem to expect.
But would Rauf really “destroy his credibility” with the world’s Muslims if, say, he didn’t bend over backward to avoid saying a negative word about Iran’s regime when it was in the midst of a brutal crackdown on dissent? Or if he hadn’t offered an inflammatory analogy — using the kind of rhetoric that fuels the poisonous “America’s at war with Muslims” narrative — between al Qaeda’s campaign of terror and the sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime? Or if he’d found a way to say something critical about Hamas when an interviewer put him on the spot — not about the Palestinian cause in general, but just about Hamas?
Reasonable people can disagree on these questions. Maybe, as Larison claims, Rauf’s remarks on Iran should be read as a bland do-gooder call for dialogue, rather than a contortionist’s attempt to avoid reckoning with the realities of the clerical regime. Maybe his non-comments about Hamas were just an attempt to a duck a “gotcha” question. Certainly I don’t see the imam as a deeply sinister figure, or a brilliant machiavel with vast and dark designs. But he does seem like the kind of person who makes excuses for sinister figures, and curries favor with them, and bobs and weaves where their crimes are concerned, all in the name of dialogue and evenhandedness. And that seems like sufficient grounds for criticism and mistrust. And finally, one more from Larison, also from August 27, and his article, “Harder Questions”:
The answer to the harder question is that we should judge them fairly and not read things into Rauf’s remarks that aren’t there. For instance, when he refrained from denouncing Hamas, this is what he said:
I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.
One could reject this and argue that building peace requires calling things what they are, which means that Rauf ought to call Hamas a terrorist organization, or one could take seriously that Rauf is more interested in not alienating persuadable Muslims than he is in passing a political litmus test. It seems to me that Rauf’s statements here could very easily be understood as his attempt to avoid appearing unduly biased.
As for his remarks on the Iranian election, I don’t see how they can be taken as an endorsement of the “premises of Iranian theocracy,” as Ross originally described them. There is call for Obama to express respect for Iranian principles of government, which seems to be little more than an extension of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on mutual respect. In fact, as Rauf said, the presidential election was not a referendum on the “foundations of the Islamic Republic,” and he saw a chance for Obama “to show Iranians that he understands their Islamic Republic and how it developed — and to lay the groundwork for negotiations once the election dispute is resolved.” Rauf was working on the assumption that the majority of Iranians accepted the existing political system, and on this point he seems to have been right all along. Granted, this is worlds removed from the hysteria of pro-Green advocates in the West who convinced themselves that a distinct political minority represented the vast majority of Iranians and claimed that the Green movement was going to topple the current government, but then most of the pro-Green commentary in the West was ridiculous and wrong about many of the political realities in Iran. It is also important to note when Rauf wrote his column. Rauf’s column has a posting date of June 19, just one week after the presidential election and before most of the worst violence of the crackdown had occurred. Most of the outrages and crimes the regime committed came after his column appeared. That makes it a lot harder to fault him for supposedly “bending over backward to avoid saying anything negative” about the Iranian regime.
Clearly, it is the last two sets of comments that were the most provocative and they are the ones that have generated the greatest anger. This is unfortunate, because they also happen to be basically true. While I was driving during my recent move, I heard something Reza Aslan said about the “accessory” remark on the radio. Here is the NPR transcript from earlier this month:
People like Reza Aslan, a Muslim author and scholar, says Rauf’s attempts to explain terrorist actions are not the same as supporting them. Aslan says government officials do the same thing.
Mr. Reza Aslan: I know this not only because of my own personal interaction with counterterrorism officials, with military officials and with officials in the CIA and in the White House and in the State Department, I know this because I read the 9/11 report. And the “9/11 Commission Report” says the exact same thing.
Have U.S. policies resulted in the deaths of more innocent Muslim civilians? That seems the most easily confirmed claim of them all. Mind you, Rauf made a point of qualifying that statement by insisting that he was attempting to explain the sources of anti-American anger and political violence. The link Ross provides in this case does not include those qualifications, but excerpts out only the parts that the person making the compilation thought would be most inflammatory. Even as this tendentious FoxNews article tried to misrepresent his statements, it still had a more complete account of what Rauf said.
Sanctions on Iraq did terrible harm to the civilian population, resulting in the unnecessary and premature deaths of at least one hundred thousand people, and the U.S. government was the one most responsible for imposing those sanctions and keeping them in place. All of this is true. Is Rauf supposed to pretend that these things didn’t happen, or that our government is in no way responsible for them? Is he supposed to pretend that these things did not cause resentment, or that they did not become fodder for jihadist propaganda? To pretend that the U.S. government is not responsible for the consequences of its policies would not be evidence of moderation, but of self-deception. It seems that when it comes to understanding the causes of the deepest resentments of Muslims against the West and the U.S. in particular, which one might think would be at the center of any work of fostering mutual understanding, Rauf should say nothing if he doesn’t want to be vilified. Perhaps he could go on a speaking tour to tell Muslims how much gratitude they should feel because of U.S. intervention in Kosovo or Somalia.
Could Rauf have phrased some of his remarks in less provocative ways? Probably, and it might have been better if he had. At least in that case we would be spending more time discussing the substance of what he was talking about rather than fixating on how he made an offensive comparison or how he used the wrong language. Of course, he was trying to get Westerners to see things from the perspective of many Muslims. It seems to me that the inflammatory language (blood on hands) and the comparison with the number of Al Qaeda’s victims were intended to provoke some recognition that there are identifiable causes for resentment and political violence. Rauf seemed to be saying, “You are unaware that this happened, or you have rationalized it as a good or necessary thing, but I’m telling you that it is widely perceived elsewhere as deeply unjust and wrong.” Perhaps they were also intended to have his audiences imagine how they might react if a foreign government had done these things to their country or co-religionists.
Ross concludes that Rauf makes “excuses for sinister figures, and curries favor with them,” but it is genuinely difficult to find any of that in any of the statements under discussion. To explain something such as terrorism is not to excuse it, and failing to denounce official enemies on cue is very different from actively seeking their approval. Ross says that he wants a high standard for Rauf and other Muslim leaders like him, but the standard for moderation and assimilation is being set so high that quite a few non-Muslim Americans, myself included, wouldn’t even get close to meeting it. Again, Daniel Larison can be read at Eunomia, and Ross Douthat blogs for the New York Times. Both are well worth checking out.