A new group of American Muslims has declared itself committed to moderation, patriotism, and peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims. It’s called the Center for Islamic Pluralism, an organization made up of both American-born and immigrant Muslims, lifelong Muslims and converts. If this organization succeeds in being what it has set out to be, it will fill a vacuum many Americans have felt keenly since 9/11: it will be a real counterweight in the Islamic community to jihadist radicalism and fanaticism.
In its inaugural press release the CIP declared its intention to “promote moderate Islam in the U.S. and globally; educate the American public, media, and government about moderate Islam; oppose the influence of militant Islam in the United States and abroad; [and] promote authentic and constructive interfaith dialogue between Muslims and adherents of other faiths.”
“We define ‘moderate Islam’ in the American context,” the initial press release continued, “as an Islam that finds its proper and equal place as one among the many religions represented in America, with rights neither greater nor lesser than any other√?¬Ę√Ę‚??¬¨ ¬¶. The CIP emphasizes pluralism to signal that it believes not in the tolerance of non-Muslims, but in their true acceptance.”
The CIP’s executive director, the Muslim convert and journalist Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, explained that “dialogue is the foundation of our activity.”
If a group like the CIP cannot gain a wide following among Muslims in America, the implication for the actual sentiments and loyalties of American Muslims are ominous. But if the CIP doesn’t follow through on its commitment to dialogue, its success is in doubt and its utility suspect. Accordingly, it is devoutly to be wished that the organization clear up a few important matters at the outset.
For instance, Schwartz declares that the “Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad√?¬Ę√Ę‚??¬¨ ¬¶command us to moderation; we can do no less than to fulfill these high responsibilities in that spirit.” This is in line with an observation by his fellow CIP founder, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, who asserts that “total freedom of opinion is a principle that was assured by Islam since it emerged, and applied by Muhammad.” These statements suggest that if Muslims return to true adherence to the Koran and Muhammad’s example, violent jihadist Islam will disappear.
However, the same day that the CIP issued its statement, an Al-Qaeda group in Iraq declared that “terrorizing enemies of Allah is our faith and religion, which is taught to us by our Qur’an.” And the same day the Saudi Wahhabis, whom the CIP is determined to oppose, touted Muhammad as “the perfect role model in all situations.” Of course, there are hundreds of contemporary examples of jihad terrorists pointing to the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad to justify violence.
So how does the CIP intend to distinguish its Muhammad from the Wahhabi version? How will the organization respond to jihad terrorists when they invoke Muhammad and the Koran? This is an all-important question, for on its answer will hang or fall the mission of the CIP itself: if the group cannot convince Muslims to follow it, rejecting jihadist theology, it will have failed. But it cannot do any such convincing without a coherent Islamic theology that not only rivals the jihadist version, but refutes it.
Schwartz has in the past decried those who “demand a revision of the Muslim holy book, Qur’an,” and has asserted that “Islam needs no Reformation, merely to return to its long-established tradition: pluralistic, spiritual, and committed to the protection and refinement of its civilizational heritage.” That makes all the more urgent a clear delineation of its theological stance as distinct from that of the jihadists who use the same sources so effectively.
Questions like these have led one of the seven current members of the CIP, Tashbih Sayyid, publisher of Muslim World Today, to reconsider his role in the organization. Sayyid explained to me: “If Schwartz believes that there is nothing wrong with Muslim theology, I cannot be part of this group√?¬Ę√Ę‚??¬¨ ¬¶.My whole life is devoted to one end: to make the Muslims understand that their theology needs to be reformed and reinterpreted. Anybody who thinks that there’s nothing wrong with their theology is either a blind person or an apologist.”
Sayyid continued: “There are many things in Muslim Scripture that need to be reshaped and reframed and reinterpreted, so that they cannot be used by terrorists to justify homicide bombings and honor killings.”
If the CIP is to fulfill its great promise, it will face this great necessity honestly, and act accordingly.