Problem of Muslim Immigration Rise of Islamism

Extract from The Jewish Stake in America's Changing Demography: Reconsidering a Misguided Immigration Policy By Stephen Steinlight October 2001. In 2013 Dr. Steinlight's observations are even more true today with raging immigration debate and two Muslim immigrants blowing up the Boston Marathon.

Apart from the loss of political power that will inevitably result over time from the sweeping demographic reconfiguration of the American social landscape, undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the well being of the American Jewish community and its interests stems from large-scale immigration from the Muslim world.

The events of September 11 that have forever altered the nature of ordinary life in America, and have shattered the happy illusion of American invulnerability, make the current immigration policy supported by many Jewish organizations appear not merely as the height of irresponsibility, but as irrationally, almost criminally self-destructive.

The special problem of large-scale Muslim immigration to the United States derives primarily from the worldwide ascent of Islamism (often referred to as "fundamentalism" and increasingly "Jihadism"), a totalitarian political ideology with strong theocratic and fascistic elements that is proving enormously compelling to millions of Muslims across the globe. It is without a doubt the most powerful ideological force in the Islamic world, including among Muslims in the United States.

Islamism is profoundly hostile to pluralism, religious tolerance, democracy, secular civil society, Jews, Zionism, Israel, and to the United States, "the Great Satan." It is a movement that festers and spreads in the impoverished conditions within corrupt regimes, often in response to the venality, inhumanity, and tyranny of local "secular" regimes.

It expresses itself through violent populist agitation, intolerant religiosity, irrational atavistic values, misogyny, large-scale terrorism, resentment toward and hatred of everything perceived as "foreign," and pie-in-the-sky theology.

Certainly contemporary Islamism is, in part, a religious response to what many Muslims regard as the "catastrophe" of the founding of Israel. Going back further in time and viewing the movement more broadly, it is a deep-seated cultural reaction to Islam's sociopolitical, technological, and military defeat at the hands of the West.

That defeat has been manifested in a variety of ways, but chiefly in the Islamic world's past conquest by Western and Russian colonialism and its loss of the race to modernity and prosperity. It has been left behind historically, underdeveloped and relatively powerless, while the West has developed mass democratic industrial, technocratic consumer societies. In short, Islamism is perhaps the most important and urgent example in the contemporary world of the politics of cultural despair.

But while it has particular roots in the Arab Middle East (Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood being one of the first incarnations), the Islamist movement has spread to the far ends of the vast Islamic patrimony.

Thus the movement expresses itself not only in the suicide bombers of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, or the Lebanese Hezbollah that targets Israelis, but also in the ideology of the Muslim insurgents in Southern Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

The movement holds absolute power in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Iran (if with decreasing enthusiasm among the young), and is gaining steadily in Pakistan (whose intervention in Afghanistan is turning on itself, transforming Pakistan into an extension of Afghanistan).

As a result of the strings attached to Saudi economic aid to impoverished Bangladesh, that nation born in blood with the aspiration to form a secular society, is becoming increasingly Islamist in orientation. The movement also poses a direct danger to the newly independent Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, has profited from the war in Chechnya, and has growing influence in Malaysia.

It has represented a chronic historic threat to the Egyptian regime, and is in an almost inconceivably brutal contest for power in Algeria. While the Islamist movement is carefully monitored within "conservative" Saudi Arabia, which brooks no political opposition to the regime or potentially subversive religiosity, the Saudis, with untold oil wealth, are the major financial backers of this movement worldwide.

It is not merely Osama bin Laden who uses his inheritance of $350 million to promote global fundamentalism, including the terrorism associated with it: it is the Saudi regime itself. And all the while Saudi Arabia presents itself as a "moderate" regime and historic friend of the United States.

The great danger Islamism poses to the United States in particular, its savage hatred of America and American values, are impossible to overstate. Islamism is a monster capable of the most despicable and atrocious acts of violence against its perceived enemies. This reality has now been experienced and witnessed directly by the American people in the horrific events of September 11: the destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, and a failed attempt to blow up the White House, with a death toll topping 6,000.

These crimes of mass murder, most probably the work of Islamist terrorists operating with state support in Islamist Afghanistan, is the worst single act of terrorism on American soil in the history of the United States. It is also one of the greatest single assaults on innocent human life in modern world history carried out in the name of religion.

