by Jonathan Brown who is the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University
Is it just me, or is being a Muslim in the US a rollercoaster ride? There’s so much to discuss! Top on the list is, of course, the imminent Trump administration. Like many in this country, since November 9th I’ve alternated between stupefaction, acute anxiety and invigoration for the… interactions (?) to come. This is an ideal moment to reflect on the condition of the American Muslim community as news reports of cabinet picks and policy announcements regularly herald the challenges, long feared just beyond the horizon, that are now coming into view.
Since 9/11, Muslim public life in this country has taken on distinctive features. To cover them all fully would require a whole book, so here I’ll focus on two that I think are particularly germane.
1) STATE SPONSORED ‘MODERATE’ ISLAM:
9/11 shook American Muslims profoundly. There was at least one positive consequence: the occasional preacher who constantly complained about every facet of American existence had to either shut up or leave, and (particularly immigrant) Muslims had to decide if they were in for the long haul of the American experiment or not. As a result, among Muslims in the US commitments to democracy, the rule of law and embracing a pluralistic society became a settled matter. I think this was the case for the vast majority of Muslims in the US before 9/11, but those attacks made us actively affirm this.
Of course, 9/11 permanently altered the way in which the American state structure viewed its Muslim citizens (by state structure here I mean the organs of government at the state and federal level, and the mandarinate of the mainstream media and related think tanks). Since 9/11, Muslims have been seen by many primarily as a security concern. The main strategy for managing this securitized population was the promotion of ‘moderate Muslims,’ the model for which was formulated in the notorious 2007 RAND report Building Moderate Muslim Networks. According to the report, ‘moderate Muslims’ believed in democracy, secularism, freedom, gender equality, an almost complete jettison of the Shariah and, most of all, a rejection of all “illegitimate violence.” It suggested that the US government cultivate moderate Muslims from among the following classes or schools of thought: secularist Muslims, liberal Muslims, moderate traditionalist ulama and Sufis (Salafis/Wahhabis were out of the question, but the Gulenist movement received high praise). In particular, the report suggested that candidates for ‘Moderate Muslimness’ be sought out among young religious scholars, community activists and moderate journalists.1
In the late 2000’s, the cultivation of ‘moderate Muslims’ gradually dovetailed with other law-enforcement efforts aimed at identifying and preventing ‘radicalization’ amongst Muslim youth, efforts that came together under the rubric of CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) (Sidebar: even more so than with the notoriously vague term ‘terrorism,’ there has been no agreement on exactly what ‘radicalization’ means. It is often used to mean adopting extremist beliefs… which, of course, leaves us to define ‘extremist,’ which seems generally to mean ‘not mainstream’ or ‘not popular.’ This is very problematic, since it’s entirely relative, as some Christians have noted when they saw where they fit on the ‘extremist’ spectrum. In the UK, discussion over the problem of defining extremism has been lively. Ultimately, it is clear that there is no coherent methodological anchor in defining ‘extremism’). The Obama administration launched its articulation of CVE in August 2011, hitching its wagon to the CVE Prevent program developed in the UK after the 7/7/2005 London bombings.
Government efforts to police how Islam was understood and expressed and to promote ‘moderate Muslims’ led to, by 2011, what Samuel Rascoff has called an ‘establishment Islam’ – the official Islam of the American government.2 The contours of this establishment Islam are well known to us by now, having infused our lives through the relentless pressure of constant expectation. I would contend that Muslims had already exhibited a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and toleration of others (this was well documented by the 2011 Pew study of Muslims in the US).
But ‘moderate Muslims’ had to do more. They had to announce that the only legitimate violence was that carried out by the militaries of the US and its allies. No other violence, even that done in self-defense by occupied or invaded peoples, was acceptable. And, as Arun Kundnani has ably demonstrated, they had to depoliticize themselves of any opinions or sentiments that challenged the fixed features of American foreign policy.3 The sine qua non of taboo opinions remains any objection to the Israeli dispossession and occupation of Palestinian lands and the continued abuse of the Palestinian people. The Iraq War debacle loosened restrictions on public criticism of US militarism abroad and the massive civilian deaths it has caused, but, to my knowledge, one cannot be a Muslim in good standing with the state structure if one articulates any substantive objection to Israeli policies or their American sponsorship. This has been made totally clear with the recent smearing of Keith Ellison, whose mild criticisms of Israeli policies have led many to disqualify him from leadership of the Democratic party.
The treatment that Ellison has received is eye opening for some, but for me it’s mere confirmation of a bitter truth: even the Democratic Party cannot accept Muslims as full equals. As for the Republican Party, despite the pleas of some Muslim Republicans to continue to engage that party, Islamophobia is a common thread in the Trump nominated cabinet and a regular rallying-cry among the party nationally. Not much need to discuss that further, sadly.
