June 19

Editor’s note: On Monday, The Post’s Dana Milbank posted a column about a Heritage Foundation panel on the Benghazi attacks at which a female Muslim attendee, Saba Ahmed, was taunted by the panelists and the crowd. Below, Ahmed shares her experience of the event.

I am the Muslim law-school student whose question at a Heritage Foundation forum this week sparked a media controversy over the treatment of Muslims. When I asked about the portrayal of all Muslims as bad, one of the panelists responded with an angry lecture about how peaceful Muslims are “irrelevant” because between 180 million and 300 million Muslims want to destroy Western civilization. The audience gave the panelist a standing ovation.

After a Post column appeared about the event, a Politico blogger wrote that I “didn’t appear at all troubled or upset at the end of the exchange.” And the moderator of the session, WMAL’s Chris Plante, alleged on his radio show that I was a Democratic plant. Both were entirely wrong. I find it deeply offensive when people misrepresent my faith, as participants in the Heritage forum did. In addition, I am a Republican, because of my conservative Islamic values: pro-life, pro-family, pro-business, pro-trade. I had been a Democrat for years but concluded that the party’s liberal values conflicted with Islam.

The panelist who lectured me, Brigitte Gabriel, demonized 300 million Muslims. I don’t know where she gets her facts and figures from, but 99.9 percent of Muslims are non-radical. Dismissing us as irrelevant and likening us to peaceful Germans during the Nazi era was appalling; Europe never declared a war against German Christians because of the Nazis. Gabriel also insulted me and resorted to character assassination by questioning my citizenship. There were two more panels to come, but I left right after the first panel because I wasn’t sure what would come next. I was alone and felt unwelcomed. Such a hostile, unfriendly environment doesn’t benefit anyone.

Too many people define me by what’s on my head instead of what’s inside my head. I wear the Islamic headscarf to cover myself modestly as required by my religion. It is a part of who I am. Islam is a way of life that governs every aspect of my being. But that doesn’t make me any less American. I was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. My family legally immigrated to the United States when I was 12. I grew up in Oregon and recently moved to Washington. I have a bachelor’s, MBA and JD degrees, and I am pursuing a master’s in law and government at American University. I started a lobbying firm a few years ago to help government officials understand Islam and Muslims. I regularly attend Congressional hearings.

I went to the Heritage event because, as an American and as a Muslim, I am concerned that the United States is mishandling the war on terror because leaders don’t understand the paradigm of this new war. Tens of thousands of American soldiers have been killed or wounded since the war on terror began on September 11, 2001, yet al-Qaeda is on the rise. Counterterrorism measures have proven unsustainable for our long term national security. Americans may have won some battles but are definitely losing the war on terror.

I believe the radical extremist ideology can only be changed by the tolerant moderate peaceful teachings of Islam if we are to ever win this war. The counter-terrorism strategies must involve Islamic scholars, Muslim women and alternative dispute resolution. To fight radicalization, for example, we should be hiring Islamic chaplains and Muslim attorneys to work with law enforcement. We cannot fight an enemy we don’t understand. We need to stop creating radicals by targeting at-risk Muslim youth in America and by using unnecessary surveillance. We should implement de-radicalization programs, and we should appoint Muslim-American ambassadors to Islamic countries.

The fact is that we cannot fight a war against 1.8 billion Muslims because of Osama bin Laden. The war we are fighting is an ideological battle for hearts and minds which can only be won through intellectual power, not the military. Targeted killings, drone strikes, enforced disappearances, secret detentions, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment has become the image of America in the Islamic world. Using terror tactics for targeted killings, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners will only continue to undermine our credibility around the world.

Instead, we must engage with Islamic scholars to counter violent extremism. True Islamic jihad does not advocate for any religious obligation to destroy the American way of life. Islam is a religion of peace and we must use its principals to fight the war against terror. The cause of peace and security is the cause of Allah. The vast majority of peace-loving Muslims are not “irrelevant” – they must be enlisted to win this ideological struggle.