The tragic enormity beggars the imagination. Recently, the anti-Islamist Pakistani emigre newspaper Pakistan Today featured on its cover a group of Islamists, their faces covered, aiming rocket-propelled grenades and carrying a sign that read "America, we are coming." They have come; they are here among us. And there is no reason to believe these enormities are the last we will witness, even in the near future.

Also deeply troubling is the fact that the Islamist movement finds critical support in the United States through a series of organizations such as the American Muslim Alliance, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Council on America-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Circle of North America, and the American Muslim Council. These groups front as anti-discrimination organizations supposedly concerned principally with protecting the rights and sensitivities of Muslims and Muslim immigrants.

Their main agenda, however, is to exert ideological control over the American Muslim community and to prevent its acculturation and assimilation. (It should be pointed out that while the plurality of American Muslims hail from the subcontinent - India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh - the leadership of these organizations tends to be Middle Eastern, often Palestinian or fellow travelers involved in the Palestinian struggle against Israel.)

These organizations function as advocates, recruiters, fundraisers, and lobbyists on behalf of Islamist causes abroad, in recent times especially on behalf of their ilk in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Balkans, Central Asia, and in the ceaseless struggle to destroy Israel. It is their extremism that creates the very negative stereotypes of Muslims they decry and accuse others of foisting upon them.

Their venom in response to outside queries and criticism, continual raising of the red herring of Islamophobia, orchestration of fatwas by foreign mullahs against independent Muslim thinkers (the case of the scholar Khalid Duran is a recent example), and their militant international agenda stereotype Muslims as violent, intolerant, and repressive.

That Jewish groups should remain stout defenders of an uncritical immigration and visa policy that allows for the open-ended entry of Muslim fundamentalists to the United States and then provides government agencies no means of keeping track of them is self-defeating to the point of being suicidal. (It should be pointed out that many of the suspects recently arrested in association with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon entered the United States from Saudi Arabia with legal visas.)

It must also be pointed out, regrettably, that to date, few American Muslims have come forward to challenge the self-proclaimed leadership role of these organizations, and there is thus no way to ascertain how representative these groups genuinely are. It must be admitted it is not easy to oppose them in the tight and often repressive world of immigrant communities, where economic survival is often achieved at the cost of political conformity, but change is beginning, although the new forces are at present no more than embryonic.

Still, anti-Islamist Muslims are increasingly seeking and finding each other (the web is proving an excellent meeting place) and anti-Islamist organizations of Muslim independents and freethinkers are just beginning to spring up. But theirs is a long road, and they have only begun their work. It is also to be hoped that sometime in the future, the more pluralistic and spiritually open Muslim Sufi religious community, represented in hundreds of mosques across the United States, will find the courage to break openly with the current self-appointed leadership in the Muslim community.

At the risk of being labeled the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread, it must also be acknowledged that classic Islam itself, the traditional faith - and not the hideous political ideologies derived from it - is itself not unproblematic in its attitudes towards Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims.

The religious education of traditional, non-Islamist Muslims - literalism in Koranic exegesis, theological straightjackets imposed on scriptual interpretation, the study of text without context, and the virtual absence of intellectual self-critique - is filled with anti-Jewish teaching as well as a theology of contempt for the followers of other faiths.

It is the case that fellow monotheists have been historically accorded at least official second-class status (an advance over the treatment accorded others, such as Hindus, Buddhists, or Bahais, for example). But this condition is far removed from anything resembling authentic mutual respect and recognition of the equality of religious claims or commensurate spiritual authenticity.

Powerful strains of religious triumphalism and religious supercessionism are central tenets of Islam. Such dangerous spiritual arrogance has been abandoned by many Christian denominations, largely as a product of Vatican II and years of interfaith dialogue and soul-searching encounter. Christian believers, from Roman Catholics to members of such liberal Protestant denominations as the Congregationalists and the United Church of Christ, have for example, adopted the view that God's covenantal relationship with the Jewish people remains unbroken and that the advent of Christianity neither erased nor canceled it. (In the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention forms a sad exception to this changed perspective, as do the traditional attitudes of several Orthodox Christian national churches.)

No parallel spiritual generosity exists in Islam. While Muslims are prepared to offer the passing genuflection to Jesus or prominent figures in the Hebrew bible, the tone is one of enormous condescension. Muslim friends reared in traditional Islam in such countries as Pakistan and Bangladesh tell me it is impossible for a Muslim who remains in the mainstream of his religious background not to be an anti-Semite.

