Five Mistakes of U.S. Policymakers in the Muslim World

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The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” There are few constitutional provisions which have generated more discussion and heated debate in America than the religious clauses of the First Amendment. In the words of Prof. P. Kurland, the proper line between church and state remains an issue destined “to generate heat rather than light” ( Religion and the Law, 1962).

Professor Kurland’s observation notwithstanding, there is a certain fundamental principle clearly expressed from the earliest, most formative years of this nation’s life. This principle is reflected in the religious liberty standard included in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (re-enacted by the First Congress in 1789). It provided that “no person, demeaning himself in a peaceful and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship, or religious sentiments…”

In 1986, the Office of Legal Policy issued a U.S. Department of Justice report to the Attorney General. Among its summary conclusions was the following: “We believe that the Free Exercise Clause, as evident from its text and supported by its history, prohibits the government from enacting any law that either forbids or prevents an individual or institution from expressing or acting upon its sincerely-held ‘religious’ beliefs… The Free Exercise Clause demands not only state neutrality toward religion and state abstention from regulation of religious belief, but also special protections for religion.

“According to the original understanding of the Framers and the states that ratified the First Amendment, the only exception to the general rule that the government has no right to interfere with the free exercise of religion is when government action is necessary to prevent manifest danger to the existence of the state; to protect peace, safety, and order; or to secure the religious liberty of others. Under these limited and compelling circumstances the government may interfere with religious liberty, but it may do so only by the least restrictive means necessary to protect these interests” (emphasis mine).

It’s truly ironic that this report was issued four months after the U.S. bombing of Libya; during the time when the opinion-shaping apparatus had shifted into high gear in portraying political Islam as the new bogeyman on the block, and at the stage of the Iran-Iraq war when all pretensions of American neutrality had been completely abandoned. This brings us to America’s first mistake.

Mistake Number One

On Thursday, Oct. 8, 1998, a hearing was held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, under the auspices of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information. The issue on the table: The use of classified evidence in immigration proceedings. This hearing, which dealt with a group of pro-American asylum seekers known as the Iraqi Six, was remarkable for a number of reasons. In the words of the committee chairman, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), “The Committee seldom holds a hearing about a pending matter.” However, he concluded, “I believe that the seriousness of the policy concerns at issue warrant a hearing at this time.”

One of the witnesses arguing for the Iraqis, as their legal counsel, was James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence. Despite his still having “the highest possible security clearance,” he has consistently been denied access to the secret evidence presented by the government to the immigration judge to deny his clients’ entry into the United States. While the presence and argumentation of Mr. Woolsey commanded attention, it was an observation made by the government’s attorney that this writer found most striking.

Paul W. Virtue, general counsel for the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stated during the course of his testimony: “It is important to note that while the use of classified information has garnered much recent media attention, it is, in fact, quite rare. Classified evidence is introduced and considered in less than 20 out of nearly 300,000 cases adjudicated by the immigration courts each year.” This statement is all the more telling when juxtaposed with an observation made by David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Writing in the May 18, 1998, edition of Legal Times, Professor Cole begins with his analysis of the case of Nasser Ahmed, a 37- year-old Egyptian who on April 23 marked two years of solitary confinement in a New York City detention center, justified solely on the basis of secret evidence. He writes: “But the most troubling aspect of Ahmed’s case is that there are a dozen more like it, and they all involve Arab immigrants. In a deeply disturbing pattern, the INS has over the last few years selectively subjected Arab citizens, and only Arab citizens, to the same Star Chamber treatment, using secret evidence of their political associations to deprive them of their liberty, deny them immigration status to which they are otherwise entitled, and expel them.”

Professor Cole then proceeded to highlight the following additional cases: Mazen Al-Najjar (Florida), Anwar Haddam (Virginia), Imad Hamad (Michigan), Hany Kiureldeen (New Jersey), Yahia Meddah (Florida), Ali Termos (Michigan), and a group of eight aliens in California whom the government admits it targeted for deportation based solely on their associations with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “In each case,” Professor Cole observes, “the charges boil down to guilt by association. And most troubling, all of the individuals involved are Arabs, and most are Muslims.”

