Landmark Senate Hearing on Islamists- Insights into Explaining Government Behavior Towards Muslims in the US and Abroad- Part I-

Puzzling Reality

A few years ago I worked for an Islamic charity, Life for Relief and Development (LIFE). LIFE wanted to bring national and international attention to the crisis facing Muslim charities in the aftermath of 9/11. LIFE and Interaction, a major umbrella organization for non- governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in relief work co-sponsored a forum at Interaction's annual conference dedicated to the issues facing the Muslim charity sector. LIFE retained an Arab American interlocutor to handle its contacts with the government. LIFE gave the interlocutor a list of Muslim charities in the Arab and/or Muslim world and asked her to check the list with the government and help with the visa issue. It turned out the government had a problem with about all of them. The government seemed to have a problem with all of them.. A puzzling reality until one reviews the testimonies at the Senate hearing entitled "[T]he Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It," held on July 10 2008 before the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs headed by none other big- time Israel supporter Senator Joe Lieberman.

Listening to those Who Validate Islamophobia: The Media Focuses on Hysterical Baran over Reasonable Mandaville

One of the witnesses before the Committee is Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University. Not much media attention was given to Mandaville's testimony. The witness whose testimony got the most attention and coverage is that of "observant Muslim" Turkish- born Zeyno Baran, wife of US diplomat Mathew Bryza. Baran's native Turkey has adopted European secularism that is anti religion in a most vulgar form. Ms Baran provided an "observant Muslim" cover for waging a war against all the Islamists painting them all as the enemy who wants to "impose Sharia law." As an "observant Muslim" making blanket accusations against all non secular activist Muslims she received the bulk of media coverage. The Christian Action Network dedicated 18 lines to her testimony versus the 4 lines given to Mandaville's. Surprisingly, the Congressional Quarterly (CQ) Newsletter also dedicated the bulk of its coverage of the hearing to the spread of the hell and brimstones testimony of Baran. Baran was in effect screaming the Muslim Brotherhood is here the Muslim Brotherhood is here and they want to impose Shariah law on the US.

Islamism is not a Monolith: Mandaville's Case for Engagement

Mandaville advocates that the US engage the nonviolent Islamists who constitute the overwhelming majority of the world's Islamists. Mandaville told the Senate that there is "a diverse universe of contemporary Islamic political thought and activism" and that "there are various manifestations of Islamism-violent and nonviolent. "Just as Islam cannot be said to be a monolith, the same goes for Islamism as an ideological project" he added. While other speakers such as Baran blamed violence unfairly but squarely on Islamism, Mandaville stated that there is "no definitive determination whether Islamism as a political ideology fosters or hinders violent extremism."

The testimony Mandaville gave before the Committee resonates with an article he wrote in CTC Sentinel published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point entitled "Engaging Islamists in the West" June 2008 volume 1, issue. It is helpful to go back to that article to put his testimony in its proper context. Mandaville wrote:

"In recent years , US national security policy orthodoxy has deemed it too far "out of the box" to suggest that Islamist groups might have a role to play in countering terrorist threats. According to this reasoning, even if movements such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates in other countries have renounced violence or are not actively involved in fostering militancy, they still at some level, have common ideological foundations with groups such as al-Qaida."
Islamism and Violence: The Relationship Between Ideas and Behavior
In reality, the general tone and name of the session and the politics of its leadership indicate that the premise is that Islamism fosters violence.- that Islamism as an idea breeds violence. Mandaville responds: "While ideas are undoubtedly important, they will only drive an individual to act if articulated in terms that resonate with and seem to provide solutions that can address a person's own life circumstances and needs. In this regard I believe that the sociological and psychological contextualization of Islamist ideology holds the key to understanding the conditions under which it potentially poses a violent threat."

Slouching Towards a "Grievance Base"

Mandaville compares favorably the situation of American Muslims to British Muslims: "In the case of the UK, the experience of Muslims in that country as being a community subjected historically to discrimination and, more recently, singled out and defined in terms of the threat it potentially poses to security has provided a tangible basis on which to graft violent Islamist ideology. Heretofore, such a "grievance base" has been largely absent among Muslims in the United States. Should Muslims in this country begin to feel more markedly singled out and/or defined in terms of terrorism and threats to national security, the easier it may be for some among them to understand the worldview and vision of Islamic extremism as something that addresses their life circumstances." There is a real threat that with the extremists and bigots such as Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer campaign of hate, along with government targeting of institutions run by Islamists or individuals sympathetic to Islamism, we are seeing, slowly but surely, the manufacturing of a "grievance base" were none has existed before.

American Islam: The House the Muslim Activist Built

It is naïve to think that institutions such as Muslim charities that are run by American Islamists or individuals sympathetic to Islamism can be targeted for selective prosecution/persecution with this action not contributing to the creation of a "grievance base" even among those who are Muslims in the most marginal and superficial sense. The real threat that Mandaville does not highlight is that an open season on the Islamists and those sympathetic to them will play out as a war on Islam itself in the United States. There is no doubt about this. It is a fact that individual Muslims in the US enjoy rights and freedoms just like every other citizen. However, by targeting the Islamists and those sympathetic to them in the US the government in effect is waging a war on the organized American Muslim presence. The segment of our population that is wantonly designated as the enemy is the force behind the institutions that make us (practicing Muslims, secular Muslims, lapsed Muslims, etc.) a community- the mosques, the centers, and the charities. The Rand Corporation has advocated government engagement of anyone but the Islamists: liberal Muslims, seculars, and the neo-Sufis. But these groups, as Mandaville points out have insignificant grassroots following, and worse, little credibility in the broad Muslim community. The activist Muslims, call them Islamists if you will, whether they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or are sympathetic to its ideology, have built the institutions of the organized American Muslim presence. Therefore, irresponsibly and arrogantly tagging all American Islamists as the enemy within presents a real threat that the American institutional Muslim presence itself is at risk.

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