Finding the Moderates
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Weekly Standard Online
Apr. 17, 2007
While the idea of attempting to improve relations between counterterrorism experts and Muslims may sound like a fool’s errand, both communities have much to gain from such efforts.
I am now a counterterrorism consultant, but I used to be a practicing Muslim. Prior to entering the counterterrorism field, I worked at a Wahhabi charity that is today a specially-designated global terrorist organization — and later served as an FBI informant when that charity was being investigated. Since the recent publication of my book detailing these experiences, “My Year Inside Radical Islam,” I have been privileged to meet with people in both communities, and doing so has helped sharpen my perspective on the divide between them.
In the counterterrorism world, we often demand accountability and self-criticism from Muslim leaders. I believe it is right to do so. But often Muslims feel they are unfairly singled out, or automatically met with suspicion. There are some legitimate reasons for these feelings, and we who engage in counterterrorism would do well to display the same kind of self-criticism in our relations with Muslims that we demand from the community’s leaders.
Three major tendencies in the counterterrorism field are worth combatting. The first is the habit of criticizing the Muslim community but never complimenting or discussing its progress. Criticism is necessary, as it has brought to light individuals and organizations who openly profess moderation while actually promoting an extremist agenda.
But criticism can produce a skewed view when it is not balanced by positive news. I am frequently asked why moderate Muslims don’t speak against extremism — as though moderates are cowed into silence while jihad is openly extolled from mosque pulpits. While Muslim moderates need to do more, I have seen a wide variety of moderates speaking with a stronger voice over the past few years, through such publications as Islamica Magazine and theWebsite Altmuslim.com. We would do well to acknowledge these voices.
A second negative tendency is the unwarranted dismissal of Muslim moderates who disagree with us on policy issues. Moderate Muslim voices are diverse, coming from both the right and the left. After a recent talk I gave, an audience member told me that the aforementioned Islamica Magazine was a “radical Islamist publication” because of an article that objected to the Department of Homeland Security’s revocation of Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan’s visa.
While one might disagree with the article, that disagreement stems from policy differences — not from the supposed radicalism of Islamica. Working alongside moderates with whom we may disagree on some issues but who nonetheless genuinely oppose jihadist violence and the forceful imposition of Islamic norms will help bring more valuable, authentic voices into the discussion. Indeed, listening to and respecting differences of opinion are among this nation’s strengths.
A third negative tendency is the impulse to attack Muslim figures, but never defend them. For example, conservative activist Suhail Khan was recently attacked as a possible radical after his nomination for a seat on the American Conservative Union’s board of directors. Some of these attacks came from people for whom I havegreatrespect. Nonetheless, based on my own research into Mr. Khan and interactions with him, I believe these attacks are off base. Counterterrorism experts would do themselves a favor by defending Muslim figures when they are subjected to unfair attack.
Too often when relations between the counterterrorism community and Muslims are discussed, proposed fixes boil down to old, failed methods like “sensitivity training” — an idea that is probably unnecessary and has an Orwellian ring. Instead of feel-good solutions with little chance of long-term success, I’m suggesting simpler steps that can help assuage Muslim fears.
Of course, the Muslim community has its own pathologies and its own problems in relating to outsiders. But these issues should not prevent us from trying to ensure that we treat that community fairly. Aside from moral considerations, there are pragmatic reasons. If Muslims feel they are treated unfairly, they will be less inclined to help keep our country safe. Beyond that, if the general public thinks our counterterrorism policies are unfair to Muslims, they’re more likely to turn against these measures.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a counterterrorism consultant and the author of “My Year Inside Radical Islam.”
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