The recent exclusion of Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, and Professor Tariq Ramadan from the United States sends a chilling message to the Muslim community in the West. These are two of Europe’s most articulate voices for Muslim integration into Western societies. Both men advocate that Muslims in America and Europe can be both true to their faith and model citizens of their countries without compromising either part of their identity.
So, why is our government scared of these two accomplished men? The answer may lie in the increasing hostility toward mainstream Islam that has been spread by many pundits on the far right. On talk radio and in commentaries, these anti-Muslim personalities label mainstream Muslim organizations as “Wahabi” and “extremist,” making no distinction between Muslims that want to practice their faith and those that misuse Islam for diabolical ends.
The constant slander of national Muslim organizations is baseless and demonstrates an ulterior motive present on the part of Islam’s critics. If a Western Muslim believes in Islam and makes an effort to educate others about its authentic teachings, such a person is a radical to the Daniel Pipes and Michael Savages of the world. What’s disturbing is that the bigotry of such people has permeated many areas of our government including the Department of Homeland Security.
There is a real danger in attempting to eradicate the voices of mainstream Islam in America. Polarizing Muslims into a secular, moderate camp and religious, extremist camp risks bringing Europe’s problem with Muslims into the United States. Due to Europe’s overall discomfort with immigration and her inability to embrace Muslims as full members of society, the Muslim community in Europe has had considerable difficulty integrating into their countries of residence. Riots have taken place at least once in Spain, Germany, Britain, and France between Muslims and locals.
Although in a minority, extremist preachers in Britain prevail in ways unimaginable here. Radical clerics like Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza al-Masri have been known to encourage British Muslims to fight for the overthrow of their own government. The influence of these zealots coupled with feelings of isolation present amongst many British Muslims has resulted in the spread of militant views.
A poll conducted by the BBC in December of 2003, found that 17% of British Muslims believe that the tragedy of 9-11 was justified with 8% even supporting al-Qaeda like attacks on Britain. Contrary to the extremist leaders that fuel such hate, Yusuf Islam has been one of the most eloquent voices of reason and moderation within the Muslim community in Britain. While extremists have celebrated the tragedy of 9-11, Mr. Islam called the attacks the result of “blind, irreligious hatred” and contributed many of his royalties to 9-11 family funds.
In France, most Muslims have been isolated into ghettos often resulting in a social stratification that prevents French Muslims from truly identifying with their country of residence. Regrettably, disenchanted North African youth in France have at times taken part in acts of anti-Semitism in reaction to Israeli attacks against Palestinians. Through his sermons and writings, Mr. Ramadan preaches against this type of intolerance and encourages his fellow countrymen to become full members of French society while retaining their Islamic identity. His tremendous contribution to Western Muslim scholarship resulted in Time magazine placing him on a list of the 21st century’s top 100 innovators.
Fortunately, the problems endemic in Britain and France are virtually nonexistent in the United States for a couple of reasons. Americans have a tradition of accepting immigrants into the mainstream in ways not present in Europe. Furthermore, nearly half of the American Muslim population is either African-American and/or native born; such people simply do not accept being considered outsiders in America. It’s people such as Mr. Islam and Mr. Ramadan that should be welcomed into this country to ensure that American Muslims continue to feel no conflict between American ideals and Islamic precepts.
We must not permit polemicists who wish to marginalize the Muslim community to dictate our immigration policy. Encouraging the presence of moderate Western Muslims such as Yusuf Islam and Tariq Ramadan is a must during our current times. There is a dearth of Muslim leaders in America that can effectively relate to a Western audience. Preventing the American Muslim community from access to leaders like Mr. Islam and Mr. Ramadan has the potential of allowing extremists to fill the vacuum.
Umar Abdur-Rahman is the Philadelphia spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) headquartered in Washington, D.C.