Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2002, page 82
President Bush Holds Iftar Dinner at White House
President George W. Bush welcomed 50 ambassadors from Muslim nations and other distinguished guests on Nov. 19 to the first White House Iftar dinner in the State Dining Room. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims break the daily sunrise-to-sunset fast with an iftar dinner.
The president took the opportunity to speak to Muslim Americans and ambassadors of Islamic countries. “America is made better by millions of Muslim citizens,” Bush told his assembled guests. “America has close and important relations with many Islamic nations. So it is fitting for America to honor your friendship and the traditions of a great faith by hosting this Iftar at the White House.
“Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer for the Muslim faithful,” he noted. “So tonight we are reminded of God’s greatness and His commandments to live in peace and to help neighbors in need. According to Muslim teachings, God first revealed His word in the holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramadan. That word has guided billions of believers across the centuries, and those believers built a culture of learning and literature and science.
“All the world continues to benefit from this faith and its achievements,” the president said. “Ramadan and the upcoming holiday season are a good time for people of different faiths to learn more about each other. And the more we learn, the more we find that many commitments are broadly shared. We share a commitment to family, to protect and love our children. We share a belief in God’s justice, and man’s moral responsibility. And we share the same hope for a future of peace. We have much in common and much to learn from one another.”
—Delinda C. Hanley
Powell Hosts Ramadan Dinner for U.S. Muslim Community
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell hosted a Ramadan Iftar dinner Nov. 29 for representatives of the American Muslim community. Dinner guests included several Muslim fire and police personnel who took part in the relief efforts following the recent terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.
Powell told the gathering that there still remains “much ignorance and confusion” about Islam, and encouraged American Muslims to reach out and educate others about their faith. Secretary Powell also noted that, as a member of a minority community himself, he had to deal with the same kind of profiling many Muslim- and Arab-Americans have experienced since Sept. 11.
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) communications director Ibrahim Hooper presented Powell with Ramadan greeting cards made by local Muslim students. The cards wished the secretary of state a happy Ramadan and asked that America help feed the hungry in this country and in Afghanistan.
—Delinda C. Hanley
CAIR Combats “Islamophobic Smear Campaign”
On Nov. 8, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called for an end to what it says is an “Islamophobic smear campaign” against the American Muslim community and its leaders. CAIR also called on media professionals and elected officials not to allow themselves to be used as unwitting tools in this campaign or to undermine President Bush’s efforts to show that the war on terrorism is not a conflict with Islam.
“Since the terrorist attacks on our nation in September, American Muslims and groups that represent them have been the target of an unprecedented smear campaign. These smears have been distributed by fax, e-mail and direct communication with journalists and government officials in an attempt to create links between legitimate Muslim groups and terrorists,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told journalists. “On almost a daily basis, we have been forced to defend our organization to well-meaning reporters who have been given information that is false, misleading or ridiculously out of context.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Hooper said, a number of groups and individuals who were alarmed at the growing prominence of Muslims began taking shameless advantage of those tragic events to push for their long-term goal of marginalizing and delegitimizing the American Muslim community and its leadership.
To support this assertion, CAIR cited a Nov. 3 article in the Los Angeles Times that, for the first time, laid direct responsibility for the smear campaign at the feet of specific organizations. Times reporter Solomon Moore wrote: “Pro-Israel or Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Defense League and the Middle East Forum think tank have provided news organizations with reams of critical documentation on Muslim leaders in recent weeks.”
A number of other media professionals and officials told CAIR of similar behind-the-scenes slurs.
The Middle East Forum’s Daniel Pipes, one of the foremost sponsors of the current smear campaign, goes so far as to recommend “vigilant application of social and political pressure to ensure that Islam is not accorded special status of any kind in this country.” The “special status” Pipes refers to includes ordinary religious accommodations for Muslims in the workplace and “inclusion of Muslims in affirmative-action plans,” Hooper added. Employment discrimination is one of CAIR’s main focuses.
Recent media reports also indicate that groups such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC) have warned that “the increasingly visible American Muslim lobby posed a challenge to U.S.-Israel relations,” according to an Oct. 22 Associated Press report.
“This smear campaign is unfair, un-American and outrageous. It is based on distortions, fabrications, outdated and out of context information, and guilt by association,” Hooper said. “Every major American Muslim group and leader, without exception, has been the target of these unjustified and politically motivated smears.”
