For Americans, the iconic face of terrorism has become the devastation of the Twin Towers. For many American Muslims the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were an awakening to the urgency of the long festering struggles deep within our faith communities. Radicalism does not spontaneously arise out of thin air. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, or Hezbollah are but symptoms of a far more pervasive ideology that has both violent and non-violent components. “Violent extremism”, as some like to call it, is only one terminal end point of an insidious ideology that provides a conveyer belt with many other endpoints. Liberal Muslims know that none end in genuine liberty, and all end in some form of theocratic supremacy.
Enjoying a deep love of God and the role which Islam plays in my own soul and conscience, I have long known this central conflict to be a deeper more nuanced one between political Islam (Islamism) and liberty (liberal democracy). Many of us had already long begun to confront the deep seeded elements within various Muslim mindsets and institutions of political Islam (Islamism) and its incompatibilities with modernity and American freedom.
But Sept. 11 shook me and many of us to the core, out of our old complacency to defer change to future generations. It catapulted me into the realization that we had a unique responsibility or calling both as Americans and as Muslims to lead that change now.
The U.S. gives us a unique laboratory to engage in the debates within Islam that only we as Muslims can wage. And we should not squander that opportunity. After all, American Muslims are uniquely positioned to counter Islamism globally and thus turn the tide against radicalism. In fact, devout, God-fearing Muslims are the only ones with the credibility and the inherent self-interest in the faith legacy we leave our children and country necessary to effectively take on the root cause of Islamist inspired terrorism.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks we established the American Islamic Forum for Democracy with a mission of lifting up the ideas of liberty within the Muslim consciousness and identity.
We have an obligation to the families that lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks to speak truth to power. While many Muslims living comfortably in the U.S. may have reformed and brought our personal practice in line with modernity, the theological power structures in our faith community are generally still far from needed reform and critique against Islamism and its progeny.
The obstacles to this work have been too numerous to count. We have sadly since found our nation for the most part generally unwilling to engage with Muslims in a “tough love” toward open reform.
In a post-Sept. 11 world predominant beltway politicians and news media who only see the world through partisan polarity have simply reserved discussion of Muslims to a convenient minority checkbox that is invoked when politically expedient. Both sides have been complicit at times. One using Muslims to falsely paint the other as “bigots”, and the other using Muslims to highlight their mastery of national security. Both are losing site of the core problems and solutions that the attacks highlighted for us.
Meanwhile, many Muslim groups claiming to speak for Muslims in America, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups (CAIR, ISNA, MPAC, or MAS, i.e.) derive their fuel from those very forces that insist upon looking at us Muslims as one collective. That has given them all the room they need to deny reformists ideological diversity, to deny the need for reform, and to deny the link of Islamism to radicalization. These groups have thrived in the victimization mantra, fear mongering, and pigeon-holing of Muslims in order to circle the wagons, stifle debate, and perpetuate denial within.
The strategy of Islamist groups in America has only stoked the flames. Deference to political correctness has also suppressed debate.
In the end, there can be no better way to ebb the tide of fear of Muslims in the West than for Muslims to demonstrate that we are the most important asset in defeating the very ideologies that attacked us 11 years ago. This requires an embrace of a public critique of our faith leaders and institutions. All other approaches have been proven failures. The deep seeded reform needed against the idea of the “Islamic state”, the political ummah and its inherent public instruments of shariah (not the personal pietistic shariah but that in government) will do more to normalize relations with Muslims than any other strategy .
The massacre at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009 steeled my resolve more than ever that we needed to trace back and publicly dissect every component of the separatist ideas that drove Maj. Nidal Hasan to hate his nation and commit his act of terror and kill 13 of our fellow soldiers. We can no longer compartmentalize domestic threats from foreign ones. We need a Liberty Doctrine in our approach to Muslims.
The central problem remains the same whether it’s Sept. 11 or Hasan or “Green on Blue” attacks in Afghanistan. Until American Muslims can lead the long overdue journey away from Islamism and towards modernity and actually begin to wage A Battle for the Soul of Islam through the separation of mosque and state, the threats we all face at home and abroad will only grow.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is the author of the recently released book, “A Battle for the Soul of Islam” and is president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix. He is also a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (opinions posted here are his own).