InsightSeptember October 2005

American Muslims and the Rising Tide of Exclusivism

Louay Safi

Muslim and Western societies have become increasingly polarized around religious affiliations, and radical voices and views are gradually becoming more dominant. The dangerous polarization and radicalization threaten world peace and could seriously undermine political freedom in the West, and complicates the efforts to enhance political freedom in Muslim societies. This trend is driven by the neoconservative in the Western societies and radical Islamic movements in Muslim countries.

American Muslims are well positioned to expose the deceptions of power hungry unilateralists, and bridge the divide between Muslim and Western countries. American Muslims should equally reject the bigoted spirit of exclusivist ideologies that use religion in all its forms as a weapon for achieving political supremacy, and demonize and dehumanize political opponents. American Muslims should take a firm and resolute stance against individuals and groups that use violence and terror against civilians in the name of Islam, and condemn all campaigns of terrorism by militant Islamic groups like al-Qaeda, as they do condemn those who justify violence and aggression against Muslims in the name of biblical prophecies and religious supremacy.

The Neoconservative and the Drive to Dominance

The neoconservatives consist of individuals and groups who share belief in the moral superiority of America, and call for the use of US military might to promote US values and interests.[1] The original neoconservatives were a small group of mostly Jewish liberal intellectuals who, in the 1960s and 70s, grew disenchanted with what they saw as the American left’s reluctance to spend adequately on defense.

The neoconservatives’ embrace of preemption and unilateralism is articulated in the foreign policy developed by the Bush administration known as the Doctrine of Military Preeminence, also referred to as the Bush Doctrine:

·         The new policy stresses the need to promote democracy and freedom in all regions of the world, and insisted, as Bush stated at West Point, that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves — safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life.”

·         The policy made it clear that the US intends to take actions as necessary to continue its status as the world’s sole military superpower. As Bush put it: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge.”

·         The policy further insisted that the US has the right to pursue unilateral military action when acceptable multi-lateral solutions cannot be found.

Neoconservatives are unilateralist and have little interest, if any, in the international law and organizations. In an article published in 2002 the Foreign Affairs journal, John Bolton, Assistant Secretary at the State Department and Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute wrote: “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so — because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.” The utter disdain to international law shared by neo-conservatives also extends to the organization established to facilitate its development and administration: The United Nation. Richard Perle, the acclaimed architect of the Iraq War expressed jubilation to see the United States defying the United Nations by unilaterally declaring war on Iraq on the pages of The Guardians in the spring of 2003 in an article, appropriately entitled “Thank God for the death of the UN” (Friday, March 21, 2003).

American Muslims in the Lime Light

Neoconservatives tend to view Islam as a problematic aspect of modern society, and their negative attitude is frequently aggressive and condescending. The most blatant attack on American Muslim organizations was made by Frank J. Gaffney Jr., the president of the Center for Security Policy.  In an article published in the FrontPage Magazine under the title “The Troubling Influence,” Gaffney accused mainstream Muslim organizations and leaders of acting against US interests and of serving as a fifth column in the country. National Muslim organizations figured high in his attacks.

Islam as a social organization and a religious community has made new inroads into American public life over the last few decades. A host of Islamic centers, schools, and national organizations have made local and international impacts. The impacts American Muslims made generated positive responses, and many people of other faiths developed positive relationships with their fellow Muslims, having had the opportunity to interact with them as neighbors, coworkers, volunteers, students, teachers, and concerned citizens. Muslims have also become active politically, using their voting power to influence issues and events.

The rapid increase of Muslim numbers and the growing influence of Muslim individuals and organizations have alarmed few small but powerful groups within the American political spectrum. The Religious Right and supporters of Israel’s Likud party coalesced to disfranchise Muslims and stop the growth of Islam in the United States. These ultra conservative groups embarked on an anti-Islam campaign that was started in the mid-nineties, and intensified after 9/11. Taking advantage of the misguided and violent acts of Muslim extremists, and of the rampant misunderstanding of Islam in the West, these groups have made wild claims and unfounded allegations against Islam and Muslims.

