Thinking Differently About the Middle East



Global Creative Leadership Summit hosted by the Louise T Blouin Foundation

Harold Pratt House, New York, Nov 15-16, 2006

How do we better understand our allies and our enemies? In particular, looking at the demographics of the world Islamic population, and immigration/integration issues, how do we build new dialogue and understanding? A panel discussion. To view the video of this session, click here

Moderator - Peter Bergen, Journalist and Terrorism Analyst, CNN.
Panelists -
  • HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Ambassador to the United States, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
  • Parvez Ahmed, Chairman, The Council on American-Islamic Relations
  • Hamid al Bayati, Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations
  • Tony Buzan, Inventor, Mind Maps, and Founder, The Brain Trust Charity
  • Raghida Dergham, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat
  • Theodore Zeldin, President, The Oxford Muse

REFORM MUSLIMS, NOT ISLAM

by Parvez Ahmed

A recent Wall Street Journal column ("Islam's Other Radicals," 3/6/07) by Brett Stephens promotes the idea that only those who have "left" Islam have the moral and spiritual equilibrium to "reform" that faith. An idea that germinated in the controversial and discredited "Intelligence Summit" hosted in St. Petersburg, Florida. Besides the fact that summit sponsors were accused of committing IRS rules violation (Intelligence conference draws criticism, St. Petersburg Times, 3/6/07), the occasion drew an amalgam of extreme right-wing and neo-con voices who touted as role models of ‘reform’ those who are deep in their hostility to Islam. One such self-described ‘reformer’ Wafa Sultan said, "Believe me, personally, I don't believe Islam really can be reformed...I don't see any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam...You cannot be American and Muslim at the same time."

Even ignoring the counterintuitive premise that Islam needs to be reformed by people who openly disdain Islam, the champions of ‘reform’ offered precious few details if such a preposterous idea ever helped reform any other faith? Effective change always comes from within at the hands of those of love and practice the faith. Martin Luther was successful with his reform agenda because he was a practicing Christian who had an established track record of devotion to his faith. So too with Islam.

However, the pernicious idea of reforming Islam by asking Muslims to abandon their faith continues to be promoted in several influential circles including but not limited to the mainstream media. The Wall Street Journal and CNN editorialized this "Intelligence Summit" despite the activity being admittedly financed by a person with alleged ties to the Russian mafia and who is barred entry into the United States.

Two unmistakable trend accounts for this. The first is the unchallenged growth of Islamophobia. Four out of 10 Americans admit to being prejudiced against Muslims. Such sentiments have relegated American Muslims to second class citizenship with their faith the subject of paranoia and ridicule. Secondly, the development of a veritable cottage industry of neo-experts pontificating with great certainty the cause-effect relationship between Islam and terrorism despite scholarly research clearly debunking this myth. The new prophets of gloom and doom care little about facts, for the facts get in their way of "bash and cash" profiting from fear mongering.

Even reputable institutions are susceptible to becoming victims of this pervasive Islamophobia. Take for example, CNN talk show host Glenn Beck asking the first ever Muslim congressman, "'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies." When this was brought up to CNN’s attention their excuse was that Beck is not a news reporter and thus exempt from any journalistic code of ethics. Could the fact that Beck is the highest rated show on the network contribute to CNN’s reluctance to use editorial discretion?

America has a come a long way. Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism are all rightfully frowned upon but perplexingly Islamophobia is tolerated and encouraged. Islamophobia leads to discriminations against Muslims, exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political or social process, stereotyping and guild by association, and even hate crimes. This undermines America’s vital interests, for as a nation we are served best when the mosaic of our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities all have equal access, equal respect and equal dignity. Unfortunately the fact that Muslim bashing is profitable gets in the way of this higher calling.

No one denies that Muslim societies, like any other, require constant reform. The fact that fifty-seven Muslim majority countries combined have fewer universities than those in Japan alone is motivation enough for urgent reform. But this malaise affecting Muslim societies is not because of their faith. To the contrary, Islam emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge as a noble goal with Prophet Muhammad declaring that scholars are the inheritors of prophets. Islam also encompasses within its jurisprudence and institutions the concept of reform, known as "islah" in Arabic. Reform and adaptation have always been part of the Islamic ethos. For without such built-in flexibility, Islam could not have flourished in so many different continents and cultures for over fourteen centuries, creating on many occasions and in many places some of the brightest points of human achievement.

If the goal is truly to reform Muslims (and not one-upmanship) then well wishers need to partner with those Muslims who have demonstrated love for their faith and who are symbiotically connected to their communities. America will be best served if the mainstream American Muslim community, which recent polls show to be highly educated, well integrated and patriotic Americans, is taken as full partners in this quest for reforming Muslim societies. If appropriately engaged the Americans will find in its Muslim citizens their finest ambassadors for advancing the universal values peace, freedom and justice for all.

SEE VIDEO: CAIR REP SLAMS 'SECULAR ISLAM SUMMIT' - CNN's 'Glenn Beck' Show, 3/5/07