So, on the point of ‘establishment Islam,’ I am actually optimistic for the next four years! A Clinton administration would most likely have meant a continuation of the same atmosphere that prevailed under President Obama: Muslims could achieve proximity to power if they dropped their objections to US foreign policy and embraced a Progressive social agenda. But there will be no such temptation under a Trump administration. His ambassador to Israel compares Jews who are moderate Zionists to those who collaborated with the Nazis. And Trump’s national security advisor doesn’t even consider Islam a religion (it’s a ‘political ideology,’ Michael Flynn has said). It’s not even clear if some Muslims publically announcing they voted for Trump would make the grade for the Trump administration. Like Mr. Burns’ requirement for Don Mattingly’s sideburns, establishment Islam for the Trump administration would be so truncated and stripped of any identifying markers that it would be nothing at all. Free of the temptation to ‘have a seat at the table’ (which for Muslims often means ‘being table decoration’) in the Trump administration, Muslims can chart a more principled course in both our practice and political engagement.
2) FRAGMENTED LEADERSHIP AND A DEFICIT OF TRUST:
Consider the following two incidents:
- In 2001, just a few months before 9/11, then MSN (Muslim Student Network) participant Abdullah Al-Arian (now a professor at Georgetown University Qatar) was attending an event on faith-based initiatives at the White House along with numerous other Muslim leaders. In the middle of the event, the young man was suddenly removed by the Secret Service. Outraged, the two-dozen or so Muslim leaders attending the event also walked out and held an impromptu press conference to protest what had happened. President Bush later issued a formal, written apology to Al-Arian.
- In the fall of 2010, the late Dr. Jamal Barzinji (may God have mercy on him) was headed into the White House along with a cohort of senior Muslim leaders. For some reason he was not allowed to enter. The rest of the leaders left him behind at the gate and headed in.4
These two events bookend a disturbing trend in Muslim American public life, namely the collapse of solidarity upon whiffing the tempting allure of ‘access.’ I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with seeking access to the powerful or decision makers (see my previous article on guidelines for this); it is only wrong if it involves compromises that are in and of themselves noxious or if it extracts a cost from the community greater than any benefit it could reasonably offer.
Since 9/11, Muslim leadership (especially within the Beltway) has often fragmented when shows of solidarity would have been much more beneficial to their constituents. Abdullah Al-Arian was a college student and Hill staffer in the summer of 2001, but the Muslim leaders present in that White House meeting immediately understood that they had to stand besides this young man against groundless discrimination. Their solidarity brought results. Not a decade later, when Dr. Barzinji, one of the most senior and accomplished leaders of the American Muslim community, was treated similarly, his fellow Muslim leaders abandoned him. It goes without saying that no apology was issued.
Solidarity will very much be needed in the Trump era, not just within the Muslim community but also with other community advocacy groups and rights organizations that ally with Muslim organizations to defend the rights of those under attack from the forces that Trump represents. A simple case is the repeated, stated intention of several of Trump’s closest advisors that the US government will designate ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’ (whatever that means) as a terrorist organization. Although the government, either the State Department or the OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) in the Treasury Department, would almost certainly have to specify which national manifestation of ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’ it was designating, this initially limited designation would probably just be the first in a long series. And, most crucially for US Muslims, it would be accompanied by allegations that some Muslim organizations in the US were ‘fronts’ for the newly designated foreign terrorist organizations.
Now, this would all be total nonsense. The executive branch has repeatedly turned down requests from the Sisi regime in Egypt, the UAE government and even the US Congress to designate the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and associated organizations as terrorist. These requests were rejected because the argument they advanced was without substance, and the career experts in the State Department easily saw through them. But if the Trump administration truly wanted to push this designation, it could conceivably pressure the non-ideological, career experts in the government into agreeing to it.
If this were to happen, the track record of the American Muslim leadership would not be comforting. There would be real temptation to disavow those individuals and organizations first accused of being ‘terrorist fronts.’ There would be those Muslim leaders who would remain silent. Others would argue that if we just give up a few victims, the rest of us would be safe. But so amorphous and vague is the moniker ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ (it’s like talking about ‘the conservative movement’ in American politics) and so loose and discretionary is the Justice Department’s deployment of words like ‘associated,’ ‘ties,’ and, of course, the dreaded and totally unchallengeable label of ‘unindicted co-conspirator,’ that no Muslim organization or individual would be safe from this dragnet.
So, if the Trump administration does succeed in designating ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’ as a terrorist organization, Muslims in the US must stand against this with resolute solidarity. Not only is such an accusation baseless, it’s also transparently part of an Islamophobic agenda designed to deprive Muslim Americans from their right to legitimate expression and association. Enough leaving respected colleagues for the wolves, it’s time to remember that strength comes in mobilized numbers.
1. See Rand report, pp. 66-68, 70-74.
2. Samuel J. Rascoff, “Establishing Official Islam? The Law and Strategy of Counter-Radicalization,” Stanford Law Review 64 (2012): 125-190.
3. See Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror (London: Verso, 2014), 16-17.
4. This episode was recounted to my family by Dr. Jamal himself.