EVERETT, Wash. — Where Islam is discussed, controversy follows.
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Though the 9/11 attacks by Islamic extremists are almost 10 years past and al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden is dead, the American debate over Islam is still raging, as evidenced by numerous conflicts over public events around the country.
The battles — a kind of holy war for American hearts and minds — feature a changing cast of players, but they typically array some of the dozens of groups dedicated to exposing the threat of radical Islam in the U.S. against dozens of others established to protect the rights of Muslim Americans and defend their religion as peaceful.
Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the clashes over Islam point to two powerful prevailing currents.
“One trend is heightened alarm and suspicion on the part of people concerned about domestic security,” he said. “The other trend is increased assertiveness and political activism on the part of Muslim Americans.”
At a national level, the conflict played out in controversial congressional hearings in April, which featured testimony from witnesses warning of a threat posed by Islamic radicals within the United States. Meanwhile Muslim leaders and civil rights groups — who were largely excluded from the proceedings — held press briefings comparing the hearings to red-baiting of the McCarthy era.
War of words, waged on small battlefields
But more often they unfold on smaller battlefields. Recent examples include:
· In Detroit, the city transit system is locked in a legal struggle with groups who sought to use advertising space on the sides of buses for controversial messages on “honor killings” of Muslim women. After the city rejected the ads as too political, the groups behind the ads — Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative — sued the city, and won. Detroit is appealing.
· In Temecula, Calif., a group called Citizens Concerned about the First Amendment this month held a protest outside the local high school, where they handed out fliers that labeled the teaching of Islam in the school’s social studies program as “brainwashing.” The fliers offered links to national anti-Islam groups.
· In Texas, the board of education passed a resolution last September to reject the purchase of textbooks that include “pro-Islamic, anti-Christian half-truths and selective disinformation.” The debate is expected to resurface with the review of new textbooks this year.
· At least 20 states are considering “anti-Shariah” measures, which in various ways prohibit the courts from considering Islamic law in their decisions. Muslim advocates say the measures are legal gibberish that promote fear and hatred, while drafters portray them as a bulwark against creeping Islamization.
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No one is immune from the theological tug-of-war, as administrators learned last week at a small Washington community college sandwiched between the Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains that decided to run a special lecture series called “Islam in America.”
Since it launched the series in January, Everett Community College has been battered by forces far beyond its normally quiet campus.
“I knew it would be controversial, but I thought it was going to be more internal,” said Craig Lewis, dean of communications and humanities at the school. “I had no idea we were going to get national attention.”
‘The truth… is ugly’
The talk that inspired the most recent protest at Everett Community College was a May 5 appearance by Raymond Ibrahim, who works for the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank in Philadelphia. Ibrahim, an Egyptian American of Coptic Christian upbringing, holds that there can be no such thing as a “moderate” Islam. If Muslims adhere to the Quran, he said, they are compelled to engage in jihad or “struggle”— by persuasion, deceit or violence, if necessary — so Islam can triumph.
“To a Muslim, jihad means a certain kind of struggle — spreading and empowering Islam against non-Muslims,” Ibrahim told students and local residents who crowded the lecture hall. “Peace with non-Muslims is a provisional state only.”
Ibrahim invoked a notion from Islamic theology called “taqiyya,” which allows Muslims to lie in certain circumstances. Ibrahim argued that taqiyya is broadly used by apparently moderate Muslims whose real aim is to convert and control others.
When a member of the audience asked Ibrahim why most Islamic scholars in the United States condemned al-Qaida, he pointed to taqiyya. “It’s strategic. … It is a deception that is allowed by Islam.”
Ibrahim said he had come by his knowledge through a precise reading of the Quran and other Arabic sources.
“I know the truth sometimes is ugly,” Ibrahim told reporters. “But I believe that getting the truth out is for everyone’s benefit. … I think we’ve had too much of people not talking about it because they don’t want to offend.”
Bigotry not scholarship
Ibrahim’s detractors say he is merely peddling bigotry based on dubious scholarship.
“Raymond Ibrahim is associated with a group that has a long history of one issue — bashing Muslims and Islam,” according to Arsalan Bukhari, head of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), referring to the Middle East Forum.
The Middle East Forum, where Ibrahim is associate director, was founded by historian Daniel Pipes, a controversial figure known for his hawkish, pro-Israel stance. On the group's website, he says the organization is committed to combating Islamist actions and influence, “whether violent or lawful.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the United States, led the effort to halt Ibrahim’s speech. Leaders of 60 Muslim and other religious organizations and civil rights groups signed a letter to the college urging that Ibrahim’s talk be canceled.
“Would a KKK member be given a platform by the college to talk about his/her view on African Americans in America?” said a letter from the coalition to college President David Beyer. “Would a member of the neo-Nazi movement be given a platform to share theories on Jews in America?”Story: Is conservative student group preaching white nationalism?
The argument over Ibrahim’s speech soon flashed across the country. Bukhari’s criticism of Ibrahim, published in an editorial in the Everett Herald, was then dissected by Washington, D.C.-based Robert Spencer — perhaps the most outspoken U.S. critic of Muslims — on his website Jihad Watch.
