America's political leadership has a love affair with the concept of connecting with the moderate Muslim world. This is not the domain of one party or one ideology -- indeed, the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama are heavily invested in the idea. Yet in the push to find moderate Muslims with whom to interact, there's a question that seems to keep coming up: how far are we willing to stretch the definition of "moderate" in order to overlook certain uncomfortable facts?
We've seen this problem most recently in the interactions with Imam Rauf in the swirl of controversy about his mosque project in New York City. Some view Rauf as a moderate go-between who could further legitimate relations -- but others point to his funding sources and refusal to denounce Hamas as a sign the moderate label is questionable.
The Rauf situation inspired the Wall Street Journal to arrange a roundtable of several Muslim figures this week -- but the panel unintentionally served as a perfect example of the kind of strained definition of "moderate" some sources employ when it comes to leading Muslim political figures. In this case, the Journal included Malaysia's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, in the conversation. His statement is worth reading, but it must also be studied with a critical eye:
Skeptics and cynics alike have said that the quest for the moderate Muslim in the 21st century is akin to the search for the Holy Grail. It's not hard to understand why. Terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and the jihadist call for Muslims "to rise up against the oppression of the West" are widespread.
The radical fringe carrying out such actions has sought to dominate the discourse between Islam and the West. In order to do so, they've set out to foment anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. They've also advocated indiscriminate violence as a political strategy. To cap their victory, this abysmal lot uses the cataclysm of 9/11 as a lesson for the so-called enemies of Islam.
To some, Ibrahim is a beloved figure -- he is charming and a capable communicator, who has been subject to malignant political and legal attacks, and has defenders in the United States ranging from Al Gore to Paul Wolfowitz. Yet to read Ibrahim talk of those who "foment... anti-Semitism" for public relations gain is jarring, considering it is exactly the sort of activity he is utilizing to mount his political comeback.
One of the oldest tactics when it comes to relations with the Western world is the art of saying one thing in English, and another in your native language. Ibrahim is canny enough to know that his purposes are best served by keeping his anti-Semitic messages in a form which appeals to the right audience -- in this case, he's invoked the spectre of Jewish influence on more than one occasion. The pattern prompted a letter from B'Nai Brith earlier this year, sent to the State Department and the leaders of Senate and House committees, requesting that U.S. officials cease relations with Ibrahim over his "anti-Jewish and anti-Israel slanders," which include suggesting that Israeli spies are "directly involved in the running of the government," are antagonizing him through the police force, and are organizing a public relations campaign against him.
We would be wise to consider the aims of individuals like Ibrahim, not just accept his words to the American press at face value. I had the opportunity recently to interview Lee Smith, the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations and a columnist for Tablet. He advances a view of American-Muslim relations that is both more sophisticated and more straightforward than the one which ruled in Washington over the past ten years. A key takeaway from his approach to understanding the Muslim world is that we must understand the way that individuals like Ibrahim and Rauf use the American approach to foreign relations to their advantage, and not allow for entanglements that make us lose sight of their real aims.
In any case, it's clear that honest relations with legitimate spokesmen from the Muslim world are paramount as we move closer to a decade removed from the 9/11 attacks. Yet we should have no illusions about the nature of those friendships, and we must reject the idea that figures can get away with saying one thing in their own countries and in their own language while criticizing that same activity in our newspapers and in English. Americans would not tolerate such two-faced activity from our own leaders, nor should we tolerate it from others.Huffington Post