This past weekend I flew back early into Dallas from a 160+ years in-the-making Baptist Convention, intended to heal Race Relations amongst White and Black Baptists, just so that I could attend a Conference of what we Muslims call America's leading Islamophobes.
With folks like Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post, Roger Hedgecock of Talk Radio and fill-in for Rush Limbaugh, Joe Kaufman of CAIR Watch and Americans Against Hate, Dr. Harvey Kushner of I know everything about Terrorism, Dr. Wafa Sultan of Muslims are uncivilized due to Islam, Dr. Bruce Tefft of I'm a mis-educator of Law Enforcement, Dr. Paul Williams of Muslims will reach critical mass by 2015 and take over America, to the lovely Frank Wuco who's gotten into the mind of the jihadists but shhh don't let them know; I could hardly pass up the opportunity for some entertainment.
Oh and how could I forget the Indian Hindu nuclear engineer Moorthy Muthuswamy and the Egyptian Coptic MD Monier Dawood thrown in for their brilliance and eloquence respectively. The former outlining his brilliant strategy to combat “political Islam” by outlawing the existence of Mosques first in America, then India and eventually Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The latter was helped off the stage for showing up late, rambling about Egyptian pop singers in the early 70s, discriminating against Christians by celebrating the '73 war with Israel, by crossing the Suez Canal as done by a fictional Egyptian named “Mohamed” as opposed to a “Boutrous” or “Gerges” (George) and offending his strongly Zionist hosts by even mentioning any wars against Israel without first condemning them. :)
I took the opportunity to go to the restroom and buy a drink, when a former nuclear explosive expert, Lee Boyland, started describing how to transform a grapefruit nuclear bomb into a golf ball sized one. I did so purely out a self-interest so as not to have this knowledge, in case of a future e-water boarding incident by any future E-Gustapo these folks ever set up.
On a bright note I did see a few celebrities while getting my patience tested listening through a lot of nonsense like the notable John O-Neill (Swift Boat Vets Against Kerry) and Daren Norwood (country music singer from West Texas who should be hooked-up with Kareem Salama of the Muslim Country Musicians Network). :-)
Now I can't do this event justice in just one post, so here's what I think I'll do: First I'll write up a little quick run-through of my initial observations. Then perhaps in a future Part 2 post, I will outline the network of organizations and personalities that keep this movement fed, attempting to categorize these folks according to their various agendas. Just like several other Muslim activists I've read much of this movement's writings and listened to their interviews in order to better understand what exactly their problem is. Because it obviously isn't terrorism. I think many Muslims over-hype their influence so I'll post a brief summary of the dossiers we pulled together years ago, so that it'll be obvious to everyone how frail this movement really is.
Primary Symposium Organizer: America's Truth Forum – Jeff Epstein – President
Secondary Organizer: Basics Project – Frank Salvato – Executive Director
Event: 3rd Educational Symposium “Exposing the Threat of Islamist Terrorism”
Date and Location: February 1st and 2nd in Dallas-Fort Worth Region
Now while it's easy to dismiss these guys as a bunch of Viagra taking, grumpy old men, angry that previously lower socio-economic peoples are acting uppity and having too many babies, I really think we're doing ourselves a disservice by caricaturing them as they sometimes do to us. Yes, those are factors afflicting their movement and yes without the ability to prioritize their objectives they would be certainly spinning their wheels. But there's more to them than meets the eye.
For many of those Baptists in the room like the wonderful Oklahoma Pastor and former NFL player for the Bears and Vikings Mr. Paul Blair, they've so misinterpreted Christian teachings that it's nothing more than a corrupted form of national tribalism. While they keep on trying to become more dogmatic and fundamentalist in their understanding of biblical scripture, they can't see that they're killing their “da‘wah” and ghettoizing their own folks on an ever shrinking island. The same goes for many of the Jewish Zionists in that hall (out of a couple of hundred total). While Judaism might have been a divine religion with much good for the world, its marriage with a dogmatic version of the secular nationalist philosophy called Zionism has killed faith and left them with nothing divine at all. God I hope we as Muslims never forget that we are a community of believers and always remain on guard against the corruption of our faith by tribalistic philosophies.
With folks like Dr. Bruce Tefft delivering talks called “Islam: The Foundation of Islamic Terrorism” you can be assured that it took a tremendous amount of patience sitting through the nonsense espoused from the stage about everything from the “Moon God of Arabia” to “George Wahhabi Bush”. The attendees certainly belong to a sub-culture of 'grumpy old men' who'd cheer loudest when a speaker would say that “we're loosing the Global War on Terrorism because we won't name our true enemy ISLAM”. Though I never tried to hide my identity, even announcing my registration to the organizer over a month prior to the event, I was still assigned my personal body guard from the B'nai Elim (kind of like the NOI's Fruit of Islam folks to the best I could gather). We (myself and a couple of the para-military guys from Israel and Russia doing security) ended up joking around towards the end, but it was so much a reminder for me of the way Israel does “security” that it added to my prayers for patience.