A 'Hamas-linked gang of thugs'
“(CAIR) always howl(s) when someone exposes the truth about the global jihad and Islamic supremacism," Spencer wrote. "... (The group) consistently opposes anti-terror measures… and more. This is the group trying to dictate to (the college) on its choice of speakers, and defaming a freedom fighter in the process. Free Americans should not let this unsavory Hamas-linked gang of thugs get away with this.”
Freedom of speech was one of the reasons the college cited for hosting Ibrahim — citing the value of hearing diverse opinions.
That argument fell flat for audience member Jeff Siddiqui, who argued that Ibrahim’s talk was so inaccurate, so incomplete and so unfair that he should not have been granted a podium, or been paid a speaker fee.
“Here’s the tug of war between free speech and hate speech,” said Jeff Siddiqui, a local Pakistani American real estate agent. “Should he be allowed to be here? I say if he wants to stand here on the yard on an empty carton— more power to him. But to use public funds, to use public institutions to impact children who are paying money … should not be allowed,”
Mr. Ibrahim received a $1,500 fee for speaking, according to the college.
Long-running battle over CAIR
The campaign to bump Ibrahim from the roster was the second protest over the college’s Islam series. The first salvo came from the other side.
When CAIR’s Bukhari was included on a panel for a session titled “Being Muslim in America” in January, activists on the other side flew into action. ACT! for America, a group based in Florida, launched a Facebook campaign urging supporters “to contact the college, educate them about CAIR’s background… and demand that the college provide an opposing viewpoint to CAIR’s.”
Opponents have been trying to sideline CAIR since 2007, when a grand jury named the group as an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case against the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity charged with funding Hamas and “other terrorist organizations.” No charges were ever filed against CAIR, and a federal court removed the designation three years later, but the stigma remains. Numerous websites are dedicated to proving its association with terrorists.
“Our Facebook page was deluged with postings saying you know… ‘they are terrorists’,” said Lewis, the community college official. “’They’re going to try to convert you and when they don’t they can kill you’ — all sorts of preposterous things like that. … We started getting calls from the community. And the president started getting calls.”
Fighting the menace
While security hawks have had successes in marginalizing groups they believe to be Islamists disguised as moderates, or misguided sympathizers, Muslims are fighting back, with backing from many religious leaders and civil rights groups.
“It’s part of a broader movement among Muslim Americans to get organized politically, including voter education campaigns, voter registration, running candidates for local offices, and in general, taking on the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship,” said Kurzman, the UNC professor. “I know some people see this as troubling. I see this as part of the process of Americanization that many immigrant groups have gone through throughout history.”
In answer to websites like Jihad Watch and anti-CAIR.net that focus on suspected Islamist extremism — activists on the other side have created publications such as Jihad Watch, Islamophobia Today, and Loon Watch to fact-check what they see as anti-Islam smears.
“There’s this sense that they are not just going to be victims,” said John Esposito, a professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. “(The attitude is) we’re going to respond and be proactive.”
A recent report by Political Research Associates, a self-described “progressive” think tank in Sommerville, Mass., documents what it says is a lucrative industry that peddles Islamophobia to law enforcers in federal and state agencies. The report — “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace” — warns that anti-Islam groups are teaching officers that Muslims are waging a stealth jihad in the United States, as they await the right moment to take militant action.
“Public servants are regularly presented with misleading, inflammatory, and dangerous information about the nature of the terror threat,” it said. “A vocal and influential sub-group of the private counterterrorism training industry markets conspiracy theories about secret jihadi campaigns to replace the U.S. Constitution with Sharia law, and effectively impugns all of Islam … as inherently violent and even terroristic.”
Former terrorist, born-again consultant
Among the subjects profiled in the report is Walid Shoebat, an American born in Jordan who converted to Christianity from Islam. He now maintains that Islam is the religion of the antichrist and the current White House occupancy of Barack Obama — “definitely a Muslim” — is evidence of the growing influence of this dark force.
Shoebat, who also claims he was a PLO terrorist as a youth and attempted to bomb a bank in Bethlehem, has parlayed his story into a thriving business as a consultant and anti-terror trainer for police and FBI agents, according to the report.
Just this week, CAIR tried to convince the South Dakota Department of Public Safety to drop its endorsement of a state Homeland Security Conference featuring Shoebat as keynote speaker.
“South Dakota taxpayers need to know whether their hard-earned dollars are helping to fund a conference that will offer anti-Muslim hate and stereotyping to law enforcement and security personnel,” wrote Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR, in a letter to South Dakota Public Safety Secretary Trevor Jones.
The speech went ahead as planned on Wednesday.
Getting past knee-jerk reactions
In Everett, college administrators besieged by protest over CAIR and Ibrahim gathered in the president’s office, said Lewis.
“Finally we decided that if we were to going to un-invite one then we were going to have to un-invite everybody,” he said. “… So we decided to keep everybody … and keep the dialogue open.”
Nonetheless, the tone of the debate prompted the college to beef up security at the events, and allow audience members to submit their questions only in writing, “to keep things from getting out of control,” according to Lewis.
Despite the furor, Lewis said the controversy has had one silver lining.
“It gave me a greater sense of urgency about higher education and what it is all about,” Lewis said. “It’s about getting people to think beyond their knee-jerk reactions, and make more data-based decisions.”
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