White House to liberal-minded Muslims: drop dead

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House officials are boosting the visibility and clout of Islamic revivalist groups in the United States, and are sidelining the growing network of liberal-minded, modern American Muslims.

“We don’t have any contacts in the administration,” said Avi Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, based in Los Angeles. “The Canadian government is much more accessible,” she said.

“We’re not invited” to take part in administration meetings, said Zuhdi Jasser, the Syrian-born president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, based in Phoenix, Ariz. His group, which boasts on its website it is motivated by “a love for America and a love of our faith of Islam,” has been consulted by the State Department‘s Muslim outreach office, but domestic agencies have only reached out to the well-funded and media-magnified Islamist groups that seek to revive Islamic political power, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, he said.

Administration officials declined to explain why they have not reached out to groups of liberal-minded Muslims. “Federal Departments and Agencies engage with a wide variety of Muslim organizations and groups throughout the country, often through open forums and meetings and we have also consulted a wide variety of academics and researchers about the views of Muslims in America,” according to a March 8 statement from White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro.

Among the Muslim groups with the greatest access to the White House are MPAC, based in Los Angeles, and the Islamic Society of North America, based in Plainfield, Ind. MPAC is an advocacy group with few members, and ISNA is a umbrella group for many groups and mosques that practice orthodox Islam, which mandates the subordination of democratic governments to Islamic rules.

On March 6, for example, Denis McDonough, a White House deputy national security advisor, delivered a speech in Northern Virginia at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), where he said that “when it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in the United States, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.”

Yet the head cleric at the mosque, Mohamed Magid, is also president of the ISNA, which was founded by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the United States, and which has cooperated with other brotherhood-affiliated groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A federal judge in July 2009 concluded that CAIR has associations with Hamas, which is both an Islamist terror group and an affiliate of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2002, FBI officials raided the ADAMS center in a search for evidence that the mosque’s leaders were linked to jihadi terrorism, and in October 2010, one of the mosque’s attendees, Farooque Ahmed, was arrested because of evidence that he was preparing to explode bombs in local metro stations. The mosque also segregates women to the back of the mosque during daily prayer.

In a short statement prior to McDonough’s speech, Magid condemned “violent extremism,” and said the McDonough speech was made possible by two White House officials, Paul Monteiro, associate director White House Office of Public Engagement, and Rashad Husain, Obama’s envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The conference is an political alliance of 56 Muslim-dominated states.

However, when asked if “violent extremism” means jihad, mosque spokesman Rizwan Jaka said “violent extremism is taking someone’s innocent life.” The mosque works with the FBI to make it easier for local Muslims to warn of problems he said, adding that he believed a local Muslim — not the mosque’s leaders — alerted the police to Ahmed’s plans.

The administration’s cooperation with Islamic revivalist groups hinders the growth in the United States of a Western-style Islam that rejects jihadi violence against non-Muslims, is reconciled to peaceful cooperation with secular governments and also supports sexual equality, said liberal Muslims.

With more support from American society, Islamic traditions and laws can be reformed to grant equality to women and gays, to accept science and to work against global warming, said Zonneveld. But administration officials prefer to work with the more visible and better funded revivalist groups, partly because those groups have more influence in majority-Muslim countries, she said. “It’s very frustrating,” she said.

“There’s clearly a large degree of ignorance, and people believe the [U.S.-based] Islamists’ rhetoric…about democracy and equality,” said Zeyno Baran, a liberal-minded Muslim, an author and a former staffer at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. She’s temporarily living in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country sandwiched between Turkey, Russia and Iran. “It is ridiculous to work with Islamists [linked to the brotherhood because] Islamism and democracy are contradictory terms,” she said.

Administration officials are taking “the lowest hanging-fruit” and are not seeking representatives of reformist Muslims in America with a liberal bent, said Jasser. Officials “believe these [revivalist] groups represent all of the Muslim community,” when they only represent a minority of Muslims, Jasser said.

According to an in-depth 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of Muslims in the United States say they go to a mosque at least weekly, and only 38 percent say they wear the hijab hair-covering that is normal among attendees at revivalists’ meetings and mosque services. “If American Muslims are similar to Christians, what they say in surveys is apt to be an overstatement” of their actual religious practice, Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research said March 8.

Jasser’s group has been promoted by Republican legislators, including New York Republican Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, which is holding hearings into jihadi recruitment in the United States. The hearings are sharply opposed by revivalist groups such as CAIR.

By putting the brotherhood’s groups at the center of their outreach, administration officials are giving them a leading role in U.S. politics, and are stereotyping all Muslims as revivalists, said Jasser and Zonneveld. The evidence, said Jasser, suggests that officials’ “don’t care about the impact on [Islamic] reform and [U.S.] national security.”