While the efforts and designs of Islam’s detractors present an immediate and clear challenge, the true challenge American Muslims face comes from within. It comes from the cultural quietism—even fatalism—that prevent many Muslim communities from providing an adequate response to happenings that effect their well-being and the future of their children. It comes from the weakness of community spirit, the rivalry and internal frictions, and wasteful competition that prevent meaningful cooperation. It also results from the lack of articulate vision shared by Muslims, and the failure to understand the context in which American Muslims live, and the historical mission they must fulfill.

The real challenge for American Muslims lies, therefore, in articulating their values and faith, and developing the necessary institutions and community structures for the realization of their mission. The challenge is to express Islamic principles of moral integrity, justice, compassion, cooperation, and respect of religious diversity in ways that can help relate those values to the issues and concerns of the time.

The Intellectual and Cultural Roots of Modernist Imposition

Modern political cultures and institutions are prone to imposing the social morality of the dominant political groups on the rest of society. The moralizing role of state was confined early on to national societies, but with the expansion of modernist ideas and states, there is an increased demand to impose the social morality of modernist societies on the rest of the world. The moralizing role of the state is premised on two basic notions: The superiority of modern norms and the irrelevance of culture to human values and social institutions. This belief in the absolute validity of modern norms and the right of the modern state to impose these norms on non-Western societies is evident to the drive to equate human rights and Western norms.

Two main positions can be clearly distinguished: absolute universalism and absolute relativism.  The former holds that culture is irrelevant to the moral validity of human rights, while the latter insists that culture is the only source of moral validity.[2] Both positions fail to capture the full scope of the intercourse between culture and universal values, and both have been used to advance self-serving interests.

Absolute moral universalism is oblivious to the fact that moral values and legal systems are the outcome of a long rationalization and socialization process rooted in the cultural experience of societies.  Practically, absolute universalism is often used by hegemonic cultures for imposing their morality on others. Absolute cultural relativism is often advanced by authoritarian regimes to shut off external criticism of the excessive use of power to silencing internal opposition.

The radicalism of the two positions summarized above can be avoided by recognizing that for legal reform to succeed, it must coincide with cultural reform.  That is, one must recognize that culture is the only mediating milieu for restructuring individual and social consciousness so as to make them receptive to, and supportive of, international human rights.  Yet even when cultural reform results in acknowledging the universal validity of human rights, a reasonable degree of cultural relativism must be allowed so the universal principles are interpreted from within the specific socio-political context of society, and are brought to bear on the particular circumstances of the various communities.[3]

Absolute universalism ignores the essential role played by culture for the moral development of the individual is detrimental for both the dominant cosmopolitan culture, and the indigenous cultures it intends to reform.

The devastating effects of the experimentations undertaken in Australia, Canada, and the United States to assimilate the aborigines illustrate the impossibility of achieving moral development apart from the cultural tradition to which an individual belong.  They also illustrate the arrogance of the developmentalist outlook that equates moral superiority with economic and technological advancement.

The devastating consequences of absolute universalism advocated by numerous human rights scholars is not limited to non-Western traditions, but extend to the tradition of modernity itself.  That is, by attempting to globalize western culture in the name of international human rights, the West runs the risk of preventing, or at least delaying, the development of alternative cultural forms which could enrich the culture of modernity itself, and help it overcome some of the acute problems it currently confronts, including the problem of “normative blindness”.  It seems, though, that for the latter problem to be overcome, a major reform in the dominant western schools of jurisprudence is needed.  As Richard Falk notes, neither in positivist nor in naturalist jurisprudence “does culture enter into the deliberative process of interpreting the meaning, justifying the applicability, and working for the implementation of human rights.”[4]

Proponents of absolute universalism premise their arguments on either of the following two presuppositions: (1) that the notion of culture ― i.e. a normative system supported by a set of values and beliefs commonly accepted by a group of people ― is irrelevant to the debate on the meaning and desirability of human rights, or (2) that human rights are compatible with a set of moral values commonly shared by all cultures. The first premise is erroneous, and contends that for the common values to be universally valid, a non-hegemonic cross-cultural dialogue must take place among representatives of various moral communities.