America’s first mistake: the violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Mistake Number Two

While this nation came to birth via a revolution predicated on the foundational principle of the “inalienable rights” of mankind, to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” America’s behavior, from its very inception, has often been quite the opposite. The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once referred to the Declaration of Independence as a “huge promissory note,” that required “dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment.” The gulf to which he refers, while clearly visible in America’s domestic policy, is even more pronounced on the foreign policy front.

The late Senator J. William Fulbright (who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee longer than any other congressional leader in history) made the following observation in his book entitled The Arrogance of Power: “There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson, the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other is self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious, and the other arrogant in the use of great power.”

If we examine Senator Fulbright’s observation as it relates to the Muslim world, a disturbing pattern emerges. America’s actions in nation after nation (i.e., Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, etc.) reveal a corrosive double standard, and, at times, an outright suspension of the whole idea of liberty and justice for all. In fact, one of the most egregious cases of U.S. duplicity, in this regard, involves Algeria.

In Algeria, a democratically elected pro-Islamic government was forcibly removed by a military coup d’état on Jan. 11, 1992. The result has been a barbaric civil war, where incontrovertible evidence suggests government forces have been responsible for the lion’s share of atrocities; and a democratically elected leader-and president of the Islamic Salvation Front’s Parliamentary Delegation Abroad-Anwar Haddam, has been jailed in Virginia for almost two years without criminal charges. He’s been denied asylum simply because “classified evidence” suggests he is a “national security threat.” And this, despite Mr. Haddam’s consistent and well-documented efforts to pursue a peaceful resolution to the Algerian crisis!

It would behoove America and the West to ponder the advice of Edward Mortimer, foreign affairs editor of the London-based Financial Times, who wrote the following: “If Islamic parties do come to power, European governments should not adopt an attitude of a priori hostility toward them. The fact that these parties wish to reduce or even eradicate what they see as corrupting Western moral or cultural influences within their own societies does not mean there will be an inevitable conflict of interest between them and Europe…” ( Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, p. 38).

Unfortunately, selective democracy has been the rule in America’s dealings with much of the world; and it constitutes the second major mistake in the Muslim world.

Mistake Number Three

America’s third tragic mistake is in advancing the notion of a global Islamic conspiracy against the West, along with the presumption that the values, ethics, and civilizational mores of an Islamic society are not universal, and are in direct contravention to the requisites of modernity, and to the overall welfare of a healthy, stable, well-ordered society.

On this note, U.S. policymakers would greatly benefit from a perusal of the presentations made by a number of well-informed non-Muslim guests to the roundtable discussions of the Virginia-based United Association for Studies and Research (UASR).

One such speaker, Robert G. Neumann, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, noted: “I accept that Islamism is not uniform, not a ‘world conspiracy’ directed by some sort of international Islamic leadership…I further accept that ‘Islamism’ is not a new phenomenom suddenly thrust upon the world. We have seen it develop since the ’20s as a debate on how to organize the Ummah, the Islamic World, following disputes over the consequences of the dissolution of the Caliphate” (Islam and The West: A Dialog, edited by Imad Ad-Dean Ahmad and Ahmed Yousef, p. 39).

Another presenter was Michael Collins Dunn, a senior analyst and co-founder of International Estimate Inc., who stated: “I, and many other observers of these [Islamic] movements, have tried for years to convince policymakers and the media in the West that we must not stereotype these movements, by seeing them as a unified global movement or monolithic structure. Just as the countries in which they have emerged are quite different from each other, and the societies differ profoundly at times, so too these movements differ from one another in precise goals, in tactics, and in their own view of their role in the existing system” (ibid., p. 116).

And then there is Joyce Davis, a journalist with National Public Radio (and former fellow with the United States Institute of Peace): “There’s really a great prejudice many Americans have toward Islam. I realized, frankly, that I am partially responsible for that prejudice. I being a journalist in this country share the guilt, because we are helping to continue to propagate the erroneous stereotypes about Muslims.” And further, “My message to American policymakers is that they should be aware that there is a great sympathy in many parts of the world for Islamists. Why? They are some of the smartest, most charismatic, most dedicated people in the Muslim world-people with a platform of opening and cleaning government, and of caring for the poor” (ibid., pp. 154, 156).

