Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review: What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America, by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf

This one of many books I'm reading on my Kindle

Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf is the guy building the "Ground Zero Mosque". His book What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America tells us what he really thinks of America, in his own words. Is he a radical that hates America? Or a truly moderate Muslim? His book tells us the answer.

And what he thinks is this: America is great. He loves America, passionately. He is a scholar who has studied the founding principles of this country. He understands (most of) them better than you do. His intellectual understanding of American founding principles means he's probably more of a patriot than you are.

Yet, it's still the Islam that is transcendent. His book praises the intersection of Islam and America, but only where they agree. He makes the odd claim that American values are based upon the same religious tradition as Islam, if you trace Islam, Christianity, and Judaism back to the founding principles of Abraham. Thus, the American ideology of human rights and democracy aren't secular values, but inherently religious, Abrahamic, values. And therefore, Imam Faisal concludes, America needs to make more religious accommodations for Islam. In particular, he disagrees with our interpretation of "Separation of Church and State" and "Freedom of Speech". He wants America to allow Muslims to use Shariah courts rather than our current secular courts, especially in family matters like marriage and divorce.

Thus, while he loves America, he loves Islam more.

The following is an illustrative passage that shows why he loves America:

"The problem was that Muslim jurists equated any amount of interest, no matter how small, with usury, which the Quran absolutely forbids. This strict prohibition on charging interest still prevails in the Muslim world and has largely prevented it from robustly developing the financial market's institutions of banking, capital markets, and stock exchanges-the foundations of capitalism."

I'm accustomed to the American media, with its anti-America anti-capitalism biases. It's refreshing to read such praise for capitalism.

In other sections, he dissects what's right about the American system of government. For example, he compares our system (separation of powers, independent institutions like the military, central bank, media) with the totalitarianism in most Muslim countries where the government controls everything, and is corrupted by power.

Here is another demonstrative quote:

Muslims have yet to fully incorporate the institutional expressions of democratic capitalism, defined as the combination of democracy and capitalism, into their various essential institutions: the rule of law (an independent judiciary), human rights, a stable currency, equal opportunity, free markets, social safety nets, and so forth.

He just doesn't use these terms abstractly, but concretely describes why each is important. He loves these core American values probably more than you do.

In the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, many make the claim that he blames America for the 9/11 attacks. That's not precisely true. He does claim that American foreign policy contributed to the attacks, but he lays the blame squarely on the backwardness of the majority of Islamic society. His criticisms of America are that we don't consistently promote freedom. He claims that the Muslims of the world are mad at us, not because we attack Islam, but because we keep human rights and democracy for ourselves, and don't let Muslims have them. Instead, we support dictatorships in Islamic countries as long as the dictators are friendly to America.

He has two agendas in his book. One is to help Americans understand Islam. The other is to help Muslims understand America. It has been translated into Indonesian, the language of the world's biggest Islamic country, in an effort to help them understand why the American values are more Islamic than those of their own, Islamic, country.

It is because he this pro-American stance that has led to the State Department funding trips for him abroad, to promote America in Islamic countries. As a scholar who understands both Islam and America, he is appropriate in that roll.

Yet, for all his pro-Americanism, he is still wrong. He rejects the two items at the core of America's character: freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

The best way to describe this is to contrast his writing with those of Ayan Hirsi Ali. She is a Somali refugee that escaped to Holland, eventually becoming a member of their parliament. When she created a film critical of Islam's treatment of woman, her director Theo Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist. The note attached to his dead body claimed that Ayan Hirsi Ali would be next. She has lived with bodyguards ever since.

Whereas Imam Faisal attempts to trace American values back to Judeo-Christian religion, Ayan Hirsi Ali traces them back to the Age of Enlightenment.

Take freedom of speech, for example. Imam Faisal quotes the Quran thusly:

"Do not curse the [false] gods that they [the polytheists] call upon [in worship] lest they in turn curse God in enmity [to you] out of their [understandable] ignorance" (Quran 6:107-9)."

Imam Faisal believes that many religions (Muslim, Christians, Jews) can live peacefully together, as long as we live with the reasonable restriction on free speech to not insult, mock, or criticize each other's religions.

Ayan Hirsi Ali disagrees. Critical thinking means you criticize others, to the point of insult. Suppressing insult suppresses reasonable speech as well. She quotes the current Catholic Pope, who in recent speech, claimed that only through critical thinking can we come to know God. Only by criticizing and insulting Jesus can we become true Christians.

Ayan Hirsi Ali would point to quotes like the following one that American's teach their children:

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"

I other words, the path to peace isn't to censor your own insults, but to ignore the insults of others.

The Danish cartoons mocking Muhammed are a good example. The TV show South Park is an even better one. It mocks and insults everyone. They show Jesus addicted to Internet porn, and Budha with a coke habit. Yet, their TV network censors South Park's attempt to depict Muhammed. Rather than standing up for the American ideal of free speech, Imam Faisal takes the opposite approach, and claims such speech should be restricted to avoid such insults.

Even more important is Imam Faisal's proposal that Shariah courts be provided to Muslims in America. There is a very real need for such things. For example, imagine a Muslim immigrant who divorces her husband and returns to her own country. Because the divorce isn't under Shariah law, her country doesn't recognize it, and she cannot remarry.

But as Ayan Hirsi Ali points out, when other countries have tried to accommodate their Muslim immigrants with Shariah courts, the result is that woman's rights get trampled on. Imam Feisla quotes parts of the Quran that supports women's rights in Shariah courts; Ayan Hirsi Ali quotes the other bits that are hostile to woman. On the whole, the Quran is hostile to women.

The point of the Age of Enlightenment is that mankind found a different source of knowledge other than just religion. Imam Faisal denies this. While praising the Enlightenment, he claims that it ultimately derives from religion, and thus our "secular" values are just another form of religion. In his view, things like "science" are just another manifestation of God. Ayan Hirsi Ali disagrees, and shows that Enlightenment and "science" are a completely different source of truth altogether. While they can live together, only a fool would claim that scientific results like the "heliocentric model" somehow derive from the Bible or Quran


I read this book because of the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy. The left-wing and right-wing in America are using the controversy to rile up their voters. Yet, the arguments of both sides are devoid of meaningful content. The right-wing admits that government can't stop the mosque, so what's the point of getting angry over it? Conversely, the left-wing falsely claims that the right-wing wants to violate their rights and have thee government stop them.

Imam Faisal chose the spot for his Islamic community-center/mosque precisely because it was close to Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks. Was this because he's a radical Muslim celebrating the attacks by Muslims against Americans? Or, is this because he's an American and moderate Muslim, who wants to reach out to other Muslims and teach them why America is great?

After reading his book, I still don't have an answer to that question. On one hand, Imam Faisal clearly loves America. For him, at least, the location is an expression of his pro-Americanism. On the other hand, he doesn't stand up for the secular values of the Enlightenment.

And for me, it's the later that's important. If I had to tell the world's Muslims what's wrong with Islam, it wouldn't be things like capitalism or democracy. It would be that they have missed their own Enlightenment. My definition of a "moderate Muslim" would be somebody who isn't offended by the Danish cartoons, any more than I'm offended by cartoons that insult the things I believe in. And that definition doesn't include Imam Faisal, despite his pro-American leanings.

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