A public debate between two devotional Muslims occurred on April 5, 2008 at Edison College in Naples, Florida. We shared deeply conflicting ideas on Islam, political Islam, terrorism, and morality. Arguments so far seemingly relegated to "Muslim vs. non-Muslims" debates due to the Muslim activist predominance of the Islamist mindset were finally debated from a position deep within a Muslim consciousness.
Already a tired phrase, call it what you will, "the battle," "the war," "the contest" of ideas between the West (secular democracies) and the Muslim world (Islamist theocracies) remains an elusive target for many of us in the thick of the fight. As an American, the concept of debate and intellectual argumentation runs to the core of who I am. So many other anti-Islamist Muslims and I can imagine no other method of getting our ideas across to the "other" side whether discussing the political, religious, legal, social, or spiritual realm. But when it comes to our current target – the threat of political Islam within the devotional Muslim consciousness – leading Islamist figures in the U.S. have remained slippery targets, unwilling to engage anti-Islamists openly in the public square.
These elusive Islamists include a host of "political imams" (imams who use their pulpit to preach an Islamist domestic and foreign policy agenda) who are apparently a majority of imams in mosques around the U.S. Not only are political imams in the majority of mosques but the salafist orientation seems to predominate mosques also. This is augmented in the public place with their supporting and collaborating Islamist organizations which include ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), MAS (Muslim American Society), ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America), MSA (Muslim Students Association), the North American Imams Federation, The Assembly of American Muslim Jurists, and the MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council) to name a few. That, in and of itself, is telling. However, the obvious nature of their avoidance behavior in engaging anti-Islamists is not enough or even a start in the effort to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslims.
The entirety of mosques and Islamist and anti-Islamist Muslim organizations do not represent all American Muslims. Most American Muslims are actually unaffiliated with any element of the organized Muslim community. Some, if not most, are unaffiliated simply because they separate religion and politics. In fact, statistics would show that only a small minority of American Muslims maintain membership in any "Muslim" organizations.
The ideas expressed in this debate will possibly expose why. Most Islamist organizations and imams have little to no moral leadership or credibility when they espouse apologetics and excuses trying to convince the world that moral imperatives have exceptions. Hopefully the mainstream media, government officials, and the average non-Muslim American will begin to see that "Islamists" are in no way synonymous with "Muslims." The "battle for the soul of Islam" between Islamists and anti-Islamists needs to be forged expeditiously or the Islamists will assiduously continue their grand scheme of eventual and total domination.
Since its inception, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy was created by anti-Islamist Muslims upon a foundation that our guiding ideologies simply need to be heard in the Muslim community. Then, let the chips fall where they may. With that public hearing, or "forum," we will begin to openly challenge the ossified precepts of salafism, Wahhabism, Islamism, and various pre-modern identifications of eastern Muslim culture. With that challenge we pray that an awakening – possibly very similar to the modernization of the West, which ushered in "enlightenment" – may occur within the consciousness of Muslims everywhere, forever separating spiritual Islam or the domain of God (faith) from the domain of government and the state (reason).
It is direct forays between Islamists and anti-Islamists which highlight the profound areas of disagreement. For example, when AIFD sponsored the nation's first Muslim rally against terrorism in 2004 entitled "Standing with Muslims Against Terrorism" and invited the local Islamist Politburo (also known as the "Valley council of imams") to join us in a universal unqualified condemnation of terrorism, they explicitly refused citing a host of morally defunct explanations. As a group, they refused to make a public moral imperative without qualifications (apologetics) about American foreign policy as an excuse for terrorism. They not only stayed home from the rally despite repeated public calls to join us, but the imams have also repeatedly refused to go on record regarding AIFD's mission of ideologically engaging Islamism, let alone directly engage anti-Islamists. In fact in the 2007 controversial documentary by ABG Films Islam v Islamists, local imam, Ahmed Shqeirat described our work as "liberal extremism."
The debate this week against an imam in Naples proved that these apologetics are apparently and most unfortunately common across the nation (from Arizona to Florida) in many imam circles as a litmus test for Islamists who believe in political Islam and the Islamic state. Make no mistake: my opponents in the clerical realm try to brush off our work as "anti-imam" or anti-scholarship in Islam. A cartoon in a local Islamist publication tried to portray just such propaganda against me in 2005. The reality is quite the contrary. Many humble scholarly imams have provided the intellectual underpinnings for our anti-Islamist Muslim precepts at AIFD. In fact it is the persona of the morally corrupt imam who has been the greatest liability for the real scholars of Islam who are the anti-Islamist, anti-Wahhabi imams of virtue which are so marginalized in the American public square.
This challenge of opening this debate and even acknowledging its existence is no small undertaking, considering the number of Islamist forces working within the Muslim community against such an awakening. Further challenges include tendencies of the general public to accept minority and identity politics in the U.S. and the inherent Islamist exploitation of that in order to further tribal behavior and foment divisiveness in America. By doing so, they craftily avoid self-critique, not to mention the collaborating forces outside the Muslim community (mainstream media and many U.S. Government officials) that are all too ready to accept Islamist ideology as the de facto consensus of the orientation of the faithful.
Yet, frustratingly, many anti-Islamist Muslims have been standing alone ready to challenge the Islamist position within the Muslim community, unable to gain any traction against the conventional wisdom that Islam is Islamism and Islamists are the only devotional Muslims. Geert Wilders' film Fitna, Ayaan hirsi Ali's Infidel and other expressions exposing radical Islamist ideology are able to conflate Islam with political Islam and militant Islam because they have been almost inarguably unable to find a palpable debate within the Muslim community concerning the ideas they critique. Islamists often whine in an oversimplified denial immersed in pathetic victimology, while anti-Islamist Muslims remain unheard and unable to find a forum.
