Philos Project, by Andrew Harrod, April 8, 2015:
Critical observers should be cautious when presented with the idea of a moderate Islam. While keynote speakers at a recent Washington Institute for Near East Policypresentation asked their audience to believe that this ideal is not only attainable, but already a reality, their articulation of a true Islamic religion of peace fell short of convincing the crowd – and rightly so.
“Fighting for Moderate Islam: Ideas and Activism on the New Front Line” was headlined by The Washington Institute’s David Pollock, who opened the event by explaining that would-be Islamic reformers like Washington Institute colleague Mohammed Dajani are in considerable danger because of their beliefs. Assailants torched Dajani’s car at his Jerusalem home the day his article “A Plea for Moderate Islam” appeared, and this was only one of many threats to the man’s life. Dajani described the about-face he made after witnessing the generous humanity of his “perceived enemy,” Israel, and recounted how ill-received his Saul-to-Paul-like conversion was from his fellow Palestinians.
During his tenure as a professor at Jerusalem’s Al Quds University, Dajani faced accusations of CIA recruitment and the teaching of “American Islam.” Experiences he faced while leading a 2014 student trip to the Nazi death camp memorial at Auschwitz, a topic of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories among majority-Muslim communities, finally forced his resignation.
American Islamic Congress co-founder and executive director Zainab Al-Suwaij said that she is constantly worried about threats similar to Dajani’s – not just abroad, but here at home. Al-Suwaij, the Iraqi granddaughter of a Shiite ayatollah, fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship after participating in the 1991 post-Gulf War revolt to overthrow Hussein before establishing her career and family in the United States. Soberly, she said that Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States made her realize that “the terror I had left behind is not always back there.”
Al-Suwaij said that extremism within the American Muslim community is dehumanizing and is “spreading like a cancer – quietly.” She pointed out that this form of jihadism in America has often been masked by moderation since the events of 9/11, giving the false illusion that “we are now in a safer place.”
An attendee at President Barack Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism summit, Al-Suwaij said that she would have preferred that the event be titled “Countering Radical Islamism,” which was the actual focus of the president’s summit. Although Al-Suwaij said that “Muslims and Islam – their religion – are the first victims of this dangerous ideology,” she was reticent to give specifics about the Islamist backgrounds of groups like theCouncil on American-Islamic Relations or the Islamic Society of North America.
Al-Suwaij said that what she sought most of all was “a voice of moderate Islam” that involved a reinterpretation of Islamic canonical texts. She said that this was not unheard of, but had occurred fairly often in Islamic history – albeit mostly due to pressure from Islamic regimes, not from the Muslim grassroots. She accused groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria of their own kind of brutal revisionism.
In all, Al-Suwaij said that she was optimistic that the social climate within Islamic communities would change for the better. Although extreme groups like ISIS have limited appeal among Muslims, she attributed deficient American Muslim anti-extremism efforts to the widespread desire of those who simply want to live a “normal life” without political fights. After all, many American Muslims simply do not care to air their dirty laundry for the world to see.
Seconding Al-Suwaij’s call for ideological warfare, Dajani said that another “version of Islam” is needed, in the face of groups like the Islamic State. He said that it was wrong for struggles against jihadist threats to consume so much military attention while “soft messages” that can influence Islam get little notice. Hence his assertion that Israel’s anti-terrorism barrier (the “wall”) was ineffective and consumed resources that would be better spent winning Palestinian friendship with development aid. His overgenerous spirit also included former ISIS fighters who were disillusioned when they returned to their home countries. His prescription: “Don’t treat them like criminals; embrace them.”
Dajani’s devil came in his theological details. To promote his vision of Islam, he founded the Wasatia Reconciliation Center, an organization whose name is derived from the Arabic word wasat from Quran 2:143, a word that can mean “middle ground.” Although Dajani said that he seeks to avoid extremes, his online explanatory documents note that, in the “Holy Quran,” wasat also “means justice, righteousness and goodness,” as various English Quran translations indicate. A writer at Islamic Revival argued that wasat “is unrelated to being extreme or moderate,” but requires the Muslim community to “resume the Islamic way of life by re-establishing the true State of Islam.”
Similarly shallow canonical foundations can also be found in Dajani’s rejection of Islamic anti-Semitism. He failed to counter copious instances of Islamic anti-Semitism such as a well-known, infamous canonical saying – or hadith – of Muhammad that predicted a genocidal end-times battle with the Jews. While Dajani called this hadith “fabricated,” Islam scholar Martin Kramer countered by saying its authenticity is “rated triple-A.”
Dajani also cited a hadith that described the Prophet Muhammad’s standing in respect for the funeral bier of a Jew, but more detailed Islamic interpretations explained that the prophet had merely stood for the angels who were receiving that Jew’s soul.
In a later interview, Dajani clarified that he hopes most of all to build “bridges of understanding” between people of various faiths whose values are common among religions. He rejected a “radical school” that believes “Islam has come to correct the other religions, rather than to complement other religions,” even though such correction is standard Islamic dogma. “Taken as a whole, the Quran’s moral message is consistent,” he said, but his evaluation rejects Islam’s abrogation doctrine, under which chronologically later, aggressive Quran verses replace earlier, tolerant passages.
Dajani’s presentation expressed optimism in winning over the Muslim people, but conceded that “people tell me that this is a one-man effort.” He and Al-Suwaij undoubtedly mean well, but Islam’s often violent, intolerant canons present steep theological hurdles to developing an Islam with a human face. Al-Suwaij and Dajani’s well-wishers should look before they make any leap of faith on the basis of an Islamic reform project.