Scholars who deny the relevance of culture to the human rights debate usually favor a unilinear view of history that equates moral with technical superiority.  According to this view, human cultures form a continuum in which primitive cultures represent one extreme while modern culture represents the other.  Primitive cultures are seen to be lacking not only in technology, but in morality as well.  Primitive cultures are described as barbaric and savage, while modern culture is seen as refined and civilized.  History, from a unilinear viewpoint, is nothing but the movement from the primitive to the modern which forms the end of history.[5]  The logical conclusion of the conception of history as modernization is that modern culture is the measure of all cultures.  The problem with this conception, though, is that it fails to account for important historical events.  The unilinear conception of history fails, for instance, to explain why the European culture was more vibrant and developed ― politically, philosophically, and artistically ― during the Roman civilization than in medieval times.  From the modernization perspective, culture is not relevant to the debate on human rights because there is nothing for modern culture to learn from other cultures.  Modern culture should set the standards for both moral and technical action, and then pass them on to less developed cultures.

The Creative Mission of American Muslims

Muslim presence is the US as a growing and vibrant community is quite recent, and it is still too early to tell the direction to which this almost unprecedented experimentation is going. But regardless of that direction, the US provides a free, relatively speaking, environment for Islam to interact with modern society.

And here lies the tremendous responsibility, and possibly the historical meaning, of Muslim Americans. The American Muslim community’s mission is twofold: (1) to reconcile modern practices and institutions with Islamic values and beliefs; and (2) reconciling modern culture so as to make it more open to culture diversity worldwide.

In the last two or three decades, Muslim Americans displayed a great energy and marked ability to build communities and to reassert their Islamic commitments and identities. The vibrancy of the Muslim American community is manifested in the many Islamic centers, schools, and national organizations developed over the last two decades. In many ways those efforts reflect a marked ability to adapt and catch up with the vibrant American society.

September 11 tragedy came to complicate the life of Muslims in the West, but also to bring Muslim Americans closer to achieving their historical role. September 11 put American Muslims in the spotlight, and pushed them to the heart of evolution of world history. Muslim Americans no more afford to speak to themselves or to operate in the splendid isolation of the past three decades.

American Muslims are faced with tremendous challenges but we also have unparalleled opportunities. We have the opportunity to give Islam a new expression, suitable to our age that it had never had in recent years. We have also the opportunity to rescue modern society of its current predicaments.

Islamic traditionalism permeates our practices and thinking. Many of our customs and social habits are the continuation of historical practices. The core of the Islamic message consists of universal values and principles, as well as basic concepts and beliefs: justice, compassion, honesty, cooperation, equal dignity of human beings, respect for the religious and moral freedom of others, etc. Those values are abstract notions that can function only when they are given a specific interpretation. All interpretation are historically bound because they are provided by historically bound human beings.

Today, many of the social, economic, and political ideas that are learnt from works are not suited for today and future society, because these ideas dealt with historical situations that were particular to past generations of Muslims.

At the same time we live in a modern society that emerged, and have been greatly influence by the particular historical experience. At the heart of this experience is the process of secularization.

In ancient times, the secular and religious worlds were kept apart and thus operated under markedly different rules. The secular world adhered to the paradigm of power, in which domination and control are intrinsic values and effectiveness served as an overarching criterion. The most eloquent expression of the purely secular rationale was captured in Machiavelli’s The Prince. “The end justifies the means” was the guiding principle of the secular world.

The religious world was a world of sheer spirituality and utter goodness, one completely divorced from the secular world. Religious people were expected to eschew and shun secular injustice and corruption, avoid politics and remain aloof from the state, instead of confronting and overcoming such developments. The uneasy coexistence of the secular and religious, and their utter separation, is best captured in St. Augustine’s The City of God. As one reads his attempt to isolate the “city of man” from the “city of God,” one is compelled to conclude that the two can never intersect, and that the latter can only be experienced in a heavenly, rather than an earthly, mode of existence.

