The Muslims Who Speak Up

When it comes to Muslims, there are several long-running narratives popular in the West:

Skepticism or criticism of Islam (the religion) is the same as hatred or unwarranted attacks on the practitioners (Muslims). This concept is combined into a false narrative of “Islamophobia”, which is used by Islamists, extremists, and radical leftists to shut down any real discussion about internal reform or reinterpretation of controversial religious concepts or to debate the compatibility of traditional schools of thought and modernity.

In turn, the overwhelming narrative of Islamophia feeds into its mirror narrative: the false misattribution of the historical Shi’a concept of “taqiyya” into the the thought that all Muslims lie about their true intentions, and that no matter how friendly, well-integrated into their countries or the Western world, and otherwise modern they may appear to be, all such precepts are based on deliberate deceit and treachery. The extreme dynamic that either characterizes 1.6 billion Muslims as innocent victims of Western prejudices, without accounting for the spread of revolutionary extremism on the one hand, and fundamentalist conservatism on the other, and the opposite narrative which claims that all Muslims are potential terrorists or jihadists has created a false dynamic of the “clash of civilizations” between any and all practitioners of Islam and everyone else.

This discussion, of course, ignores the vast diversity in Islamic thought, tribal and cultural aspects of identities, the effect of politics, mass media, and education, and many other factors which contribute to the development of society, public consciousness, and individual self-awareness.  It also ignores the efforts of various shill organizations and funding by various groups and governments to deliberate exclude more tolerant and open-minded perspectives within the broader inter-Islamic discourse. Instead, for decades, the introduction towards Islam in the West has been focused on carefully controlled translations which legitimized particular interpretations above all others, producing a mindset that a particular perspective was mainstream and authoritative, while all others were fringe, outdated, irrelevant, or otherwise not subject to discussion. Likewise, any Muslim groups or individuals who sought to introduce the greater diversity of thought into intrafaith or interfaith discussions in Western countries were ignored, “otherized”, stigmatized, or worse yet, subject to potential reprisals and pressure by the Islamist groups funding this charade.

The other inconvenient aspect of the conversation has been the domination of Western mosques with foreign-born and barely literate imams with traditions very far from enlightened. Whatever role culture, education, and traditions of interpretation played in the countries they are from (i.e. Pakistan, Egypt, and others), it has translated into a toxic mix of incorrect, ahistorical, and anachronistic interpretations, superstitions that have nothing to do with religious precepts, and personal and political agendas. Yet, all aspects of faith are treated as if they are equal by the mere fact of being declared a religious belief. Not all beliefs and opinions, religious or otherwise, are equal. Some threaten and infringe on the life, security, and well-being of other human beings and lead to chaos and destruction. In equating various types of beliefs, those who generalize about “Islamophobia” contribute to the oppression of Muslims who support moderation, tolerance, justice, and freedom for each individual to express his personal connection to God in his own way.

Part of the false narrative that all Muslims lie, aside of misunderstanding of religious doctrine and history, is the idea that there are no voices against extremism, and that no practicing Muslims recognize the concept of human rights and individual dignity. The question most often heard in the West is “why don’t more Muslims speak out”, against evil, Islamists/jihadists, oppression in Muslim majority states, and so forth. Leaving aside all previous considerations as to the reasons why oppressive mindsets are spread throughout various Muslim majority countries, there are several answers to this question, none of which is usually accepted. First, most people who are targeted by extremists are Muslims, and they may be simply too afraid to speak out. Second, most Muslims don’t live in the West, where they have freedom of speech, legal protections, and in the case of the US, legal access to weapons.  They live either in chaotic failed states, without clearly defined and enforced laws, due process, and justice system, or oppressive countries ruled by strongmen, where freedoms by definition, are limited.

But what about the Western countries or even situations where some people do feel courageous to stand up? Do we really know who speaks out and who doesn’t? What about those dissidents or opponents of evil ideologies and non-state groups who speak out in their towns or villages in languages other than English and never get press coverage? Even the few big name dissidents who speak English or otherwise end up in top-level status in their countries rarely get a significant amount of media attention in the West. In other words, no one actually knows how many Muslims vocally or semi-vocally or clandestinely oppose extremism in whatever form, and therefore we are judging only by the fact that these ideologies appear dominant in various societies and have occasionally triumphed in failed states by way of non-state actors.

We also tend to minimize the impact of traditional Muslim societies when it is convenient to do so by claiming that because their form of Islam is different from the surrounding areas, it is less of a threat (i.e. KRG/Iraqi Kurdish resistance to ISIS. Iraqi Kurds are overall a traditional tribal and mostly Sunni Muslim society, though there is also a slightly growing trend towards Zoroastrianism and other religions). And more liberal Muslims are often dismissed as cherry-pickers who do not fully follow the “real” Islam, ironically, the understanding of which is promoted in the West by Islamist groups through very particular translations of the Q’uran.  There is little honest and direct discussion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities about the evolution of Islam in historical context and finding compatibility between tradition and modernity in the same way various Christian and Jewish traditions have been having that internal discussion for centuries.

Likewise, little is said about the role Soviet and Nazi propaganda has played in riling up hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-Western sentiments, and anti-Zionism in the Muslim world, and even less is mentioned about the role of Western countries in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and various other Islamist groups vis-a-vis the Communists during the Cold War, as well as encouraging Muslim states to spend money on Islamic education around the world to counter the spread of atheism by the Soviet Union. All of these issues have certainly influenced mindsets, but even with these factors in mind, there is no doubt that some people in some places have spoken up against extremism, and opposed. However, in the West, few of the people who condemn criticism get attention. Generally, they are dismissed by both the left and the right for two reasons. The left considers them at best unrepresentative and influential within the Muslim communities (again, taking upon itself deciding on what constitutes “moderate” Muslims, and what being an observant Muslim means), without any scholarship to back up this view, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of people who oppose Islamism never being promoted or supported.