Hooper asked media professionals and elected officials to examine the agenda of those who are making these false allegations, and he asked people to refrain from assisting anyone who would seek to silence the voice of an entire American religious minority.
“The seven-million strong American Muslim community can serve as a bridge of understanding to the Islamic world during this time of national and international crisis,” Hooper said. “It goes against our nation’s interests to let vocal and politically influential special-interest groups dictate American domestic policy or to drag our country into partisan disputes that will impede efforts to form an international coalition against all forms of terrorism.”
Hooper concluded with an appeal: “We ask our fellow Americans for their support in resisting attempts to divide us as a people or to drag our nation into a wider conflict with the Muslim world.”
—Delinda C. Hanley
ADL and AJC Demand Muslim Panelists Be Excluded
The Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) on Nov. 13 rejected a demand by that state’s chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to exclude a Muslim representative from a panel discussion at an annual civil rights conference in West Palm Beach. (See photo p.64.) The session, titled “Day of Dialogue, Communicating Across Ethnic, Cultural and Religious Lines,” included panelists from the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, and the National Conference for Community and Justice. Despite ADL pressure, the panel also included Altaf Ali from the Council on American-Islamic Relations as originally planned.
“This malicious attempt at exclusion, which is ironically aimed at a conference on multicultural inclusion, is just one small part of a nationwide campaign by the ADL to marginalize and disenfranchise the Muslim community in America. We thank the FCHR for refusing to be intimidated,” said CAIR national board chairman Omar Ahmad.
In a similar incident two weeks later on Nov. 18, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) demanded that Ghazi Khankan, executive director of CAIR’s New York chapter, be excluded from a public forum designed to promote intercultural understanding. According to CAIR, “the AJC sent e-mail messages to religious and community leaders with false and defamatory accusations. In one e-mail from AJC, Ellen Israelson wrote, “Regarding Ghazi Khankan—I have an entire file on Ghazi...Ghazi has always been vocally anti-Israel.”
In 1999, the ADL agreed to pay $25,000 to a community relations fund and said it would not spy on other organizations as part of a settlement with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other groups. According to a Sept. 28, 1999 Associated Press report, the settlement resolved a class-action lawsuit filed in 1993 that accused the ADL of spying on Arab-American, pro-Palestinian and anti-apartheid groups and individuals.
The AJC’s demand to exclude a Muslim from a panel discussion on “Understanding Islam—after 9/11,” at the University of Connecticut’s Broad Street Campus was rejected by event organizers, the Connecticut Humanities Council and the World Affairs Forum.
In the third incident in a month, the ADL demanded that CAIR Northern California executive director Helal Omeira be denied the right to offer testimony in a Dec. 6 public hearing hosted by the State of California Select Committee on Hate Crimes. The officials who were approached by the ADL told Omeiri that his participation in the hearing was important and that they would continue to promote the inclusion of all Californians.
It is apparent that a nationwide local campaign is underway to prevent Muslim Americans from participating in public discussions in cities across the country, as well as in the nation’s capital. The Nov. 18 Washington Post reported that “Jewish groups and some conservatives have been lobbying the president to stop courting certain Muslim leaders.”
The Post article quoted the leader of one of these groups as saying: “There is no such thing as peaceful Islam...Islamics cannot fit into an America in which the first loyalty is to the American Constitution. They should be encouraged to leave. They are a fifth column in this country.”
—Delinda C. Hanley
Women from Three Religions Discuss Terror, War, and Peace
Following the tragedy of Sept. 11, Women’s Learning Partnership, a women’s advocacy organization devoted to rights, development, and peace, hosted a Nov. 7 panel at American University on faith and freedom. The panel presented the perspectives of the three Abrahamic religions on how to deal with terror and peace.
The first speaker, Blu Greenberg, co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, has published widely on issues of feminism, Orthodoxy, and the Jewish family. A native of New York, Greenberg said she has not completely comprehended the tragedy of Sept. 11, but that she reaches to her faith to help her cope and heal. She defined terrorism as an act of violence targeting random civilian populations to strike terror in the hearts of citizens. She thus identified the bombing of a Tel Aviv pizza parlor and a discothÃ¨que as terrorist attacks, and similarly labeled the slaying of Palestinian worshippers by a Jewish extremist in Hebron. Although expressing sympathy for the settler movement, Greenberg expressed her disappointment for the fact that settlers did not condemn the Sept. 11 attacks. She expressed astonishment upon hearing that the mother of a suspected hijacker expressed the wish that her three other children might follow their brother’s lead.