These two worlds were brought into a remarkable harmony for the first time under the principles of Islam. It was in the state of Medina that we first encounter a clear example of a polity where universally proclaimed moral values formed the criteria of political judgment. Political leaders and statesmen were expected to recognize not only the value of efficiency, but also the values of justice, dignity, equality, and freedom. This important transformation was observed by Hegel (1770-1831), a leading European philosopher of history. In his Philosophy of History [New York: Dove Publications, 1956], Hegel recognized that the unity between the secular and spiritual took place in Islamic society and civilization long before it did so in the modern West:

We must therefore regard [the reconciliation between the secular and spiritual] as commencing rather in the enormous contrast between the spiritual, religious principles, and the barbarian Real World. For spirit as the consciousness of an inner world is, at the commencement, itself still in an abstract form. All that is secular is consequently given over to rudeness and capricious violence. The Mohammedan principle, the enlightenment of the oriental world, is the first to contravene this barbarism and caprice. We find it developing itself later and more rapidly than Christianity; for the latter needed eight centuries to grow up into a political form.[6]

The modern West followed the example of the historical Islamic world in demanding that holders of political power operate under a set of moral rules. But as the modern West harmonized the secular and religious only nationally, the international realm was free to operate under the dynamics of power politics and secular rudeness. This failure was a source for the senseless violence that claimed well over 100 million war victims in the twentieth century, including over 80 million in two world wars. Recognizing the danger of keeping international politics under a purely secular evaluation, the United States led the effort that culminated in formalizing international law and creating the United Nations after World War II. Yet this effort was effectively undermined and compromised by political realists who enjoyed a disproportionate sway over American foreign policy and who were always ready to justify American violations of international covenants and treaties in the name of national security.

Ironically, contemporary Muslim societies have exceeded all others in decoupling the secular and the religious and now find themselves entangled in a crisis of legitimacy. Many Muslim regimes operate outside the realm of moral correctness and follow only to the logic of power politics. Even more alarming is that this decoupling has reached deep into religiously inspired movements, which seem to succumb to the logic of power and are ready to employ amoral – even immoral – strategies in their fight against political corruption and oppression.

The decoupling of the secular and religio-moral spheres and the rise of political rudeness in western democracy should be a source of concern. The strengthening of ultra-nationalist sentiments in Austria, Germany, and most recently in France, and the return of religious and ethnic profiling in the United States in the wake of September 11, are quite disturbing trends and point to a process of secular-moral decoupling.

It is worth noting that this process advances despite the religious reassertion occurring throughout the world. This is because the coupling and decoupling of the secular and the religious must be judged by whether moral values limit individual and collective behavior, and whether a profound commitment to moral principles restrains the political actions of social groups and group leaders. An exclusivist religious community that permits rudeness and capricious violence outside ethnic and religious bonds can be as brutal as – or even more brutal than – groups purely defined on the basis of secular criteria.

That has led to the resurgence of religion and its encroachment of the public sphere. But the brand of religiosity we hear expressed in the public sphere is the bigoted and divisive one the remind us of that prevailed in the pre-modern West. The recent attacks by Evangelical ministers, like of Robertson and Falwell, is indicative of the type of the political desecularization we are facing. It is evident the attacks are political in nature and are a prelude to violation of Muslim rights and to violence.

Muslims can provide an alternative model of society in which religion is reconciled with the modern society. In so doing, Muslim can provide new vision of how Islam can be lived in modern society to the full extent, and how religion can be reconciled with social living without relapsing into the medieval way of life.

But for that to happen Muslims need to meet two conditions. They need to liberate themselves from traditionalism by deepening the commitment to the universal values of Islam. And they need to forge ahead with a lot of courage and confidence that the Islam they love and embrace has a lot to offer to future humanity.

