The reason we haven't noticed American Muslims condemning terrorism

Actually, they do, but until recently it was often in ways that their fellow Americans had a hard time hearing.

Published March 1, 2007 12:52PM (EST)

"What I want to know is: Why haven't these American Muslims you write about denounced terrorism?" The speaker, wearing an expression of earnest frustration, stood first in line to get a signed copy of my new book after a reading I did last week at the Los Angeles Public Library. "You say there are these moderate Muslims," he continued. "Why don't we hear from them about terrorism?"

It's a question I've heard at every bookstore, library, radio station and television studio where I've appeared around the country in the past month as I promoted my book "American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion." More than five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans still want to know why they haven't heard Muslims in the U.S. issue louder, clearer condemnations of terrorism. Muslim Americans who attend my readings often counter, sometimes with great emotion, that they have repeatedly denounced terrorism but that non-Muslims don't listen.

But this disconnect may not stem entirely from a failure to listen. It may also have to do with the way American Muslims have condemned terrorism. Specifically, until recently, Muslim leaders often added caveats to their condemnations that robbed them of real force.

The vast majority of Muslims I spoke with while researching my book were eager to deplore the killing of civilians for religious or ideological motives. Non-Muslims who insist they haven't heard from moderate Muslims on the topic of terrorism simply haven't paid attention to outspoken figures like Khaled Abou El Fadl. A scholar of Egyptian descent who teaches Islamic law at UCLA, Abou El Fadl takes an unambiguous stand opposing religiously motivated violence against innocents, no matter what the alleged justification.

After 9/11, Abou El Fadl appeared frequently in the national media. He emphasized the restrictions the Quran placed on stealth attacks, rebellion and harm to noncombatants. He told the CBS Evening News in October 2003: "You cannot kill a woman, you cannot kill a child, you cannot kill a senior individual, you cannot kill a hermit, you cannot kill a member of the clergy, you cannot even kill peasants who are not fighters." He emphasized that in modern terms, these prohibitions translate into a ban on all terrorism.

While he rejects the idea that moderate Muslims have been mute on terrorism, Abou El Fadl has argued that Muslim leaders in the U.S. have failed "to convince the American public of the outrage felt by most Muslims over the tragedy of September 11." Abou El Fadl has proposed a huge Muslim demonstration of mourning at the World Trade Center site: something truly dramatic and designed to attract television coverage, so the world would have to take notice.

This criticism went off like a bomb within Muslim circles. "When you find a statement like that from an insider, it creates anger," Maher Hathout told me. A retired cardiologist from Egypt, Hathout helped build the prominent Islamic Center of Southern California as well as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil rights group based in Los Angeles. He believes American Muslims did enough after the attacks. "We spoke very loudly against that. We made a quilt with all of the names of victims. Some of them, I think, were Muslims. We sent the quilt to ground zero, then we put it in a church in New York."

But Hathout's characterization of the attack also includes one of those troubling asterisks. When he says he reviles the 9/11 hijackers, he also tries to deny that they are Muslims. "If those people claim to be Muslims," he says, "this is against every fiber in Islam." In his circular reasoning, real Muslims can have no connection to terrorism because Islam forbids such violence. Ergo, Muslims didn't carry out 9/11 since anyone who could do such a thing is not a real Muslim. This verbal feint could suggest evasiveness to some listeners.

Hathout is excommunicating the 9/11 attackers after the fact. There are other prominent Muslims, however, who still try to cast doubt on the official story about 9/11. They are suggesting that Muslims were not at fault -- that someone else did the deed.

Siraj Wahhaj, an African-American convert to Islam and one of the most popular Muslim preachers in the country, frequently headlines national Muslim conferences and speaks to Islamic groups on college campuses. An unusual crossover star who appeals to both black and immigrant Muslim audiences, he has few rivals as a celebrity within the faith in America. During long interviews at his home mosque in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Wahhaj denounced those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and said he grieved for the victims and their families.

But years after Osama bin Laden himself took credit for the massacre, Wahhaj refused to ascribe blame to the Saudi terrorist or his al-Qaida network. "I'm not sure if I've seen the evidence that says that they've done it," he told me. "I'm not unlike so many other Muslims around the world and even in this country -- decent Muslims who would never agree to something like that [9/11], who are just not sure" of bin Laden's culpability. Wahhaj explained that bin Laden's videotaped boasts about the attacks may have been a media ruse: doctored videotape, perhaps, or even a performance staged by American-backed operatives.

