Why Are Islamists Rising as Scholars and Community Leaders?
In the ongoing struggle to balance Muslim-American rights with Muslim American accountability, there was a little known event that set a new landmark in the fight against Islamism. On March 25th, 2016, the Islamic Society of Wichita (ISW) canceled their fundraising event due to local community pressure. ISW planned on hosting guest speaker and professed Hamas supporter Sheik Monzer Taleb, triggering a scathing public statement from Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo and public, including a planned protest from an armed group.
In the last decade of escalating pushback against Muslim communities’ open association with unsavory characters, this is a record-setting first back down of an organized event based on speaker choice by a Muslim group. The success can be attributed to a rare combination of social and political pressure – a necessary pairing to expose hate and hypocrisy left unchecked within too many Muslim communities.
In years prior, the public had been unsuccessful in holding Muslim organizations accountable for their open association with hate-mongers. Community opposition was unfocused and clumsy, if not entirely absent. Others, nervous about the speaker line-up for national organizations, had been unable to voice concerns principally because they represented the vendors and venues hosting these forums. Yet to the frustration of a larger community, including other progressive Muslims, American Muslims continued investing in Islamist speakers and lending an ear to Islamist scholars.
Three Reasons Why Islamist Scholars Thrive in the West
We Muslims are frequently guilty of refusal to engage in therigorous self-analysis that would propel Islamic thought into the 21st century. I believe the reason for this refusal is radical self-preservation. By this I do not mean physical self-preservation, but the preservation of the psychic self that is invested in a particular view of reality.
Islamic theology and culture has historically shunned or dispossessed the dissenting voices necessary for a society to move forward, while cradling a tribal mentality that insulates the self at any cost. Despite classical Islam being more tolerant than the warring Islam of the Prophet’s later years, Islam has done little to advance against the deep tribalism of the region. It can even be argued that Islam did the best it could, and tribal culture will need more than just faith to be overcome. For us today that means the average Muslims will find it difficult to be the objective and rational observer, leading him to uncompromisingly cling to an identity especially when feeling threatened from outside influences. In fact, the self will even fabricate new layers of identity that further insulate the self, which is why we see a reinforcement of the label Muslim as a foundation for a ‘Muslim America identity. It also explains the renaissance of Muslim culture in the United States through art, media and fashion that did nothing to challengedecrepit elements in the faith – and everything to further insulate ‘Muslimness.’ Fast forward a decade and today that behavior is being heralded by a Leftist society that rewards divisive signifiers – such as America’s first hijab-wearing anchor – rather than looking what an individual can contribute intellectually.
Secondly, in addition to radical self-preservation that does nothing to evolve an individual, there are also Muslims who see extremism as a political problem rather than a theological issue. Unable to engage objectively in a way that risks compromising the psychic self, Muslims at large will refuse to use the phrase ‘Islamic extremism’ or ‘radical Islam’ to discuss one of the greatest threats dwarfing human potential in the 21st century. This is why it’s critical to weaponize language in the fight against radical extremism.
A continued reaffirmation of a traditional Muslim identity, paired with refusal to recognize failing elements in Islamic theology, has empowered the Islamist narrative that looks supersede an Islamic heritage above an American one. Ironically for a Western civilization guarding against waves of terrorism, the culture of the regressive left bolsters the Islamist agenda that feeds upon a Muslim need for identity.
The idea that America needs to be a safe space tolerant of all ideas and people equally is contrary to America’s origin story, which challenged a tyrannical majority by placing higher value on the uncertainty of true independence. So rather than challenging factions of society that undermine independent thought, today’s regressive liberalism is weakened by the challenge. Instead, the Left undermines independence by mollycoddling Muslim identities and laying the groundwork for Islamist activity that thrives from special treatment.
So while the regressive Left unwittingly welcomes Islamism under the misdirected notion of tolerance and diversity, Islamists are superseding American culture with Islamic culture. And it’s working. We no longer see self-imposed alienation and isolation within Muslim communities, as in years prior, that underscore a failure to assimilate. We now see reverse integration through practices such as “wear a hijab” day.
The Underground Network of Islamist Scholars
One of America’s most polarizing Islamist scholars, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, is a perfect example. The New York imam is recognized for his anti-drug campaigns. In 1998, he was praised by the media and the NYPD for initiating an anti-drug patrol in Brooklyn, New York. This charity masks a sinister purpose. Wahhaj routinely headlines at local Islamic events, giving contentious speeches and making treasonous remarks. In 2008, I heard him lecturing on an American Muslim Agenda at Orange Crescent Mosque in Garden Grove, California.
“There is no America. There is only Islam,” was one of the less hostile comments he made that night in an event sponsored by the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA). It was an uncomfortable speech to hear, but even more uncomfortable to see that not one audience member seemed disturbed by the message. Those who dissent against the message at these events, or during Friday’s Khutbahs, are encouraged to not return. “It would be better if you didn’t come back, brother” – that was what one Muslim heard when he spoke out against a divisive political sermon at Omar Al Farouk Mosque in Anaheim, California. He was gently ushered out of the room which was only seen as a safe space for ‘true’ Muslims – and he wasn’t one of them.
So when we talk about mosques acting as breeding grounds for radicalism, the public is mistaken if not entirely misinformed. You’re unlikely to find a secret cellar stashed with weapons and blueprints for jihad. Mosques are not vessels for terrorism so much as they’re portals for extremist thought. Mosques and community organizations have zero qualms about hosting radical speakers or organizations plainly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
MANA is a Muslim Brotherhood linked umbrella group whose website espouses the teachings of radicalist Yousef al-Qaradawi, a Muslim scholar and influential leader of the Brotherhood. Al-Qaradawi supports Palestinian suicide bombings and Islamic extremism, and regularly denounces the U.S. In 2010, “Qaradawimade it clear that every Muslim had a duty to obey the commandments of the Prophet Muhammad, regardless of how brutal or barbaric they might be: ‘If you believe that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, then you must obey him – for he does not command except that which is good. So even if he tells you to kill, you must.”