Along with the challenges, post 9/11 provides American Muslims with a rare opportunity to reorganize their communities in accordance with their Islamic ideals, uninhabited by the cultural norms and established habits that prevent many in the Muslim World from breaking out of the decadent conditions in which they live, conditions resulting from centuries of complacency and neglect of the very Islamic values that brought about the great Islamic civilization in the first place. American Muslims are blessed with a great opportunity to liberate Islam and Islamic values and principles from the cultural limitations of historical Muslim societies, and to bring the pristine and sublime Islamic values to bear on the modern world.

American Muslims, given their strategic positioning, have an historical mission to fulfill. Their historical mission is to reform their inherited conditions and develop an inspiring model in which Islamic values flourish again and contribute to advancing modern life and human civilization into new heights.

To take advantage of this unique opportunity, a fresh thinking and brave attitude, rooted in deep faith, is required. That is, American Muslims must be prepared to provide a vibrant and enlightened leadership to a troubled world.

Priorities for Concerted Action

American Muslims need to contribute towards the betterment of America by advancing the values of family, community, and a compassionate and caring society. Despite the fact that the North American nations were built on the high and noble values of freedom, equal dignity, and the respect of the rule of law, it took centuries to bring actual practices in line with declared principles. Still America can do better to come closer to its ideals, and there is a bold attempt to undo the accomplishments of the recent past. Not only that civil liberties are increasingly under attack, but also the efforts to align the power of the United States to advance the narrow religious interests and ethnic biases of established social groups have lately intensified. American Muslims must pay their dues as citizens of their adopted counties to advance the values of fairness, decency, and compassion. They are a critical factor in preventing this country from reverting to medieval practices of domination, exploitation, suppression of civil rights, and inequality.

Even though the Muslim community constitutes a small group of the larger American society, they can play a vital role, and become a pivotal force, to reform and develop the social conditions and political practices of their powerful nation. But to do that they must be able to speak with clear voice and address the larger concerns of the American society. Following are several important tasks we need to pursue with determination and vigor.

Articulating the humane and uplifting principles of Islam with clarity and candor. Islamic values must be expressed in ways that relate them to our current social context. American Muslim positions on major issues facing this society must be articulated and announced. This does not mean that the community must agree in its entirety on specific positions. Rather, there must be an open debate among Muslim scholars to generate ideas and allow for more informed decisions. Muslim organizations and think tanks can then benefit from such a debate to formulate positions and publish positions papers and make them accessible to both Muslim communities and the larger American society. We cannot afford to let Muslim detractors define what Islam is and what stands for.

Reforming Muslim practices and speaking against deformed, corrupt, and excessive actions within the Muslim community. American Muslims must not be complacent and remain silent when fellow Muslims violate Islamic values or are implicated in actions that distort the humane and noble principles of Islam. Religious solidarity must not be allowed to trump our moral and legal commitments. Justice and good judgment rather than sympathy must guide Muslim positions and actions.

Institutionalize Islamic values and practices in ways that will establish the Muslim American community firmly within American Culture and Society. Mainstream Muslim organizations have come under concerted attacks by persons of influence in government, the religious establishment, and the media. The goal is obvious: to silence Muslims and prevent the development their institutions.

Promoting a vision of society where cultural and religious diversity are cherished and celebrated. While American society proud itself with upholding civil liberties and promoting tolerance, it continues to feel at liberty to encroach on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. This require a new understanding of diversity in which religious and ethnic minority are not merely tolerated, but rather seen of having an intrinsic and God-given rights to be different in their cultural and religious traditions.

Strengthening Civil Society The post-Soviet era is, undoubtedly, the most advanced stage in the s the globalization of the West. With the demise of the socialist power, set out initially to check Western imperialism, the West has acquired, under the leadership of the United States, global hegemony. As a result, developing countries are increasingly vulnerable to Western pressure and manipulation. This is especially so for Muslim countries in Africa, as well as in Africa, as well as in Central, South, and Southwest Asia. The economic conditions of most Muslim countries, and their dependence on Western economic assistance, make them susceptible to Western manipulation. Economic dependency of Muslim governments on the West has both retarded economic development and hindered political unity and cooperation among Muslim countries.

