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Let’s reap the faith

An Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York can emerge as the starting point of a reformist movement in Islam. Fareed Zakaria writes.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2011 10:02 IST

Ever since 9/11, liberals and conservatives have agreed that the lasting solution to the problem of Islamic terror is to prevail in the battle of ideas and to discredit radical Islam, the ideology that motivates young men to kill and be killed. Victory in the war on terror will be won when a moderate, mainstream version of Islam — one that is compatible with modernity — fully triumphs over the worldview of Osama bin Laden.

As the conservative West Asia expert Daniel Pipes put it, “The US role [in this struggle] is less to offer its own views than to help those Muslims with compatible views, especially on such issues as relations with non-Muslims, modernisation, and the rights of women and minorities.” To that end, early in its tenure the Bush administration began a serious effort to seek out and support moderate Islam. Since then, Washington has funded mosques, schools, institutes and community centres that are trying to modernise Islam. Except, apparently, in New York City.

The debate over whether an Islamic centre should be built a few blocks from the World Trade Center has ignored a fundamental point. If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonising them. Were this mosque being built in a foreign city, chances are that the US government would be funding it.

The man spearheading the centre, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a moderate Muslim clergyman. He has said one or two things about American foreign policy that strike me as overly critical — but its stuff you could read on The Huffington Post any day. On Islam, his main subject, Rauf’s views are clear: he routinely denounces all terrorism — as he did again last week, publicly. He speaks of the need for Muslims to live peacefully with all other religions. He emphasises the commonalities among all faiths. He advocates equal rights for women, and argues against laws that in any way punish non-Muslims. His last book, What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America, argues that the United States is actually the ideal Islamic society because it encourages diversity and promotes freedom for individuals and for all religions. His vision of Islam is bin Laden’s nightmare.

Rauf often makes his arguments using interpretations of the Quran and other texts. Now, I am not a religious person, and this method strikes me as convoluted and Jesuitical. But for the vast majority of believing Muslims, only an argument that is compatible with their faith is going to sway them. The Somali-born ‘ex-Muslim’ writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s advice to Muslims is to convert to Christianity. That may create a buzz, but it is unlikely to have any effect on the 1.2 billion devout Muslims in the world.

The much larger issue that this centre raises is, of course, of freedom of religion in America. Much has been written about this, and I would only urge people to read Michael Bloomberg’s speech on the subject last week. Bloomberg’s eloquent, brave, and carefully reasoned address should become required reading in every civics classroom in America. It probably will.

Bloomberg’s speech stands in stark contrast to the bizarre decision of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to publicly side with those urging that the centre be moved. The ADL’s mission statement says it seeks “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” But Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, explained that we must all respect the feelings of the 9/11 families, even if they are prejudiced feelings. “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorise as irrational or bigoted,” he said. First, the 9/11 families have mixed views on this mosque. There were, after all, dozens of Muslims killed at the World Trade Center. Do their feelings count? But more important, does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?

Five years ago, the ADL honoured me with its Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize. I was thrilled to get the award from an organisation that I had long admired. But I cannot in good conscience keep it anymore. I have returned both the handsome plaque and the $10,000 honorarium that came with it. I urge the ADL to reverse its decision. Admitting an error is a small price to pay to regain a reputation.

( Fareed Zakaria is the Editor of Newsweek and the author of The Post-American World )

The views expressed by the author are personal.