EVERETT, Wash. — Where Islam is discussed, controversy follows.
Though the 9/11 attacks by Islamic extremists are almost 10 years past and al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden is dead, the American debate over Islam is still raging, as evidenced by numerous conflicts over public events around the country.
The battles — a kind of holy war for American hearts and minds — feature a changing cast of players, but they typically array some of the dozens of groups dedicated to exposing the threat of radical Islam in the U.S. against dozens of others established to protect the rights of Muslim Americans and defend their religion as peaceful.
Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the clashes over Islam point to two powerful prevailing currents.
“One trend is heightened alarm and suspicion on the part of people concerned about domestic security,” he said. “The other trend is increased assertiveness and political activism on the part of Muslim Americans.”
At a national level, the conflict played out in controversial congressional hearings in April, which featured testimony from witnesses warning of a threat posed by Islamic radicals within the United States. Meanwhile Muslim leaders and civil rights groups — who were largely excluded from the proceedings — held press briefings comparing the hearings to red-baiting of the McCarthy era.
War of words, waged on small battlefields
But more often they unfold on smaller battlefields. Recent examples include:
· In Detroit, the city transit system is locked in a legal struggle with groups who sought to use advertising space on the sides of buses for controversial messages on “honor killings” of Muslim women. After the city rejected the ads as too political, the groups behind the ads — Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative — sued the city, and won. Detroit is appealing.
· In Temecula, Calif., a group called Citizens Concerned about the First Amendment this month held a protest outside the local high school, where they handed out fliers that labeled the teaching of Islam in the school’s social studies program as “brainwashing.” The fliers offered links to national anti-Islam groups.
· In Texas, the board of education passed a resolution last September to reject the purchase of textbooks that include “pro-Islamic, anti-Christian half-truths and selective disinformation.” The debate is expected to resurface with the review of new textbooks this year.
· At least 20 states are considering “anti-Shariah” measures, which in various ways prohibit the courts from considering Islamic law in their decisions. Muslim advocates say the measures are legal gibberish that promote fear and hatred, while drafters portray them as a bulwark against creeping Islamization.
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No one is immune from the theological tug-of-war, as administrators learned last week at a small Washington community college sandwiched between the Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains that decided to run a special lecture series called “Islam in America.”
Since it launched the series in January, Everett Community College has been battered by forces far beyond its normally quiet campus.
“I knew it would be controversial, but I thought it was going to be more internal,” said Craig Lewis, dean of communications and humanities at the school. “I had no idea we were going to get national attention.”
‘The truth… is ugly’
The talk that inspired the most recent protest at Everett Community College was a May 5 appearance by Raymond Ibrahim, who works for the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank in Philadelphia. Ibrahim, an Egyptian American of Coptic Christian upbringing, holds that there can be no such thing as a “moderate” Islam. If Muslims adhere to the Quran, he said, they are compelled to engage in jihad or “struggle”— by persuasion, deceit or violence, if necessary — so Islam can triumph.
“To a Muslim, jihad means a certain kind of struggle — spreading and empowering Islam against non-Muslims,” Ibrahim told students and local residents who crowded the lecture hall. “Peace with non-Muslims is a provisional state only.”
Ibrahim invoked a notion from Islamic theology called “taqiyya,” which allows Muslims to lie in certain circumstances. Ibrahim argued that taqiyya is broadly used by apparently moderate Muslims whose real aim is to convert and control others.
When a member of the audience asked Ibrahim why most Islamic scholars in the United States condemned al-Qaida, he pointed to taqiyya. “It’s strategic. … It is a deception that is allowed by Islam.”
Ibrahim said he had come by his knowledge through a precise reading of the Quran and other Arabic sources.