Paradoxically, as Western powers begin to attain global political hegemony, they are increasingly losing their capacity to manipulate internal conditions of Muslim countries. On the one hand, the governments of developing countries find themselves unable to single-handedly manage the affairs of increasingly complex societies. On the other hand, Western governments are losing their ability to continue supporting unpopular regimes. With the transfer of capital and technology to non-Western regions, the West is losing its economic and technological monopoly, and is hence forced to share global economic resources with others. At the same time, the staggering deficits of the United States government will make it increasingly difficult to maintain its economic commitment to overseas programs.

The reduction in the capacity of national governments to cater to the needs of their societies opens the opportunity for non-governmental organizations and business corporations to assume more prominent roles in shaping the internal conditions, and determining the direction of change, of Muslim societies. Muslims should, therefore, seize the initiative and cooperate through the establishment of cultural and economic domestic and transnational organizations, which should aim at increasing moral and political awareness among Muslim peoples, strengthen their social and educational ties, and improve the technical skills and economic powers of Muslim society.

Establishing and supporting research and strategic studies centers committed to exposing the follies of a power-centered approach to world politics and promoting an alternative based on the principles of right and justice.

Western leaders’ ability to carry out a foreign policy whose outcome is the exploitation and abuse of non-Western people has been possible partly because of intellectual activities aiming at providing justification to power centric and imperialistic foreign policies. Many of these justifications present the demeaning and violent measures used by Western powers to attain their objectives as a necessary evil.

Most recently, a number of Western scholars and institutions have embarked on a campaign aiming at defaming Islam and its adherents. In this campaign, contemporary Islamic movements have been painted in unfavorable colors and a policy of aggression and intervention against Islamic organizations and “states” has been justified. The now widely-read article by Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” is a case in point. The article, which is the product of the Olin Institute’s Project on “The Changing Security Environment and American National Interests,” mourns the diminishing ability of the West to dominate and manipulate non-Western peoples, warns against a “Confucian-Islamic” military alliance, and calls upon Western governments “to moderate reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia.”[7]

There is a great need for establishing research and strategic studies centers to generate interest in analyzing the human condition from an Islamic perspective, and to cater to the intellectual and strategic needs of Muslim communities. Very few research and strategic studies centers committed to the ideal of Islam exist today, and none of them has been developed to full capacity. Most suffer from shortages in researchers and funds and are therefore in need of scholarly and financial support. Yet unless those who adhere to the vision of Islam can develop their intellectual capabilities of persuading others, articulating effective models, and anticipating trends, Muslim societies will continue to live at the mercy of self-interested global powers.


[1]  Among the leading neoconservative organizations are: Project for the New American Century (PNAC), American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), Center for Security Policy (CSP), The Hudson Institute, and The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Leading neoconservatives who spoke against Islam and Muslims include William Bennett, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfwitz, John Bolton, Feith, Francis Fukuyama, and Frank Gaffney.

[2]  See Ann Belinda S. Prais, “Human Rights as Cultural Practice”, Human Rights Quarterly 18 (1996) 288; Also Donnelly, Universal Human Rights, p. 109-12.

[3] See Ibid, pp. 117-8; also Abdullahi An-Na’im, “Toward a Cultural Approach to Defining International Standards of Human Rights,” in A. An-Na’im (ed.), Human Rights in Cross Cultural Perspective (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 25.

[4] Richard Falk, “Cultural Foundation for the International protection of Human Rights,” in Abdullahi An-Na’im (ed.), Human Rights in Cross Cultural perspectives (University of Pennsylvania, 1992), p. 44.

[5]  The unilinear conception of history derives its intellectual force from Hegel’s Philosophy of History.

[6]  Georg W. H. Hegel, Philosophy of History (New York: Dove Books, 1956), 109

[7] Huntington, p. 49. The agitating tone of the article against Islam is quite apparent. Huntington proclaims that “Islam has bloody borders”, without explaining the fact that more often than not Muslims have been the victims of violence.


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