On a good note, a couple of things happened that I thought we wouldn't see for a few more years:
First, Caroline Glick and Frank Gaffney came out saying, like Daniel Pipes last year, that making Islam the enemy in the GWOT is self-defeating. I never thought those two, who are obviously smarter and more pragmatic then some of the other speakers, would risk alienation from the Fringe Right by making statements to calm down the mob.
The second was from Robert Spencer. Though I went to this Symposium intending not to engage anyone in debate, Robert coming over to my table after circling around a bit, made my non-debate plan obsolete. In response to my assertion that I saw him as part of the problem and didn't care for his approach which made Islam the problem, Robert responded with several rapid-fire responses about everything from the bogey-man (Muslim Brotherhood) to “Islamic Supremacist” (apparently Sheikh Qaradawi) obviously meant to test my intelligence. At one point, in choosing to define myself as a reformer, Robert leaned into me, and suggested,“reform something then”! Later on in our discussions I told him that with a beard like his, he should just go ahead and convert to Islam. :)
I have to say that Robert did strike me as easier to debate with than I ever thought possible based on what I knew of him. He knows enough to cut through the B/S and debate practicalities when engaging with informed individuals (religious, philosophical and socio-political). But I assume he doesn't speak like this in public because its bad for business and because Muslims aren't really looking to engage him either. I, like many, might start looking at him differently if he'd drop the Islam and Prophet-bashing, and stick to facts and information. Some aggressively intolerant folks who happen to be Muslim aren't spokespeople for Islam, though they claim to be defending Islam when engaged in their political battles for obvious political reasons.
A thought I had been toying around in the past two years seemed to have gotten reinforced during this Symposium. Most Conservatives are incapable of delineating what is Islamic from what is political in a “terrorist's propaganda”. Some think of themselves as being “highly informed” because they “listen to what the terrorists say”. This scary phenomena of the blind leading the blind goes apparently all the way up the food chain, when we see some of our policy makers truly incapable of breaking down the Iranian President's public rhetoric.
In closing, I guess I can't sum it up any better than Frank Salvato of the Basics Project and a co-organizer of this Terrorism Symposium, who suggested that “In the Land of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King”. In some private conversations with movement oriented Muslim activists here and oversees last year, I asked the question of whether it isn't our responsibility as Muslims to reach out and clear up the Right's misunderstanding of “political Islam” as its called. In 2006 I wrote an op-ed about one of those efforts engaging national policy makers, where I suggested American public diplomacy should engage “political Islam” movements on the questions associated with Civic and Religious Liberty. But post-Iraq, our government is incapable of any new initiatives. In that op-ed I wrote:
In the Qurʾān Muslims are taught that they are “the best of communities” when performing three simple tasks, “believing in God”, “supporting good” and “opposing evil.” Today no one makes the argument that Muslims as a whole are providing much of a moral compass for humanity, and there's the crux of why I believe God's blessing doesn't lie with those Muslim majority societies today. I tried to put this theory to work with Ambassador Hanford advising that because the overwhelming majority of Muslims don't really think about how to create an “Islamic government” that America should as part of its conversations with Muslim majority societies oversees help sponsor those academic initiatives that would help drive political Islamists towards a more reconciled vision of civic tolerance. His answer was very direct for a diplomat stating that it was up to Muslims to spearhead these kinds of initiatives.
So there lies the crux of the problem in US – Political Islam Relations, a gun shy America can't offer leadership and a resistance oriented political Islamic movement can't offer mush more than targeted discontent. So the average American and the average Islamist continue in stalemate, as though potential allies each awaiting the Messiah to negotiate their partnership's diplomatic breakthrough.
Domestically we as American Muslims have succeeded in coalition building across society to isolate and steadily increase the siege of the intolerance coming post 9/11 from the right and folks at the Symposium were with only one exception in agreement that we're (Muslims) winning and they're (future Muslim converts) loosing. Oversees political Islam movements are generally in a state of glee over America's foolhardiness in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; thinking it better to leave the Americans licking their wounds and psychologically demoralized to humble their arrogance. Is it possible or even our responsibility as American Muslims to engage the American Right on the subject of Political Islam? Or is it not our problem so why bother since “political Islam” has nothing to do with our community here due to our fidelity to the 1st Amendment's Establishment Clause as the basis for our Religious Liberty?
Note: By “Political Islam” I'm referring not to the Islamic values (Shariah) that should guide every Muslim's political judgments, but the organized Muslim led political mobilization to restructure the socio-political order as outlined in a nation's constitution. In America our constitution guarantees everyone's right to practice their religion 100% as they see fit, so long as they don't try to use the government to “establish” an official state religion. Since organized and voluntary Muslim immigration to Texas started happening in 1854, no Muslim group or individual has ever voiced publicly a desire to change that structure yet Islamophobes play on the fears of declining Conservative Anglo Protestant populations that Muslims secretly conspire to subjugate them and charge them a jizya tax once empowered. And God knows nothing scares a conservative more than a tax increase, just check out the Presidential Elections rhetoric.