Noting that religion has been central to wars throughout history, Greenberg outlined necessary tasks for the future. It is significant to learn about each other’s traditions and encounters, she said, and also important to study each other’s religions. For example, Greenberg says she wants to learn the roots of Ben Laden’s teachings through studying Islam, although she did not clarify on what basis she thought Ben Laden’s teachings are based on Islam. It is important, she also asserted, that one reinterpret texts and be careful with language. She expressed rage, for example, at the fact that some still argue that Zionism is racism. To ensure peace and civility, she concluded, religion should be dependent on secular systems for checks and balances
The next speaker, Azza Karam, the director of the Religions for Peace women’s program, has lectured and published extensively on women’s rights and on political Islam. One must be self-critical of his or her own community, she stated, in order to develop mechanisms for coping with the tragedy. Emphasizing the common values shared by the three Abrahamic faiths, she noted that the Ten Commandments are widely shared, as is a common history in reconciling differences. Although all three major religions do call for peaceful means of reconciling differences, Karam asserted, there always have been references to a form of “an-eye-for-an-eye” retribution.
Karam disagreed with Greenberg regarding using a “clash of civilization” logic to attribute the source of every conflict to religion. Modern history, she argued, teaches us that religion was not the root cause of conflict. Instead, she elaborated, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the Cold War and the Gulf war were ideological, territorial, or economic wars. In fact, she noted, many of the countries engaged in these wars were secular. Moreover, she asserted, the current Israeli-Arab conflict is not a war of religions, as some would like us to believe, but rather a conflict over territory. It is a conflict in which religion has been abused, she said.
In order to understand the root causes of any terrorist attack, said Karam, one must dig below the surface. What drives anyone, she asked, to commit such a horrendous act, with no regard for the tragic loss of human life? Expressing amazement at claims that the terrorists attacked us because they hate our freedom, she described that “explanation” as simply nonsensical, and rejected the “bad guy versus good guy” logic which can only conclude that the good guys inevitably have to eliminate the “forces of evil.”
Karam also expressed frustration with the current media discourse in which women’s voices and views on the current crisis are grossly absent, unless they are presented as victims. The need to emphasize and develop the role of women as peacemakers, mediators, and negotiators, she said, is now more essential than ever.
One of the challenges facing the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11, Karam said, is a fundamental redefinition of the American political system. The U.S. pursuit of “justice” cannot be selective, she stated, hunting down a suspected terrorist in Afghanistan while refusing to ratify the International Criminal Court treaty, intended to bring to justice suspected war criminals. She also expressed concern that the current war on terrorism may have further undermined the role of the United Nations.
The final speaker was Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Edelman stated, represents an important moral moment in history for Americans, and specifically American women. It is important to “reweave the fabric of our community,” she said, “coming together from every race to overcome the tragedy.” Asserting that “we should stop violence without victimizing any more people,” she emphasized the importance of engaging in self-examination. A reassessment of our priorities is in order, Edelman said, especially in addressing the world’s current unfinished agenda to end poverty, injustices, violence and inequalities. “We can not ask for peace while we always prepare for war,” she said, “and while our own hands are unclean.” Funds used to militarize, she argued, are urgently needed to build hospitals, schools, and communities in many inner city districts domestically and abroad.
Muslim Scholars Discuss Role of Faith in Peacemaking
On Nov. 7, the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted a conference on “The Role of Religion in Peacekeeping: An Islamic Perspective.” Participants included the distinguished Islamic scholars Dr. Abdul Aziz Said of American University, Dr. Muqtedar Khan of the Center for the Study of Islam and Adrian College, Dr. Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, and Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer of American University.
Dr. Said began by stating that it is more important than ever to develop a theory of peace using an Islamic perspective, because of Islam’s immense contribution to peace resolution. Despite the fact that one-third of the world’s population adheres to its teachings, he said, Islam is the most misunderstood religion today. It is important, he argued, to understand Islam’s unique historic dynamic.
Dr. Said explained that misunderstandings of Islam often result from abuses in the name of Islam which are unrelated to its core teachings. There is no clash of civilization, he asserted, but rather a clash of symbols. Acknowledging that Islam and the West are out of touch with one another, Dr. Said identified the antidote as sustained dialogue and active engagement.