Certainly, many anti-Islamist Muslims have been writing and speaking out all over the world. But we have generally been "preaching to the choir" and past the Islamists and their collaborators who disagree with us. Why have we have often ended up speaking "past" them? The answer is their unwillingness to engage openly in a debate over our central differences on Islam and the Muslim consciousness. Theirs is a strategy cloaked in deliberately ignoring the debate and deliberately clouding Islam with Islamism – much to the chagrin of the average non-Islamist Muslim.
The Islamists conveniently call internal challenges to their theology a manifestation of a societal ill which they equate with "division" (fitna in Arabic). They feel that their moves to politically collectivize the Muslim community, or the "ummah," can never be challenged. They ignore the fact that the political collectivization of Muslims runs contrary to the national interests of our collective nation and our citizenship. For the few who do accept the challenge they do so only on their terms, privately, within the community, away from media and away from any accountability to the greater American community.
This blind collectivism is the exact reason the Muslim mind in so many mosques and activist organizations is hopelessly and cowardly paralyzed in apologetics and victimization. The Islamists are thereby easily able to muster the courage of their faulty convictions enough to champion political Islam and secure its stranglehold upon the public manifestation of the Muslim consciousness.
There is no better way for Muslims to generate credibility and speed up our growth than to encourage and participate in an open public debate. Once anti-Islamist and pro-Islamist Muslims intellectually engage one another, the rest of the world can finally see that the most effective means to counterterrorism is a devotional Muslim counter to political Islam and the religious validity of the Islamic state. The determination of whose version of Islam is closer to the central message of Islam is vital to countering the visceral drive of militant Islamism.
By avoiding debate, the Islamists are not only ignoring the Prophet Mohammed's tradition of intellectual engagement with all those who disagreed with him inside and outside the faith community, but they are falling lockstep with the fascist precept that supremacist ideologies have to be superior by virtue of their own standing and should never be challenged by other non-conforming Muslims.
Engagement can be a tenuous and possibly dangerous endeavor. Many Islamists by virtue of their apologetics for terrorism and facilitation of the Islamist ideology end up associated (if not hatched from) international and often militant Islamist organizations like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. But debating them is still quite helpful and infinitely revealing.
The most important element to be underscored is that debate and confrontation cannot be equated with endorsement and facilitation. It is far more dangerous to ignore these organizations and Islamist thought leaders and hand them the intellectual reins of the Muslim community unchallenged than to engage them and highlight the ideas which put them at odds with reason, spirituality, and modernity.
Recently on February 23, 2008, while I was participating in a panel on radical Islam's threat to the West in Naples Florida, a local imam, Mohamed Al-Darsani of the Islamic Center for Peace challenged my ideas and cast me out with little substantiation as being "outside the mainstream Muslim community." It seemed that my orthodox adherence to traditional Sunni Muslim worship and spiritual devotion made little difference to him. His charge about my position in the Muslim community was made concerning my stand on terrorism and political Islam.
I immediately responded with an open challenge to engage him in a debate on the threat of Islamism (the desire to form an Islamic state) to American security. To my surprise (and thanks to the Florida Security Council), he agreed.
With the tenacity of the local Florida Security Council, within six weeks, I had an official debate with Imam Mohammed Al-Darsani, with Michael Cromartie of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy moderating. We agreed to debate the question: "Is the Establishment of the Islamic State a Clear Ideological Threat to the United States?" I debated the affirmative and Mr. Al-Darsani the negative.
The two-plus hour long debate covered a lot of ground. Most poignantly, it highlighted the great chasm between the corruption of Islamist apologetics and the struggle to renew the moral truth of spiritual Islam separated from Islamist demagoguery. A review of the debate demonstrates the wide abyss which separates so many faithful anti-Islamist Muslims from Imam Al-Darsani and other similar Islamist apologists. One has to give the imam credit for showing up and having the courage of his convictions. Sadly, it is those very convictions which are the primary fuel for terrorism worldwide. Once we understand the relationship of political Islam and its various permutations from Wahhabism to salafism to deobandism to militant Islamism and its terror, we will be able to effectuate and progress a global anti-Islamist movement.
Debates like the one which occurred last week in Florida are the beginning of a "contest" of ideas which will herald either the victory of post-modern Islam over theocratic Islam or the converse. Global security and the continuation of American society as we know it hangs in the balance.
The debate was videotaped by both sides – ours (AIFD) and theirs (Imam Al-Darsani and the Islamic Center for Peace of Fort Myers, Florida). Our copy is in production and will not be available for a while. A Muslim member of Mr. Al-Darsani's mosque, Greg George, has posted the entire debate online in six parts. He is apparently also a documentary producer and an unconventional (to say the least) candidate for Congress in his district. I refer you to his video links of the debate which he posted. But that is certainly no endorsement of Mr. George or Mr. Al-Darsani and his Islamic Center for Peace.
Watch the debate at these links at Google Video.
As you watch the debate, know that this is one of the first of its kind publicly that I know of in the West between two devotional Muslims over the topic of political Islam and terror.
Human beings may often err as we engage in the confrontation of ideas. But to err is human. The only thing worse than an occasional misstep or misspeak in the public contest of ideas is the apathetic indifference and avoidance of any challenge to our own ideas. Such avoidance comes from individual weakness and the inability of many Islamists to muster the courage of their convictions. Those unwilling to withstand a public challenge to their ideas deserve neither the respect of their convictions nor the leadership of the communities which they purport to represent. In fact, their failure to do so points to a murkier Islamist plot of silencing discourse and stifling criticism to evade accountability, not only to Muslims, but to America as a whole.
In Part II of this column I will review my own perceptions of the obvious ideological demarcations made in the debate between the Islamist (Al-Darsani) and the anti-Islamist (Jasser).