Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reach Out to Muslim Moderates

Islamist terrorism has led the U.S. and British governments in the past month to set up separate public diplomacy programs aimed at engaging Muslims at home and abroad. A quick comparison shows the two initiatives are headed in opposite directions. At least the Brits have finally got it right.

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is building bridges to well-funded and self-publicized organizations that claim to speak for all Muslims, even though some of those groups espouse views inimical to U.S. values and interests. After years of pursuing similar strategies -- while seeing home-based terrorists proliferate -- the British government is now more discerning about whom it chooses as partners. Stating that "lip service for peace" is no longer sufficient, the British are identifying and elevating those who are willing to take clear stands against terrorism and its supporting ideology.

Thus, in a major address at a two-day government conference early last month titled "Islam and Muslims in the World Today," then-Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed to correct an imbalance. He stated that in Britain's Muslim community, unrepresentative but well-funded groups are able to attract disproportionately large amounts of publicity, while moderate voices go unheard and unpublished.

Blair emphasized that Islam is not a "monolithic faith," but one made up of a "rich pattern of diversity." The principal purpose of the conference, Blair stressed, was to "let the authentic voices of Islam, in their various schools and manifestations, speak for themselves." He was as good as his word.

Invitations to participate in the assembly were extended to the less-publicized, moderate groups. Notably absent from the program was the Muslim Council of Britain, a group that claims to represent that nation's Muslims but is preoccupied with its self-described struggle against "Islamophobia" -- a term it tries to use to shut down critical analysis of anything Islamic, whether legitimate or bigoted.

Also dropped from the speaking roster was the leading European Islamist, Tariq Ramadan, who has been a fixture at official conferences on Muslims in Europe. The grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan is fuzzy on where he stands on specific acts of terror -- and he infamously evaded a challenge by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to denounce stoning.

Blair committed funds to improve the teaching of Islamic studies in British universities; announced a new effort to develop "minimum standards" for imams in Britain; and, most significantly, declared that henceforth the government would be giving "priority, in its support and funding decisions, to those leadership organizations actively working to tackle violent extremism."

A few days later, British backbone was demonstrated again with the knighting of Salman Rushdie. Since 1989, when Iran's mullahs pronounced one of his works "blasphemous," Rushdie has lived under the shadow of a death threat. With the news that Britain would honor him, extremist Muslims rioted. But many Western Muslim reformers, increasingly threatened by death threats and murderous fatwas themselves, cheered the Brits. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch legislator who was born a Muslim, wrote, "The queen has honored the freedom of conscience and creativity cherished in the West."

On the eve of his departure from office, Blair gave a television interview taking on those he once courted -- British Islamists who have been quick to level charges of Islamophobia: "The reason we are finding it hard to win this battle [against terror] is that we're not actually fighting it properly. We're not actually standing up to these people and saying, 'It's not just your methods that are wrong, your ideas are absurd. Nobody is oppressing you. Your sense of grievance isn't justified.' ... Some of what is written on this is loopy-loo in its extremism."

Contrast this with the Bush administration's new approach. On June 27, Bush delivered his "Muslim Initiative" address at the Washington Islamic Center in tribute to the 50th anniversary of that organization's founding, by Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, and its extremist ideology often flows with the kingdom's money. The Washington Islamic Center is not an exception.

A few years ago when we were with Freedom House, concerned Muslims brought us Saudi educational material they collected from the Washington Islamic Center that instructed Muslims fundamentally to segregate themselves from other Americans. One such text stated: "To be dissociated from the infidels is to hate them for their religion, to leave them, never to rely on them for support, not to admire them, to be on one's guard against them, never to imitate them, and to always oppose them in every way according to Islamic law."

Though Bush's remarks were intended for all U.S. Muslims, the administration left the invitation list to the Washington Islamic Center's authorities. Predictably, they excluded the truly moderate, who are not Saudi-founded or funded: the Islamic Supreme Council of America, the American Islamic Congress, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Center for Eurasian Policy, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, the Islam and Democracy Project, the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and many others.

These organizations are frequently shut out of U.S. government events on the basis that they are considered insignificant or "controversial" by the petrodollar-funded groups. The administration makes a big mistake by allowing such Wahhabi-influenced institutions as the Washington Islamic Center to be the gatekeepers for all U.S. Muslims.

The actual substance of Bush's speech -- particularly good on religious freedom -- was overshadowed by the announcement of its single initiative: The United States is to send an envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference. Based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the OIC was created explicitly to promote hostility to Israel, and its meetings largely consist of ritualistic Israel-bashing. At a meeting last year, Iran's president called for the "elimination of the Zionist regime." It has no mechanism for discussing the human rights of its member states and thus has never spoken out against Sudan's genocide of Darfuri Muslims. It is advancing an effort to universalize Islamic blasphemy laws, which are applied as often against speech critical of the governments of OIC member states as against profanities. Last month the OIC council of foreign ministers termed Islamophobia "the worst form of terrorism."

The Bush administration is now actively considering whether its public diplomacy should reach out to Muslim Brotherhood groups. While such groups may pay lip service to peace, they do not denounce terror by Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot. It keeps as its motto: "Allah is our objective, the prophet is our leader, the Quran is our law, jihad is our way, dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope." By choosing those whose definition of terror does not include the murder of Jews, honor killings and lethal fatwas against Muslim dissidents and reformers, the U.S. government makes them look strong -- particularly in the shame-and-honor culture of the Middle East -- and strengthens their hand against the real moderates and reformers.

Britain, as we were reminded over the past week, has much work ahead in defeating Islamist terrorism, as well as in overcoming the misguided form of multiculturalism of its recent past. Not all of Britain's measures will be right for the United States considering its First Amendment. But British Labour Party socialists appear to have done one major thing right that the Republican administration in the United States has not: reach out to Muslim leaders who are demonstrably moderate and share U.S. values, even though they may not have petrodollar-funded publicity machines.

While the United States doesn't have a queen to dub knights, it does have distinct way of honoring its heroes. Mr. President, confer the Medal of Freedom on one of the most outstanding Muslim-American citizens. For a selection of honorees, look at who was not invited to your recent speech. If Islamists charge "Islamophobia," repeat after Tony: "Loopy-loo. Loopy-loo."

James Woolsey, co-chair of the Committee on the Present Danger, was director of central intelligence at the CIA from 1993 to 1995. Nina Shea is the director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.