Election Polemics

From “80% of mosques in the U.S. are run by extremists” to “They all look the same to me” — and Peter King somewhere in between.

By Markus Dressler

In August, the House Homeland Security Chairman, Peter King, a Long Island Republican, came up with the idea of making people of “Middle Eastern and South Asian” descent undergo additional security checks because of their ethnicity and religion. Recently, King gave his August suggestion a more localized form, intensifying racial-religious profiling closer to home — that is, on Long Island. His target is the Islamic Center Long Island (ICLI) and some of its public spokespersons, especially Dr. Faroque Khan. In an obvious attempt to create political capital, he accuses them of extremism and anti-Semitism. I’d like to show how King, while doing so, capitalizes on a statement made seven years ago by Hisham Kabbani, head of the American branch of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Muslim community.

Kabbani accused anti-Sufi Muslims of extremism in an obvious aim to boost his own legitimacy and political standing. In apparent ignorance of both the very particular debate within Islam that framed Kabbani’s statement, as well as Kabbani’s very marginal position within American Islam, King declares Kabbani a “leading American Muslim” and uses his controversial statements for his reelection campaign.

King has a longstanding relationship with the Islamic Center Long Island, the largest Muslim community on Long Island. It used to be a remarkably good relationship. King visited the ICLI mosque several times, and used to be on excellent terms with Dr. Faroque Khan, former president and co-founder of ICLI. He even attended the wedding of Khan’s son. All of this was prior to 9/11. Afterwards, the amiable relationship between King and the Long Island Muslim community deteriorated considerably.

It is an election year, and King, the only Republican congressman on Long Island, is up for reelection against Democrat Dave Mejias. King, a seven-term congressman, is well ahead of his challenger, although there are indications that his lead is shrinking. It is in this context, that King has stepped up his attacks on ICLI and some of its representatives, a move considered by Muslims such as Nihad Awad, National Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as a poorly hidden campaign booster: “It’s very disturbing to see a member of the United States Congress exploit the anti-Muslim prejudice and fear within the society just to get a few more votes and some money.”

The story gets more interesting on closer examination of the arguments King and his local election cheerleaders — such as Martin Brodsky, a columnist for the New York Post — bring forward in building their case against the Long Island Muslims. In a September 3 article in thePost (“Pete King’s Muslim Mess”), Brodsky called American Muslims enemies of Peter King, who had “understandable fears of another Muslim attack” and who would therefore back the “eminently sensible idea” of religious, i.e., Muslim, profiling. Brodsky attacks ICLI leaders for pushing a “virulent anti-Israel agenda,” supporting “anti-Israel Rep. Cynthia McKinney,” and decrying “counter-terrorism efforts as dangerous curbs on civil liberties.” Brodsky then proceeds to attack King’s challenger Dave Mejias, who he says has acknowledged “working with South Asian and Muslim communities,” and concludes: “What makes all this worrisome is that the Westbury center is the largest mosque on Long Island, drawing as many as 4,000 worshipers on holidays. And that Khan and the center often mask their extremism — through ‘benign’ interfaith and other programs. Do Long Islanders understand the mosque’s other agenda and its seeming tolerance for terror’s supporters?” The New York Post decided not to publish letters responding to Brodsky’s attacks — letters of protest written not only by Muslims but also by local representatives of Jewish and Christian communities that work closely together with ICLI on dialogue events. Recently, Jewish criticism against King’s anti-Muslim campaign has mounted.

King even sent a letter including a copy of Brodsky’s column to members of the Jewish community in his district. In the letter, he reiterated Brodsky’s claims (“The Islamic threat comes from abroad and right here at home”), renewed his accusations against the ICLI, and conflated anti-Zionist and anti-Israel positions with attacks against Jews — thus implicitly accusing ICLI of anti-Semitism. Even worse, he suggested, these extremists would now be “supporting [his] opponent in this year’s election.”

On September 28, “Paula Zahn Now” on CNN gave both Faroque Kahn and Peter King a chance to clarify their positions. King repeated his claim that 85% of mosques in the U.S. were run by extremists. He backed this claim, with reference to a statement made by Hisham Kabbani, whom King calls “one of the leading Muslims in this country.” It is certainly true that Kabbani, who came to the U.S. from Syria in 1991, would like to be a “leading Muslim,” although not many American Muslims would recognize him as such — if they know of him at all.

Kabbani is pictured alongside leading U.S. politicians, including President Bush and former President Clinton, on the webpage of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, one of the impressive number of organizations through which the Kabbani’s group furthers its public presence. Also on its site, the Council claims that Kabbani brought more than 40,000 Caucasian Americans, and more than 20,000 non-Caucasian Americans to Islam, and that he initiated more than 20,000 immigrant Muslims into the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition. I know through my own research on Sufism in the U.S. that these numbers are highly exaggerated at best. In reality, the group in the U.S. probably numbers not more than several hundred people.

Kabbani’s career as an expert and representative of Islam in America began on January 7, 1999. That day, Kabbani remarked at an U.S. State Department Open Forum on the Evolution of Extremism that “there are more than 2,000 mosques in the U.S…. and 80 percent of them are being run by extremist ideologies.” Unsurprisingly, his remarks were vehemently criticized by Muslims throughout the country who felt that they were being unjustly attacked and made victims of Kabbani’s political ambitions. The remarks should be seen as part of Kabbani’s strategy to establish himself as a main representative of a “moderate” Islam, a rhetoric which he develops against the theme of radical Wahhabism — itself a term he uses indiscriminately to label Wahhabis, Salafis, and any other Muslims who take a critical stance towards Sufism.

In a sense, Kabbani benefited from 9/11, since his allegations can now be used to justify heightened scrutiny of Muslims — and apparently also to campaign, as the King example suggests. Kabbani has since then received unprecedented media attention, which he has used to spread his criticism of Wahhabi Islam and everything he associates with it.

Kabbani’s claim that 80% of U.S. mosques are being run by extremists reflects an increasing willingness of contemporary Sufis to counter anti-Sufi polemics within Islam. This is a debate within Islam about orthodoxy, Islamic legitimacy, and political influence, a power struggle that has little to do with “extremism.” Sufi Muslims are often portrayed as moderate, introverted-by-nature, peaceful, and apolitical mystics, as opposed to the supposedly less moderate and more easily politicized and radicalized non-Sufis. But examples of politically activist and even militant Sufis abound, in addition to examples of non-Sufi Muslims who are – and this is certainly by far the majority – peace-loving people, not in any way more inclined to be political or militant than adherents of any other religion.

I am not aware of anybody with a good sense of the American Muslim landscape who would take Kabbani’s “80%” statement seriously — excluding neo-con pundits such as Stephan Schwartz and Daniel Pipes (founder and director of the Middle East Forum and Campus Watch), who are deeply immersed in self-referential cultural war scenarios and are firm supporters of Kabbani. In the end, King’s accusations against American Muslims appear to be no more than election polemics, and if he indeed gets reelected, then the Long Island Muslims will already have paid the price for it.

King’s campaign tactics, though, are no more than a refinement of widespread sentiments. “It’s hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people,” Senator Trent Lott recently remarked, summing up the willful ignorance of a nation. “Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”

Markus Dressler is an Assistant Professor for Religious and Islamic Studies at Hofstra University.