March 28, 2003 -- American Muslims must be feeling despair over the news that Asam Akbar, a sergeant serving in Kuwait and an American Muslim, is accused of intentionally throwing grenades into the tents of his fellow soldiers, killing two and injuring fourteen. Many policymakers, pundits, and citizens suspect that the attack was politically motivated. This horrific incident ignites questions that have been smoldering since 9/11 concerning the place of Muslims in American society and possible divided loyalties.
All responsible American Muslim leaders condemned the 9/11 attacks while expressing their valid concerns that they not lead to anti-Muslim backlash. But many people still view these Muslims with suspicion. After all, adherence to Islam is used to justify the most virulent forms of terror and repression in the world today. Fortunately, many American Muslims are stepping forward to defend the values of civilization.
One problem that these Americans face is the fact that public distinctions between clerics, mosques, and Muslims who favor an open society and those who do not are not clear. Many Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are peaceful and tolerant. Yet the Wahhabi sect, which is promoted by the Saudis, supports an aggressively fundamentalist and repressive form of Islam that has bred terrorists. Muslims who are committed to peace and tolerance and who want to protect the name of their religion thus face the challenge of making these distinctions more explicit.
Many Americans, as they've watched the FBI break up terrorist cells from Portland, Oregon, to Detroit, to North Carolina, continue to be suspicious of their Muslim neighbors. But they should keep in mind the obvious fact that not all Muslims support terrorism; in 2002, the FBI nabbed six Yemeni members of al-Qaeda in Lackawanna, New York, apparently based on tips from other Yemenis.
There's a sound tradition in America of individuals policing their own communities and in this way advancing the principles of civilization. For example, after 1948 the Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled eleven affiliated unions because of their leaders' communist ties or sympathies. In the decades that followed the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters expelled members associated with communist groups. These expulsions weren't simply opportunistic attempts to appeal to American public opinion but, rather, reflections of a deep anti-communism in the hearts and minds of most union members.
In the 1990s, Republicans who were trying to win elections in the once solidly Democratic South faced the problem of white supremacists running with a GOP label. Should the party speak out or leave the matter to individual voters? As it turns out, when racist David Duke ran as a Republican for governor of Louisiana in 1991, the national party backed the corrupt Democrat Edwin Edwards. Better a crook than a Klansman! Republicans would not allow their party to be tainted by racists.
These are good models for freedom-loving American Muslims. Occasionally, someone who expresses sympathy for al-Qaeda may just be very stupid or very deluded. But that should not excuse him from being publicly ostracized by his community or privately reported to the FBI. No doubt, mistakes in judgment will be made as American Muslims attempt to clean their own house. But the stakes today are literally thousands of American lives and the liberty of us all.
American Muslims can also use their cultural institutions to raise new generations of Muslims who will incorporate into their hearts and minds the universal human values of free speech, inquiry, and exchange; individual liberty; toleration; and representative government. The Arab-American Chamber of Commerce and the Minaret of Freedom Institute promote these very values. Such American Muslims follow the example of millions of other immigrants—Catholics from Italy and Ireland, Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, Buddhists from Asia, Hindus and Sikhs from India. Tolerance does not mean agreement with other religions or lifestyles. It does mean a deep commitment to respecting the rights and freedoms of those with whom you might disagree.
American Muslims are in a unique position to export to their brothers overseas a more enlightened Islam that will extinguish the hate on which terrorism is based and help replace savagery with civilization in countries like Iraq. This is exactly what the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy is doing.
Muslims deserve the same tolerance and freedom that all Americans enjoy and that attracted many Muslims to these shores. But it is unfortunately also true that some Muslims do not stand up for an enlightened Islam out of moral flabbiness or obtuseness. Some sympathize with or support radical Islamists. And others fear that their homicidal co-religionists will target them with fatwas and death warrants.
But America brings out the best in all people, and American Muslims who truly appreciate the freedom that they enjoy will no doubt have the courage to fight.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.