The ongoing challenge for Muslims, he stated, is to create ways of integrating the identities of Muslim and Western citizens. Through active political participation, he said, Islamic identity can contribute immensely to a political system. The challenge for the West, Dr. Said continued, is to understand Islam, not to target fundamentalism. Part of that challenge, he said, is to understand that the root causes of religious fanaticism lie in a number of issues: poverty, repression under corrupt regimes, and the ongoing Palestinian crisis. The West and Islam must build a relationship that emphasizes human dignity, he asserted, rather than retreating to a cultural ghetto. That, he said, would deny the diversity of humankind.
Dr. Sulayman Nyang, professor of Islamic and African studies at Howard University, also emphasized that faith has been used by human beings throughout history to justify violent human ambitions. But faith can also offer great answers to resolve conflicts, he said. According to the Qur’an and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad in Islam, Dr. Nyang explained, peace is deeply rooted in the nature of humankind.
Islam orders its adherents to carry two wars, he said, one with one’s self, to work on moral and spiritual development, and one that aims to protect a system that guarantees human dignity. The God of Islam orders humankind to co-exist peacefully on this earth, Dr. Nyang continued, and as God’s custodians human beings are urged to maintain such peace. Islam does not teach Muslims to take innocent lives, he said, for they are warned not to transgress against others. Dr. Nyang asserted that no scholarly opinion has sanctioned terrorism. Rather, Islam categorically rejects terror and its perpetrators, he said. Islam does not define peace as the absence of terror or violence, he said, but rather as the presence of peace, civility and tranquillity.
Finally, Dr. Nyang also warned that the root causes of terrorist activities must be examined to prevent the tragic events of Sept. 11 from ever happening again. One of the major factors is the ongoing political repression in the Middle East, he said, which breeds fanaticism and extremist ideologies. The West, he concluded, should not restrict democracy at home and sanction dictatorship abroad.
Dr. Abu-Nimer discussed the tradition and practice of peace in Islam, outlining several existing camps of understanding of Islam’s view on peace and war. The first camp, he said, believes that Islam has a tendency to be more aggressive and violent than other faiths. A second camp adopts the view that passivism and nonviolence are exclusively Christian ideas and therefore un-Islamic. Such scholars, he said, may selectively use religious texts to justify use of violence. A third category, according to Dr. Abu-Nimer, represents the views of modernist Muslims who believe that the only sanctioned form of violence in Islam represents a minor element in the faith, which is restricted to self-defense. This camp frowns upon the use of cultural or historical Islam, but rather attempts to modernize its teachings in response to today’s changing conditions. Nonetheless, he stated, certain teachings in Islam remain unchanged. The pursuit of justice is obligatory to every Muslim through worship and practice, he said, and the universality of human dignity is given the utmost significance. Dr. Abu-Nimer attributed the current problems in the Muslim world to a number of issues, including colonialism, economic dependency, cultural globalization, and war and humiliation.
According to Dr. Muqtedar Khan, an assistant professor of political science at Adrian College, Osama bin Laden can be understood only in the context of U.S. foreign policy, not of Islam. Bin Laden was created in the early 1980s to combat the encroaching Soviet threat, he stated, and this “Frankenstein” was forgotten long after the Soviets left. The recent terrorist attacks, however, have prompted a struggle to interpret and redefine Islam, which has produced two very different camps: realistic versus idealistic Islam. The way one interprets Islam has nothing to do with the religion, Dr. Khan emphasized, but is rather a reflection of one’s own views and perceptions of the religion. Bin Laden’s God, for example, is a cruel and merciless God, he said, not the God of Islam.
Professor Khan warned against the danger of reciprocity, for that means one’s morality and values become hostage to someone else’s actions. The U.S. “war on terrorism,” for example, is not a moral but a strategic one, he said, dictated by Bin Laden’s terrorist attack on the U.S. One’s morals, he argued, thus are reduced to someone else’s moral code.
We are caught in a process of mutual demonization, said Dr. Khan. Criticizing the use of morality as an instrument of rhetoric, he dismissed the idea of “clash of civilization” because “Bin Laden does not represent a civilization.”
Professor Khan also warned that it is a grave mistake on the part of the West to view a resurgent Islam as the “other.” Secularism is un-Islamic to Muslims, he explained, because it takes ethics out of politics. Only Muslim Americans can be a bridge to further the understanding between the West and Islam, he said, for only they can present the softer side of Islam to Americans, and only they can present the softer side of America to the Muslim world. Generating a balanced view of the West, concluded Dr. Khan, is essential to a constructive dialogue and a balanced view of Islam