The imam's refusal to acknowledge bin Laden's guilt is incomprehensible to an outsider and obviously obscures any anti-terrorism message he might be trying to convey. As a Muslim leader, he contributes to the impression held by many non-Muslims that people of his faith aren't entirely sorry to have seen the U.S. taken down a notch.

In recent years, said Wahhaj, he has toned down some of his more bristling oratory. "There's definitely a different discourse after 9/11 than before," he told me. He and other prominent imams have discussed the inadvisability of portraying "we, the Muslims, against everyone else. It's not always like that." When referring to Christians and Jews, he said he has tried to avoid the Arabic word "kafir," a pejorative for disbeliever. Instead, he uses the more neutral term "non-Muslim." In a widely disseminated talk called "Muslims in America: Surviving After Sept. 11," he concluded: "Our fight, brothers and sisters, is not with guns and knives and bombs. That's so foolish. That's not our fight. Our fight is simply the truth."

But he also approves of the use of the Arabic term "jihad," which could confuse some listeners and almost certainly would provoke suspicion among non-Muslims. Jihad can refer to a spiritual struggle. It can also mean physical battle in defense of Islam. In a talk titled "Blessing of Death," which I obtained on the Internet, Wahhaj told his audience, "If ever there comes a jihad, brother, don't run from the jihad, because the sickness of the umma [Islamic nation] today is their fear and hatred of death. But in the old days, that best generation, they loved jihad, and they loved death."

While the "fight" Wahhaj envisions for American Muslims doesn't involve arms, a "legitimate war" he does have in mind is the Arab struggle against Israel. And that raises yet another issue that keeps American Muslims from making the sort of blanket condemnation of terrorism that other Americans want to hear.

To reject terrorism summarily could be seen as signaling disapproval of those Muslim groups engaged in violent struggle against Israel. Although known to non-Muslims in this country for acts of terrorism, Hamas and Hezbollah enjoy the respect of many American Muslims. Sympathizers tend to stress that in addition to waging war on Israel, the organizations play important social-service and political roles in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively. That, however, is not the only reason American Muslims are sympathetic. Suicide bombing, for which Hamas in particular is notorious, repels most Americans. Many Muslims, however, are less critical of suicide bombing when it is directed at Israel.

In general, the issue of terror is a reminder that Muslims and non-Muslims have to communicate across a cultural divide. It can be hard to speak clearly and to hear across that gap. Still, I think the divide became much narrower two years ago. I observed a marked change in message among some Muslim organizations after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London.

Though far smaller in scale than the 9/11 attacks, the London bombings were in some ways equally unnerving to moderate Muslims. There were fewer attempts to air conspiracy theories or pretend the bombers weren't Muslims. And the violence could not be ascribed to strange non-Western Muslims raised in insular Islamic lands. The London bombers were, undeniably, homegrown Muslims, born and bred in Britain yet willing to murder their countrymen. This irrefutable confirmation of a threat from within Islam in the West caused some American Muslim groups to reassess their past tendency to try to deflect and evade questions about what mainstream Muslims are doing to address terrorism. Noticeably toned down were the arguments that Muslims aren't the only ones who commit violence, that Islam is a religion of peace, and that what needs to change is American foreign policy.

Three weeks after the London bombings, the Fiqh Council of North America, a panel of prominent Muslim scholars, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring without qualification that "all acts of terrorism targeting civilians are haram [forbidden] in Islam." The group instructed that "it is the civic and religious duty of Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians."

At a press conference in Washington announcing that 120 Muslim groups had endorsed the fatwa, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, "The presence here today of American Muslim leaders indicates the willingness of our community to strengthen national security and to work with policymakers to gain victory over this international menace to humanity." Employing the slogan "Not in the Name of Islam," CAIR sponsored a series of television and radio spots to underscore this message. At its annual convention over the Labor Day weekend in 2005, a separate umbrella organization, the Islamic Society of North America, urged 40,000 attendees to reject imams or others who argue that extremism can be religiously justified. In pamphlets and posters meant to be handed out at local mosques, ISNA condemned "any such tendencies in the Muslim community in this country and in the world."

This new bluntness is, of course, laudable and welcome. That it took CAIR, ISNA and other national organizations until mid-2005 to clarify their antiterrorism stance, sifting out distracting qualifications, is disappointing and a partial explanation for why non-Muslim Americans claim they've heard only silence on the topic. The other part of the explanation is that we haven't been listening closely enough to Muslims like Khaled Abou El Fadl, who have been unequivocally rejecting terrorism all along.

By Paul M. Barrett

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