On Drawing Muhammad, Civil Rights, and Secularism

At the height of the unrest in Baltimore, I wrote a piece for Salon pushing back against the kneejerk condemnations of the riots. In the piece, I argued that advocates of pacifism fail to understand the extent to which their own methods are reliant on violence—to the point where it may not even be feasible to refer to movements as non-violent at all. It may be more appropriate to say that pacifists enjoy a different relationship to violence than their revolutionary counterparts or their state interlocutors. Secondarily I argued that no social change occurs without coercion of some kind—be it economic, political, or something more literal. The idea that authorities will grant major concessions to demonstrators if they feel they have an option to ignore them—simply because they are, for instance, singing in the streets—this has no basis in historical or contemporary realities.

I was shocked to find these arguments cited in The Wall Street Journal, specifically in an attempt to compare Pamela Geller, orchestrator of the “Draw Muhammad Cartoon Contest,” to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The WSJ argument was later repeated by Alan Dershowitz on Fox News, again quoting my description of Dr. King nearly verbatim. And the icing on the cake was when Geller herself decided to compare her actions to those of Rosa Parks. As a black American and a Muslim, and as an inadvertent progenitor of this toxic meme, I felt compelled to write a rebuttal in Salon, demonstrating that the aims and methods of Ms. Geller have absolutely nothing in common with those of the civil rights activists. And highlighting that just because an action is legal doesn’t make it ethical or responsible; similarly, just because an act is provocative doesn’t make it brave, intelligent, or productive.

This time, I was delighted to find a conservative voice was willing to engage my arguments in a non-cynical way: Ed Berliner for the conservative TV channel Newsmax. In fact, just as I was preparing my rebuttal, Berliner himself launched a rather scathing monologue against Geller and the AFDI on his show The Hard Line. After encountering my essay on Salon, I was invited to be a guest on his show and respond to some of the criticism from the Geller crowd. That exchange follows below:

 

 

Unfortunately, our segment ran out of time before I could respond to my interlocutor’s last point. In these closing remarks he declared that even “moderate Muslims” are prone to radicalization. To substantiate this point, he quoted Omar Ahmad of CAIR, “directly” and “verbatim,” declaring that the goal of himself and his fellow believers was to “replace the Constitution with the Qur’an.”

 

Did He Really Say That?

There are a number of problem’s with Mr. Griffing’s claim:

First, Omar Ahmad was not the “President” of CAIR, but its founder and longtime chairman of its board.

Second, it was not a “direct” or “verbatim” quote. According to Mr. Griffing’s own website (WND), and even his own article on the matter, it was a paraphrase—and one which CAIR has challenged repeatedly and consistently. And it turns out even the veracity of the paraphrase is difficult to substantiate.

For instance, a 2006 WND article, cited by Griffing as the source of the supposed quote, claims that Mr. Ahmad’s comment was never challenged in the eight years since the initial report. The problem with this assertion? This same author (Art Moore), on this same website, wrote an article in 2003 highlighting how Omar Ahmad was insisting these very comments were being totally misrepresented—and further, that they had spoken to the reporter about the inaccuracies in the past.

So the assertion in the 2006 article that the comment was not contested is blatantly false–and its falsified by their own reporting. As was Mr. Griffing’s claim that he was quoting “directly” and “verbatim.”

But perhaps most disturbing is that at no point is there a link to the original article in the newspaper in which this quote was allegedly made. The closest they come is linking to the personal website of controversial Mideast “expert” Daniel Pipes—which turns out to be a dead link, at that. And depending on if you are going with the 2003, 2006 or 2013 article, Omar Ahmad’s comment was made either in 1997 or 1998 (it fluctuates). None of this should instill confidence in the reader.

But we can set aside the rampant inaccuracies of WND and it’s “investigative journalists” (as Mr. Griffing describes himself)—in fact, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Omar Ahmad did in fact make the comments he was alleged to have made (albeit, again, without any substantiation). The question is, what specifically is so troubling about this sentiment?

 

Repressing Religion is a Multi-Edged Sword

If I had gotten a chance to address Mr. Griffing’s remarks, it would have gone something as follows:

 

The views supposedly espoused by Mr. Ahmad are not a sign of radicalization, as you insinuate. Many people, to include Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of non-Abrahamic faith traditions, reject the idea of separating religion from ethics, and accordingly, from the law (insofar as the law is informed by moral considerations). And this is a perfectly reasonable position to take–in fact, taking a contrary position was somewhat inconceivable until very recently in history.

Moreover, we have the good fortune of living in a pluralistic democracy. And just as it is the right of Christians to try to imbue the law with their religious ideals, it is the right of Muslims to do the same, and Hindus,  and secularists and everyone in between–be they progressive or conservative, fundamentalists or reformers. And we hash these differences out in the background culture and through the legislative process–hopefully finding common ground along the way with believers of other faiths and even non-believers, and building coalitions to try and realize the society our beliefs call us towards.

So in principle there should be nothing wrong with asserting the Qur’an is the ideal basis for U.S. law, any more than there would be of asserting that the Bible should serve as the foundation of U.S. law. To say that Muslims don’t have a right to hold this view is to say that they can’t be citizens in the same way as Christians, who widely believe that their religion should inform morality and the law. If a Christian can hold the view that the Bible should replace the Constitution (as many prominent Christian Reconstructionists and Dominionists have asserted repeatedly and explicitly), then Mr. Ahmad’s alleged sentiments should not be viewed any differently simply because he’s a Muslim.

Unlike in rigidly secular or irreligious states, America is more authentically (if imperfectly) pluralistic. And so just as we have largely unfettered rights to free speech, we all share the right to hold whatever beliefs we want, and to try to work within system to realize our aspirations to the extent this proves feasible. In the case of radically reforming or replacing the constitution, any alternative language would require garnering 2/3 approval in both the House and the Senate, and then being ratified in at least 38 states. So it isn’t something that should be taken as plausible for either faith tradition in any foreseeable future.

But I should add that it is important for all believers to protect religious freedom for all believers–because if we allow a precedent for purging a particular religion from the public sphere, or even restricting the right to gather or worship (as many have openly proposed for Muslims)—it won’t remain constrained to (say) Islam for long. For instance, “new atheists” and secularists are just as eager to purge Christianity from the law, politics, and ethical discourse—and they are gaining steam, even as the American public is growing increasingly less religious (and Protestant Christianity is taking the biggest hit).

Accordingly, believers should find common cause across confessions in protecting their right to participate qua believers in the U.S. political system, if this is a right they cherish (as most conservatives do, along with many liberals and independents).

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