MANA’s website also hosts an article on MANA’s mission from controversial Imam Zaid Shakir of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim-American college in the United States focusing on Islamic studies. Having converted to Islam while serving in the U.S. Air Force, Shakir is “a highly popular figure among American Islamists,” frequently speaking at CAIR, ISNA and the MSA events. CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation Trial for financing Hamas. And in 1987, the FBI classified ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) as a Muslim Brotherhood front. Though Shakir and Zaytuna College are, to my knowledge, clear of being linked with the Brotherhood, the rhetoric is still the same: terrorist groups are defended, America is vilified, Islamic law is praised, and a clash of cultures is underscored.
In an article titled Muslim Involvement in the Political Process, Shakir writes:
The relevant point for Muslims is that Islam presents an absolutist political agenda, or one which doesn’t lend itself to compromise, nor to coalition building. The Islamic world view presents the world as a place where there is a struggle between forces which are diametrically opposed to each other. The befriended of Allah oppose the dupes of Satan. Truth opposes falsehood. Allah’s true din challenges the false beliefs and systems innovated by man. The Qur’an gives no indication that a compromise is possible between these forces.
The force diametrically opposed to Islam is America as it stands. The language here is systematically used in the wider Muslim American community by Islamist leaders on a regularly basis. It remains uncontested because of the broadest reason given earlier in this essay: identity.
Most recently, Shakir spoke at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center among a Muslim community that should have been ashamed to host an Islamist leader given the Boston Marathon attack. The March 22, 2016 event took place just days before the planned ISW event, but went uncontested in a city known for its eclectic population, including a well-established Muslim community.
Islamist community leaders may appear separate through their organizations, but they are all rooted in the same hateful ideology. These are the same group of leaders who are then hoisted to national visibility by a government that invites them for White House Ramadan dinners, invites them to offer invocations in Congress, asks them to serve state department liaisons, and includes them in closed-door meetings. These are the people billed as representative of American Muslims because they’re seen as homegrown Muslims inclusive of an American identity. The reality is they’re more polished, second-generation versions of the Islamist leaders that the first generation of Muslim immigrants heeded. First generation Muslim immigrants favored the likes of South American self-taught Muslim missionary Ahmed Deedat, and Mumbai-born Salafist Zakir Naik. American Islamists today are much more savvy about how to seem like they belong to American culture, better packaged, and better connected.
There are deep and undeniable associations between Islamist organizations, radical speakers and local secular Muslim communities. This is true despite continued denial by community leaders, despite the endless and useless interfaith coalitions, and despite attempts to reach out to the larger community to show Islam as a religion of peace. The unseen reality is that the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood envisioned these organizations developing as a network, instructing followers to “possess a mastery of the art of ‘coalitions’, the art of ‘absorption’ and the principles of ‘cooperation.’”
So while Muslim activists are quick to decry Islamophobia or American oppression, the same population is mute when it comes to their own internal death cult. And over the last fifty years, that cult has built a deep-rooted network of Islamist leaders whose core message is not that different from the death cult overseas: ISIS.
Pushing Back Against Islamist Leaders
Sociopolitical fallout from the Syrian refugee crisis, a dramatic presidential election, increased homegrown radicalization, and a renewed wave of bold attacks both at home and abroad, have forced Americans to become better versed on these issues. Slow but steady dialogue on Islamism has prompted public and political concern that’s finally generating into quantifiable action, including pushback against a Leftist agenda that refuses to recognize Islam as central to the issue.
National tension is also heightened by Muslim groups who choose to paint themselves as oppressed, while viewing Americanism as the oppressor. A spike in Muslim demands for apology or cancellation of events and speakers deemed “Islamophobic” have led more people to speak out against Muslim bullying. It has also led to callsfor integration from Muslims communities whose default affliction is Islamophobia – a tired and aging term that no longer has any real significance in today’s discourse.
The pushback against Islamism and an expectation of Muslim accountability for their community isn’t bigotry against Muslims. The problem we Muslims are facing today isn’t one of hate or simple Islamophobia. It is an intelligent and growing frustration against those non-radicalized Muslims who still collaborate with their radical counterparts.
The pushback is also coming from dissenters within the Muslim community. These dissenters are harbingers of rational thought within Islam in the 21st century. Relentless grassroot efforts of Muslim reformers and activists are gaining momentum and generating important conversations distinguishing progressive Muslims from extremists, Islamists, and their sympathizers. But in a battle of ideas, scholars are key to delegitimizing Islamist leaders. Professor Khaleel Mohammed is one of several emerging change agents challenging the Islamist narrative.
Dr. Mohammed, Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, believes that bonafide scholars don’t engage in talk of cultural superiority, which we see among Islamists. He further adds:
“Homegrown imams begin to lay claim to knowledge and scholarship, and then start judging their host community, thereby offsetting any positive contributions they may have made socially. They lack academic detachment necessary for scholarship work. A scholar is one who uses information to come to grips with what is current…The average Jewish/Christian scholar uses religion theory as a backdrop. The average Muslim ‘scholar’ does not know what religion theory is, but will still want to argue.”
Delegitimizing Islamist leaders will require more outspoken scholars whose authority can shift the needle in an otherwise stubborn community. An Eastern culture will always value the legitimacy of credentials. Voices of dissent coming from a place of authority are less likely to be questioned and more effective in challenging Muslim identity and an Islamist narrative.