Taking these observations into consideration, one must give credence to an assessment made by Stephen C. Pelletiere, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute colocated with the U.S. Army War College: “The advice that experts have been giving to policymakers on the rise of political Islamic movements must be seen as suspect”(ibid., p. 67). This constitutes America’s third mistake, listening to the wrong “experts.”

Mistake Number Four

One of the most needless, costly, and heartrending mistakes that America has made to date has been in the area of Mideast policy. There is, perhaps, no other area of foreign policy wherein America has more consistently demonstrated a pattern of bias, and a lack of resolve for being a truly “honest broker,” than in the 50-year ongoing tragedy known as “the Arab-Israeli conflict.” When one examines the facts, and the historical record, it has all been so painfully unnecessary.

The first president of the United States, Gen. George Washington, warned against the pitfalls of a policy which succeeding presidents and a host of other high-level politicians and policymakers have, unfortunately, chosen to follow. The president cautioned, in his farewell address to the Union: “A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils, because it leads to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others; which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concession, both by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.

“It gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens [who devote themselves to the favorite nation] the facility to betray or sacrifice the interest of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.”

What a prophetic observation, when viewed within the context of present-day realities. An objective appraisal of American Mideast policy would lead to the following conclusions: (a) the actions of our leaders have violated the most fundamental principles that we as a nation are supposed to stand for; (b) our nation’s Mideast policy has not been in our national interest! One way to understand the immorality of our failed policy in the “Holy Land” is by revisiting a profound and moving observation made three decades ago by one of America’s premier peacemakers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King: “Being a negro in America is not a comfortable experience. It means being part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred, and the defeated. Being a negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan. Being a negro in America means listening to suburban politicians talk eloquently against public housing while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists. It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness, and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness. It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died.”

How easy it would be to transpose “being negro in America” with being Palestinian in Israel and the territories. For the daily lot of Palestinians (especially in the territories) is one of misery with no end. This is why the so-called Peace Process will continue to fail. Without the presence of justice, there can never be peace!

Since 1967, Israel has been the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid; while U.S. foreign aid law prohibits military and economic aid to any country that engages in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”- Sections 502[b], 116[a] of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act. To date, American aid to Israel is over $78 billion. In 1996, cuts in aid to America’s poor were $5.7 billion; aid to Israel $5.5 billion. And how is this money used?

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel immediately annexed East Jerusalem and declared the whole of Jerusalem its “eternal capital”; while annexing territory taken by force is illegal under international law. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2253, of July 1967, declared the annexation of East Jerusalem invalid.

The Geneva Convention of 1949, Article 49 (paragraph 6) states: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territories it occupies.” To date, Israel has transferred well over 140,000 Jews into settlements throughout the “occupied territories.” These are 100 percent segregated communities, for Jews only, built with taxes from a country where housing discrimination is illegal.

As settlements are being built, Palestinian homes are being demolished. Article 53 of the Geneva Accords states: “Any destruction by the occupying power of the real or personal property is prohibited.” Israel has consistently refused to halt land expropriation and home demolitions. Settlement expansion is justified on the basis of Jewish population growth, while little consideration is given the Palestinians who are being displaced. It has been reported that during the tenure of just-dismissed Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai alone, the Israeli Civil Administration has demolished more than 400 Palestinian homes, and dozens of Bedouin dwellings in the West Bank.

The systematic and unrelenting brutality visited upon the Palestinian people should also be a cause for heightened concern within the international community, for this, too, represents a gross violation of international law. Article 27 of the Geneva Accords states: “Persons under control of an occupying power shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected, especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof.” The U.N. Human Rights Commission declared that, “Israel’s grave breach of the Geneva Convention, relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war, are war crimes and an affront against humanity.”

For the past 50 years, the Palestinian experience (for Muslims and Christians) has been collective punishment; economic strangulation and acute poverty; school closures; home demolitions; torture (both physical and psychological); mass arrests and detentions without trial; and indiscriminant killings at the hands of the military and settlers.

Unfortunately, America has been a major partner in these crimes against humanity as a result of the unswerving material and diplomatic support we’ve consistently given to a nation that our policymakers insist on calling the only democracy in the region; a nation that many others consider the apartheid South Africa of the Middle East.

