How To Deal With American Muslims
Gary Rosenblatt - Editor and Publisher
Whether, and how, U.S. Jews should deal with Muslim groups in this country is a vital issue that needs to be explored and discussed, particularly in the wake of 9-11. And the variety of possible responses â€” ignore them, confront them, dialogue with them â€” tells us as much about our own politics, beliefs and level of confidence as it does about the perceived potential threat of a growing Muslim presence in American life.
By nature, American Jews are liberal in their outlook, and would naturally be sympathetic to a fellow minority group being blamed for the actions of a small group of terrorists from other countries. Who better appreciates the dangers of collective guilt than Jews, always a minority subject to scapegoating? How unfair, then, that American Muslims, about a quarter of whom are of Arab origins, could face prejudice for the 9-11 attacks perpetrated by 19 foreigners.
On the other hand, many Muslims in this country, like millions around the world, are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, blame Israel for the conflict in the Mideast, and have targeted Zionism (and in some cases Jews) as the core of world problems.
So amid concerns that the Muslim community is growing in numbers and political clout in America at a time when the Jewish population is in decline, we seem torn between reaching out to, or taking on Muslims, unsure if we do better by cooperating wherever possible or drawing our line in the sand and refusing to engage with those who donâ€™t meet certain minimum standards of tolerance.
Most recently, American Jewish organizations have faced a dilemma about whether or not to join a coalition of groups committed to alleviating the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in Sudan who face persecution and starvation. What is preventing participation for some Jewish groups is the presence of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a pro-Muslim group widely considered hostile to Israel. So while some Jewish groups advocate focusing on the greater good, and joining, others are staying out so as not to lower their standards of inclusion or give legitimacy to CAIR.
Offering some thoughtful and timely guidelines on how the Jewish community should regard the growing presence, and influence, of American Muslims, a 33-year-old Jewish scholar of Jewish and Islamic studies at Harvard University has published two studies on the Muslim community in this country and how best to improve relations with them. The reports are due to be published this week by Israelâ€™s Mosaica Research Center for Religion, Society and State, a group closely affiliated with former Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior.
In the studies, Raquel Ukeles encourages Jewish dialogue with moderate Muslims as a means of fostering mutual education and understanding. She also argues that the Jewish community â€œneeds to reconsider the criteria it uses to identify credible partners, including redefining â€˜moderate,â€™ â€ or there will be no one left to talk to.
Ukeles says that while it is important to research and expose militant Muslim groups, Jewish defense organizations should devote more resources and energy to â€œreaching out to non-militant Muslims,â€ who are the majority in this country. That is not easy because moderates can be hard to find. Some are reluctant to be publicly identified, but â€œa key part of the problem,â€ according to Ukeles is that Jewish groups not only exclude those who endorse violence but those who are considered guilty by association.
She suggests that by making off limits any encounters with individuals or groups who affiliate or have contact with the more militant elements, the Jewish community has in effect eliminated itself from dialogue. She cites, for example, the case of Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl of the UCLA Law School, who has spoken out forcefully against violence in the name of Islam, and Saudi-sponsored extremist programs in the U.S. (See â€œJews In Search of Moderate Muslims,â€ Between The Lines, Jan. 15, 2003.)
Although El Fadl calls for a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and favors a democratic approach to Islam, the fact that he has spoken out against Israeli policies in the territories and used to write for The Minaret, a publication connected to a more extreme Muslim group, makes him suspect to some Jewish groups.
Ukeles thinks it is a mistake to disqualify such relatively progressive academics as people with whom to dialogue. She calls for developing â€œa more nuanced way to identify Muslim partners,â€ distinguishing between those with â€œuntenableâ€ positions, like asserting that Israel has no right to exist, and those who espouse views the Jewish community disagrees with but who seek a negotiated, peaceful resolution.
The definition of â€œmoderate,â€ Ukeles says, should be expanded to include Muslim attitudes â€œtoward social, political and religious issues that directly bear on the domestic agenda.â€ In addition to seeking out academics, she suggests establishing contacts with younger, American-born Muslims since both groups are involved in civic life here and appreciate the need for their people to resist social and political isolation.
None of this will be simple or swiftly achieved. Attitudes in the Jewish community reflect both interfaith officials who favor more dialogue with Muslim groups and terrorism experts seeking to marginalize such groups, fearful of being used by enemies of Israel. When our own community is divided over whether we should be dealing with or countering Muslim organizations, we need to think about our strategic goals, and how to respond when Muslim groups or individuals we donâ€™t trust moderate their public views on Israel or violence. Maybe some of our groups should remain watchdogs while others engage in discussion with Muslim groups. Case-by-case decisions must be made, shorter and longer-term goals set, and local and national policies considered.
Itâ€™s all well and good for Jewish groups to praise Sheik Hisham Kabbani, the Sufi leader and chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America who supports the State of Israel, but it is unrealistic and counterproductive to insist that other Muslim leaders take such positions before talking with them. We fool ourselves if we think we can work with (at least on domestic issues) and educate only American Muslims who meet our standards of Mideast correctness.
â€œMost Muslims are in the gray area,â€ Ukeles tells me. â€œThey donâ€™t love us and they donâ€™t want to kill us. But they do have some issues.â€
Her advice is worth heeding, and more research needs to be done on successful models of Jewish-Muslim dialogue, particularly on the local level, and the pitfalls of such encounters.
Whatâ€™s clear is that we have to keep a door open, constantly considering the means and the ends in this high-stake game of dialogue and diplomacy â€” if not to win allies than at least to establish working relationships with the next generation of American Muslim leaders. To ignore them, and the difficult issues they raise, would only deepen the levels of mistrust and hatred that exist today.
Gary Rosenblatt can be reached by e-mail at Gary@jewishweek.org.