At worst, such people are themselves categorized as Islamophobes, because the Westerners who support such falsely claim that Islamism is the only “real”, “mainstream”, or “legitimate” point of view among Muslims. Muslims and Islamists then are conflated. On the other side, many in the conservative ranks believe a) that most Muslims in the world are adherents of conservative/fundamentalist interpretations, and even if they are not themselves actively pursuing jihad at the moment, they support it internally and therefore support terrorists, lawfare practitioners, and various ideological influencers who, in short, want to either convert most of the world to Islam or marginalize non-Muslims, if not outright destroy non-Muslim societies. Their solution, however, is not educational outreach, but either converting Muslims to other religions and supporting atheism among them or otherwise considering them adversarial followers of a violent cult impervious to positive influence. This view, too, does nothing to support those Muslims who are not subscribed to this perspective, and who, in fact, are themselves threatened by fundamentalists, and extremists of all backgrounds.

Conservative groups and news media is more likely to put up the token “good” Muslims as spokespeople, but those all tend to be the same people and who are either themselves supporting reforming the Qu’ran itself (not something that most Muslims would support, no matter how liberal they are), are focused mostly on criticism of the religion itself, or who are not particularly knowledgeable about the theology but happen to be practicing Muslims who overall subscribe to political platforms that conservatives find convenient. Community leaders who are fighting against extremism and Muslims who are engaged in intrafaith dialogue with other Muslims are very rarely getting support, attention, or interest.

Nevertheless, Muslim majority states, communities, and individual practitioners are increasingly coming up with innovative ways of outreach and combating extremism, which due to the failure of previous methods, are finally beginning to gain international attention. And others are finally giving the platform to voices of those Muslims who fully embrace modernity and Islam and support the states they live in and are willing to take public risks by coming to the forefront on these issues. Morocco, for instance, has implemented a training for imams, domestic and from all across Africa, including Europe, which teaches them a state-approved moderate interpretation of Islam indigenous to Morocco, as well as values related to citizenship, Jewish culture, professional skills, ethics, psychology, and history which puts theology in context. Most recently, 30 imams who went through this training signed a letter against the hijacking of Islam by extremists and criminals in France, which earned them some positive coverage. The Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, have all been working on rooting out Muslim Brotherhood, integrating Muslim minorities, and carefully engaging in interfaith outreach. Such efforts are laudable and visible in the West, yet continue to generate skepticism among critics and will likely take time to earn wider appreciation.

On the individual basis, many individual Muslims of various backgrounds have stepped up to the plate to battle propaganda and combat stereotypes and misinformed thinking. In Israel, people like Yahya Mohammed, a former hater of Israel, has now become an outspoken defender, and an Israeli Arab Zionist. He grew up in a small Arab town in Israel and was taught to hate everything about Israel in school, in the Arab language media, and by the community. Overcoming these prejudices and disinformation took a long time, and he continues to explore this bigoted thinking and breaking down walls both in Israel and in the West. In Morocco, a group of young Muslims came together ten years ago to form the Mimouna Association, inspired by family memories of close friendship with the local Jewish communities.

They have worked together with campus groups and other community initiatives to bring knowledge of Jewish culture, history and its role in Moroccan society, as well as Holocaust education to other young Moroccan Muslims. In the United States, efforts at relationship building and social networking between American Jews and Moroccan professionals continue thanks to the efforts of Simo Elaissaoui, a Moroccan Muslim who founded a community organization called Moroccan Americans in New York, which is now a non-profit which organizes monthly dinners between the two communities, recently celebrated its first Mimouna celebration (a Moroccan holiday celebrating the end of the Jewish holiday of Passover with the engagement of Jewish and Muslim neighbors in feasting on baked goods, and lively music and dance). It sees to share Moroccan culture with other New York communities and encourages engagement and intercultural and interfaith friendships.  The New York Moroccan community has been outspoken about its opposition to extremism – but the coverage of this strongly worded and actively maintained position has been limited.

MALA – the Muslim American Leadership Alliance – is another organization of young Muslim Americans of various background who have come together to share individual Muslim American experiences and to stand up for justice and human rights. MALA has co-sponsored a number of educational initiatives with various Jewish organizations such as the American Sephardi Federation, which included an event where a young Somalilanders told the tale of facing persecution by extremists in his home country, who labeled anyone they wanted to kill as “Jews”, though he is a practicing Muslim. MALA has also co-sponsored a recent event focused on Mohammed Al-Samawi, a young Yemeni Shi’a man who faced threats by Al Qaeda and Houthis for his outreach efforts with American Jews and Israelis, and participating in interfaith conference with Jews and Muslims, and who was rescued by an interfaith coalition of four young Jews and a Christian. On its own, MALA, actively stands against FGM and other human rights violations and has actively brought up these issues at the forefront of discussion, when incidents of FGM have increased and finally got media and law enforcement attention in a number of states in the US.

Such organizations and individuals who risk their lives and reputations standing up for tolerance, co-existence, and mutual understanding, while garnering accolades in some circles, deserve a lot more attention and much higher profile. The fact that they finally get the recognition they deserve is a start, but at the end of the day they are the best advocates of tolerance and opposition to extremism to their own communities, finally providing much welcome and needed alternatives to the monopoly of Muslim  Brotherhood-supported organizations such as CAIR, and hatemongering intolerant attention seekers such as Linda Sarsour, who have sucked out all oxygen out of the room while perpetuating stereotypes of Muslims as Islamists who support ideological positions inimical to US values and at odds with the US constitutional protections for freedom of speech and religion.

By Irina Tsukerman