Photo by Jack GouldTen days after terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush called for moderate Muslims to join America's war on terrorism. Since then, newspaper columnists, radio talk-show hosts, and TV anchors have picked up the chant, demanding that moderate Muslims speak up.
But moderate Muslims find that speaking up isn't easy. Ask Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). At a recent symposium at Cal State Fullerton, audience members—including Ayloush—were invited to query a panel of media representatives about the role of news organizations after Sept. 11. When Ayloush tried to ask the panel whether the U.S. media had an obligation to explore the root causes of Middle Eastern terrorism, the moderator interrupted him.
"I could tell he was getting nervous," Ayloush recalled. "He asked, 'Can you give us a question instead of a comment?' I guess he felt the question was just too deep."
In fact, well before the Sept. 11 attacks, Ayloush claims, any moderate Muslim—himself included—who dared to criticize U.S. foreign policy was automatically branded a supporter of terrorism.
Of course, the stakes have only gone up since Sept. 11. Now, being a moderate is insufficient. What the administration defines as "moderate" is, in fact, a blank check for war, and criticizing U.S. policy in the Middle East is viewed by some as tantamount to treason. Such was the reaction when CAIR called two weeks ago for an end to U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, a statement either ignored or disparaged by Bush administration officials and mainstream news outlets.
"With the approach of the month of Ramadan and the mounting civilian casualties, we felt it was important to call for an end to the bombing," Ayloush recalled during a conversation at CAIR's regional headquarters in Anaheim. "We knew it would not be a popular position because everybody thinks that if you are against the terrorists, you have to be for the bombing of cities in Afghanistan. . . . What we face today is probably the biggest challenge for anybody who has ever dared to dissent."
Nevertheless, Ayloush has been speaking up—and dissenting—quite a bit since Sept. 11. He has represented CAIR at town hall meetings in Garden Grove, Anaheim, Mission Viejo and Buena Park and has also spoken at UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Orange Coast College. At every stop, someone in the audience asks him the same question: "Why do they hate us?"
Ayloush's now-automatic response: "They don't hate us."
In other words, Ayloush says, the terrorists don't hate Americans, nor do the majority of Muslims throughout the world resent our nation's permissive social mores or high standard of living. "It's not because of our wealth or freedom as Americans," Ayloush explained, pointing out that Osama bin Laden is a millionaire and that nearly all the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks hailed from prosperous, middle-class families. "If this was about our wealth or way of life, why not go after Sweden? Or Norway?"
What many people in the Muslim world do resent, Ayloush explained, is America's tremendous influence in the Middle East—especially a foreign policy that supports numerous non-democratic, monarchic regimes in the region. Unfortunately, he said, some of those Muslim critics "are just fanatics who you can never deal with or negotiate with. But we have to cure the sickness [of terrorism] instead of waiting for the disease to take over a certain organ and then amputating it. We have to eliminate the causes of frustration in that region—not just in Afghanistan."
While Ayloush gives the Bush administration high marks for declaring that America is not at war with Islam, he doesn't think such disclaimers will create any goodwill in the Muslim world on their own. "Real steps need to be taken—not an ad campaign—but public relations with real substance," Ayloush suggested. "We need to ease the punishing sanctions on Iraq. . . . According to the United Nations, more than 1 million Iraqi lives have been lost because of the sanctions. If this keeps happening, we'll be partly responsible."
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Another key policy area that needs fixing, according to Ayloush, is America's firm and unyielding diplomatic, economic and military support for Israel. "Certainly the Arab-Israeli conflict needs to be resolved," he argued. "Palestine is a dear place to Muslims, Christians and Jews. When we take the side of one group, it basically inflames people and creates an atmosphere of high frustration."
Of course, criticizing America's support for Israel also inflames people. "It's like trying to criticize our government's policies in the 1960s without being called a communist," Ayloush said. "Our main challenge is Islam-o-phobia. There has definitely been an attempt to defame every Muslim leader in the U.S."
As evidence, Ayloush points to CAIR's conflict with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), both of which support Israel and view CAIR as soft on terrorism. On Nov. 11, the ADL circulated an e-mail urging that CAIR be banned from the 11th annual Florida Civil Rights Conference scheduled to begin two days later. The e-mail described CAIR as a "suspect Islamic organization" with a "stand on terrorism [that] remains less than unequivocal especially with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." The e-mail failed to keep CAIR out of the Florida conference but did spark a boycott by Jewish groups.
Despite the group's controversial profile within the pro-Israel lobby, Ayloush said he hopes that America does win the war on terrorism—not to mention the international public-relations campaign that follows—by "creating a foreign policy that reflects the goodwill and values of the American people." But Ayloush also says he wants to be able to continue challenging America's tactics in that war without being accused of supporting terrorism. "I want my fellow Americans to know that when I comment negatively or positively about my government, I do it for America," he said. "I don't have any other loyalties."