On a more hopeful note, it is not impossible that Islam itself, as well as its attitude toward Judaism, will undergo a profound change in America. In the United States, many religions have become more open, tolerant, and pluralistic - but the process will take time, it will be hampered by the continuing pull of homeland politics and culture, and it will require the emancipation of the Muslim community from its traditional leadership.

At this point, the kind of radical reformation required with regard to Koranic interpretation makes any advocate of such a change an apostate, a marked man. Similarly, any advocate of Islam's spiritual equality with Christianity and Judaism, as opposed to superiority, would be seen as a heretic whose blood should be shed.

In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, there have been countless exhortations from public figures ranging from President Bush to religious leaders, political figures, and police officials not to scapegoat all American Muslims and to protect them from reprisals. Of course such exhortations are timely and necessary. But far more questionable have been the continual references by politicians, clergy, and the self-proclaimed "people of good will" to "our common religious heritage," and the repetition, ad nauseum, of the mantra that "true Islam" does not practice or preach violence and hatred.

As any one even vaguely acquainted with the Koran knows, numerous Surahs preach hatred and violence and call for ruthless war against unbelievers in the name of Allah. This is not a distortion of Islam; this is the language of its most sacred text. And it is but a short step from classic Islamic supremacism and supercessionism to hatred, a short step from the belief that one's own faith possesses absolute truth to the readiness to inflict violence, even death, on those who chose to stand outside it.

For American Muslims, this should be a time of profound soul-searching, a time to re-evaluate the fundamentals of the faith in light of where they have tragically led the faithful. But one sees scant sign this is taking place. To the contrary, we are continually reassured by Muslim Jihadist supporters (who recently have cleverly toned down their strident websites) that Islam is a religion of peace and told by (mostly) well-meaning and ill-informed Christian partners in dialogue with Islam that we must not confuse Islamism with Islam.

Authentic believers in and practitioners of inter-religious dialogue must now come forward and with rare courage and painstaking honesty call for a radical reformation of Islam's moral vision of the "other," while Muslims, religious leaders, and ordinary folk alike, must confront the spiritual arrogance that deforms their faith and begets violence.

The Jewish community's role in confronting the rise of Islam in America is (at least) fivefold. We must (1) seek to expose the real nature of our Islamist enemies, (2) attempt to support the emerging free thinkers within the Muslim community, and (3) work assiduously against Islamist political agendas, even as we seek (4) to reduce prejudice against Muslim immigrants. But, again, (5) we should be seeking reductions in the number of immigrants from Islamist societies given their enormous antipathy to Israel, Jews, America, and the West in general.

And we should be especially vigilant in opposing the admission of those Islamists seeking asylum from political repression in countries where secularist governments in such places as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, etc. are struggling against attempts to overthrow them by Islamist religious fanatics. It is nothing less than monstrous that the planners of the first bombing of the World Trade Center and the would-be perpetrators of other terrorist acts often entered this country with refugee status.

Does all this mean we should turn our backs on our longstanding commitment in favor of generous legal immigration or become pessimistic about America's ability to socialize the fresh crop of newcomers into acceptance of American norms and values? Does this mean that we favor one ethnic/racial configuration of American citizenry over another? The answer to both is a resounding no. What it does mean, however, is that our support needs to be more qualified, more nuanced, and that we should recognize that immigration that is unprecedented in its scale and unceasing intensity is neither good for immigrants nor good for the United States.

The experience of the immigrant under present circumstances is often disastrous and American social cohesion and notions of economic justice are seriously challenged. We should bring the numbers down to more manageable levels, do far more to integrate immigrants into mainstream American life, and inculcate the values of American civil society in immigrant communities. As Jews we also have special concerns regarding the rising Muslim presence, particularly the ascent of Islamism, and we should be unashamed in pursuing our interests.

Dr. Stephen Steinlight was for more than five years Director of National Affairs (domestic policy) at the American Jewish Committee. For the past two and a half years he has been a Senior Fellow at AJC. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Fractious Nation: Race, Class and Culture in America at the End of the Twentieth Century (UC-Berkeley Press), and he has recently been appointed editor of South Asia: In Review. The views expressed in this essay do not reflect the current policy position of AJC with regard to immigration.