Thursday, June 10, 2010

Muslims Should Build More Bridges with the West, Not More Mosques

The world’s moderate Muslims need to wake up and speak out — if they don’t, they will forever be the losers in the court of public opinion.

This is why they need to wake up: Moderates constitute the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, yet their voices of reason are not being heard loudly and clearly enough.

This is why they need to speak out: Their failure to become Islam’s spokesmen has provided the fundamentalist minority with an uncontested platform for preaching and spreading the virus of intolerance, hatred and violence.

Non-Muslims are therefore easily led into the mistaken belief — through no fault of their own — that Islam is a warrior religion.

Left unchallenged, this dynamic feeds into a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, polarization and conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

An Indonesian friend of mine — who prays five times a day, fasts every Ramadan and aspires to make the hajj to Mecca — is a perfect example of what most Muslims around the world are thinking these days: “Most Westerners don’t understand us. They believe all of us are the same, that we admire Osama bin Laden and we want to join the jihad. It’s simply not true.”

My friend is correct in saying there is a serious disconnect between Muslims and non-Muslims. Unfortunately, he and others like him have a tendency to believe that these negative perceptions arise solely out of Western bigotry or some imagined Judeo-Christian conspiracy.

Many moderate Muslims have wrongly concluded that non-Muslims are disrespectful of Islam.

They should realize that an insensitive Danish cartoonist or an overly-creative user of Facebook promoting “Draw Muhammad Day” are not the ambassadors of Western attitudes and behavior.

Muslim moderates need to understand that the majority of Westerners are also moderate and, in fact, religious tolerance is one of the hallmarks of contemporary Western society.

It is true that Islamophobes, anti-Semites and career Muslim haters can be found in the West — but, as in the Muslim world, these types of characters are in the minority.

On the other hand, the Muslim moderate majority should become more aware of, and sensitive to, the West’s historical experiences with, and consequent aversion towards, religious extremism.

The French ban on the burqa and Switzerland’s restrictions on the construction of mosques arise from the fear that their culture and public spaces are under attack by the forces of fundamentalist Islam.

This fear is arguably misplaced, but Muslims must be aware that their combating this fear with protest and indignation will only serve to reinforce and harden negative opinions.

The bottom line is, moderate Muslims should know better. Knee-jerk reactions toward every perceived prejudice, slander or injustice are counterproductive and self-defeating.

Instead of feeling victimized by non-Muslims, the Muslim moderate majority must awaken to the reality that their greatest enemies lie within the ranks of Islam itself.

Knowledge and power are inextricably intertwined. If moderate Muslims can change their mindsets by disowning themselves of the fallacy that they are the objects of victimization — and focus instead on a transformative strategy to emerge as agents of change — they will be able to empower themselves to claim a more dominant position and therefore shape world opinions, not only about Islam as a religion but also on far-reaching and critical discourse over public policy.

As a first step toward positive and lasting change, eminent figures within moderate Muslim communities must come forward and take responsibility for selecting and grooming a new breed of leaders to act as the face of modern Islam.

These leaders should possess the skills and types of backgrounds that would enable them to connect with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

A person’s mastery over ancient scriptures should not be the only criterion when searching for the right candidates.

From a practical standpoint, Muslim white-collar professionals from business and academia in the United States, Europe and within democratic Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Turkey would obviously be in a much better position to carry effectively the torch of moderation than those living under the boots and swords of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Once they are in place, these new leaders will need to develop a comprehensive media campaign to win over the hearts and minds of their audiences.

In this particular instance, the road to salvation lies on Madison Avenue, not in Mecca.

Finally, moderate Muslims should think about an appropriate birthplace for their campaign. I think the most fitting place would be where Islam was most visibly hijacked by extremists and, at the same time, marked the beginning point of when relations between Muslim and non-Muslim came slowly and inexorably crashing down: 9/11’s Ground Zero.

Ground Zero would also be a perfect test case for moderate Muslim leaders to exert their influence over their less enlightened brethren.

As I write this, a group of American-Muslim investors are planning to build Cordoba House, a 13-story Islamic cultural center and mosque just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

Understandably, those who lost loved ones in the attacks against the World Trade Center are upset about these plans, as are many other Americans. They want the project site to be moved.

And true to form, many Muslims in support of the Cordoba House have proven themselves once again to be politically and culturally tone deaf; in spite of the anger of New Yorkers, they insist the mosque is the perfect prescription for improving interfaith relations.

It is quite possible that the backers of the Cordoba House project have good intentions. The type of Muslim leadership I have in mind would, however, try to persuade them to relocate the project.

This new, more savvy leadership would tell Muslims that they should be building more bridges between Islam and the West, not more mosques.

Instead of a crescent moon overlooking Ground Zero, the moderate Muslim majority might think of erecting a plaque at the site, in memory of those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 2001.

If nothing else, it would be the perfect way of destroying the caricature of an Islam that is at odds with the rest of the world. By James Van Zorge manager of Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates, a business consultancy based in Jakarta.

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