The True Story of Moderate Islam

Ten years after 9/11, our government and most of the media understand as little about Islam as they did before the attack that shook the world. It's clear from the partners they've chosen that "moderate" has been defined as any Muslim group or individual perceived as being remotely helpful in keeping us safe from terrorism.

So eager to start a fresh chapter in U.S.-Muslim relations, they firmly clasped the first Muslim hands extended and forged partnerships out of convenience and fear. What they should have done is seek out partners who believe in our conviction that a nation can be united under God without being governed by a national church or mosque.

Our hastily defined moderates were granted a national stage to correct our perceptions of not only Islam but also ourselves. So they told us tales about Muslim scientific and cultural achievements that surpassed the West during the Middle Ages, how they were first to liberate and empower women, and how Islam is a religion of peace with just a few bad apples. They also told us that to defeat terrorism we must defeat our own "Islamophobia."

To help, they proposed to build a hulking 13-story monument to tolerance two blocks from where the Twin Towers had stood. The mayor of New York City, the state's governor, the country's liberals, and the national media were all convinced this was a splendid idea, and its key sponsor was made a State Department Emissary to the Arab world.  It was called Cordoba House, until some "Islamophobe" somewhere bothered to open an encyclopedia and discover that Cordoba was a city in Spain conquered in the year 711 by Muslims who built a mosque from the ruins of a Christian church.  Millions of us had already assigned it the more American name "Ground Zero Mosque" and started questioning the background of its sponsors.  Mysteriously, donations started drying up and the size and scope of the project was necessarily scaled back, but tolerance prevailed and ground will soon be broken on the less memorably named Park 51.

Sadly, our partners warned, such public resistance to what should have been a global symbol of healing only served to prove we hadn't learned the lesson from 9/11.  What they've always been careful to hide is that they aren't moderate at all. To find a true moderate Muslim, you have to know the full story of modern Islam.

It begins in 1925 (seven years before the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established), when Saudi Wahhabis conquered Mecca and Medina from a rival clan that held those sites for 700 years. They quickly established what remains the official branch of Islam in the kingdom: Wahhabism. Marked by intolerance of all other religions and most other branches of Islam, it's a supremacist ideology couched within an "end justifies the means" movement called Salafism. Salafists, like the late Osama bin Laden, support violent jihad to establish a worldwide Caliphate (Islamic State) governed by Sha'ria (Islamic Law). If Wahhabism represents the political arm of the Islamist movement, Salafism is its army.

The gate to Islam's holiest sites was then literally closed to moderate Islam, especially when it came to a kinder, more mystical understanding of the Holy Qu'ran called Sufism. Sufi leaders in Indonesia at the time sent a delegation to appeal to the Saudi rulers to reconsider and the Saudis refused. In response, they took what was perhaps the first stand against extremism by founding the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1926.

The NU remains the largest independent Islamic organization in the world, and Sufis have remained concentrated in Indonesia since, peacefully co-existing alongside other world religions while defending their society from encroaching Wahhabi extremists. And the NU isn't a small minority of Muslims; its membership is close to 50 million -- about double the entire population of Saudi Arabia. In fact, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country with 306 million of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims.

May marked a new chapter when the NU sent a delegation to Washington, D.C. It was led by Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, deputy chairman of NU's Supreme Council. His first stop was the Heritage Foundation, where he spoke of the difference between moderate Muslims who seek spiritual truth and extremists who seek to build a global Islamic State.

Quoting his lifelong friend, longtime president of the NU and 4th President of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, Bisri said, "The true Islamic state is not to be found in the structure of any government, but rather, in hearts which are open to God and all His creatures." Bisri came bearing the first English translation of The Illusion of an Islamic State, a book he hopes will help us better understand our common enemy and how extremism infiltrates a culture.

Accompanying him and serving as interpreter was American C. Holland Taylor, chairman and CEO of LibforAll Foundation. LibforAll is an international organization co-founded by President Wahid and Taylor in 2003 that supports moderate and progressive Muslims and published The Illusion of an Islamic State.

Bisri explained that the dire threat to Muslims comes not from the West but from the struggle, both physical and ideological, within Islam itself. His take on Islamophobia is quite different from that of the Muslim partners we've come to know. He views it as a natural outgrowth of Muslim violence and believes the way to counter Islamophobia is for Muslims to change and improve their own understanding of Islam to eliminate the ideology of hatred, supremacy, and violence so many of them embrace.

Wahhabi ideology is so hard to fight, he said, because it "isn't 100% wrong, but is wrong in key essentials" in its understanding of the Qur'an. And the Wahhabi belief that anyone who disagrees with its opinions is 100% wrong is a "fundamentally flawed and erroneous" way of looking at life.

Bisri and two other highly revered Muslim scholars authored theological rebuttals of extremist arguments that they hope will change the hearts and minds of those being tempted into violence. In this aim, Illusion is being translated into Arabic and other languages and made available for download in places where merchants are pressured not to carry it.

The book's persuasive impact was credited with thwarting Wahhabi efforts to influence Indonesia's 2009 presidential election, but its impact beyond Indonesia remains to be seen. Secretary of State Clinton already acknowledged on her first official visit there in 2009 that the country is a hotbed of moderation, stating, "If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can co-exist, go to Indonesia." President Obama, who spent four years there as a boy, certainly knows Indonesia as well, but they were too busy formalizing ties with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to personally meet with Bisri and accept a copy of his book. (Incidentally, Saudi Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood are sympathetic partners with a history of cooperation.)

The NU/LibforAll delegation got no further than Obama's security advisors and special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a kind of 57-country Muslim United Nations focused on replacing Israel with Palestine, spreading Shariah, and using its Islamophobia Observatory to monitor the "worrying trend" of anti-Muslim bias worldwide.

As Nina Shea of National Review Online reported in July:

"...the administration is taking the lead in an international effort to 'implement' a U.N. resolution against religious 'stereotyping,' specifically as applied to Islam. Many OIC members, including Saudi Arabia, police private speech through Islamic blasphemy laws, which the OIC would like to see applied universally and has succeeded in Western Europe, which has laws against religious hate speech."

Though a member country, "Indonesia and the NU have little influence in the OIC" according to Taylor. In fact, President Wahid (who passed away in 2009) addressed the dangers and ultimate folly of blasphemy laws in his article God Needs No Defense:

"Those who claim to defend God, Islam or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves, or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes...sanctions against freedom of religious inquiry and expression act to halt the developmental process of religious understanding dead in its tracks...We can see this process at work in attempts by the OIC, the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Council on Human Rights to restrict freedom of expression and institute a legally-binding global ban on any perceived criticism of Islam...'"

The NU's position is that restoring tolerance at Islam's two holiest sites is critical to the future of Islam and humanity, and that America's "entrenchment" with the Saudi government is an obstacle where it could be a force for change. According to Taylor, this means "instead of uncritically supporting the Saudis, the U.S. should encourage and pressure them to allow all streams of Islam to worship and teach freely in those cities."

That would surely test relations with our biggest Muslim partner, but it may also be the only way to show we've finally learned a lesson from 9/11.

Thanks to the efforts of Bisri and LibforAll, we now have the full story of modern Islam.

Bisri's message from the NU was "we will do everything that is within our ability, and will work with everyone who loves humanity and loves peace. Whatever may come...we will do everything we can to overthrow this threat to humanity."

Maybe it's time we embrace a new partner.

The author extends a warm thanks and appreciation to Holland Taylor for his kind help in expanding on the views of Mr. Bisri and the NU as they relate to this article.

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