Mistake Number Five

Too often policymakers in America have misread the pulse of the people by listening to leaders of the establishment telling them all is well. Our compatriots should not continue to make this mistake in the rapidly growing Muslim-American community, which is maturing socially and politically. It would behoove American politicians and policymakers to keep their ears to the ground in order to get the most accurate read on how the grass-roots are feeling, as it pertains to U.S. domestic and foreign policy, and its impact on our extended community.

Our major organizations and mainstream leaders serve an important function, and are appreciated for what they do. However, they are not always the ones to listen to. For they will sometimes say what American leaders want to hear, and not what they need to hear. Inviting representatives of our community to the White House or Congress, or acknowledging a Muslim holiday or even celebrating with us does not adequately serve this constituency. We (collectively) don’t come that cheap.

Summary

As I near my conclusion, I’d like to offer some words of advice to the policymakers of America. I am an American. My family’s roots run generations deep in the soil of this land. While I am not always proud of what my nation does, I am, generally speaking, proud to be an American. I am, however, a Muslim first; and this keeps the nationalistic tendencies I might otherwise exude in check. To be Muslim first is to be always aware of my membership in a global tribe called humanity, accountable first and foremost to the Omnipotent and Omniscient Creator of all life. And I am not alone in feeling this way.

For too many years, America and the former Soviet Union engaged in a so-called Cold War that really wasn’t cold at all. It was a hot war with fires raging (via each nation’s respective proxies) in different parts of the globe. In its wake were consumed untold numbers of innocent and defenseless men, women and children, most of whom could not even begin to render an intelligent definition of capitalism or communism, socialism or democracy. Mere pawns in the bipolarity struggle of two very selfish “superpowers.”

The Soviet Union is no more; and now it appears that the victor, the only remaining superpower on the block (the good ol’ USA), is itching for another fight. What are its motives? To justify itself and its unparalleled war-making capacity? To solidify its place in history, perhaps, as the only true empire of its era? Or to divert attention from its never-ending and deepening domestic problems? Whatever the reason (s), it really doesn’t matter. It sees another formidable contender on the horizon- militant, fundamentalist, political Islam (whichever nomenclature fits your fancy), and has decided to launch a pre-emptive strike. A note of caution is in order.

Unlike the Soviet Union, sincere Muslims in every corner of the globe are threaded together by an ideology which is, consciously or unconsciously, embedded within the very fiber of their being. No matter how uneducated, unsophisticated, or illiterate the Muslim you happen to meet-and conversely, no matter how educated, sophisticated or Westernized the Muslim you happen to meet-there is always this instinctual awareness of being Muslim; this instinctual awareness of being part of a global family, a global community with an accountability to God. And this is something that the U.S., and its respective allies, would do well to consider.

No nation can indiscriminately bomb, maim and kill innocent Muslims without the pain, grief, and anguish being felt on some level by Muslims the world over. No matter how many official disclaimers are issued, “This is not to be taken as an attack on Islam, or all Muslims”-the actions are going to be seen for what they are, and the impact is going to be felt.

U.S. policymakers should listen to the voices of reason among us, such as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who remarked in a speech in the Washington, DC area not too long ago: “I hope that the Muslims of this country will help this country, and the best way you possibly can is by standing up for Islam.” And further, “Islam is the best chance the poor of the planet have for any hope of decency in their lives. It is the one revolutionary force that cares about humanity.”

In my conclusion, I do hope that the policymakers of my country will learn from our Cold War experience, and understand that the time has come to”study war no more.” We should use our enormous gifts-our material substance, our knowledge, our science and technology-to carve out an oasis in this life for all of God’s children. We must take the Golden Rule off the theoretical shelves of our day-to-day existence; dust it off, internalize it, and make it a living, breathing part of our lives. We’ve achieved the capacity to walk in space. Isn’t it time we learn how to walk on the earth in dignity and tranquility with one another?

Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let our nation’s posture toward resurgent Islam (and the Muslim world by extension) be something along these lines: I sincerely believe that we Americans have a better system than yours, but if you can prove that yours is better, and improve the lot of your people, then God bless you. We will not behave in a violent way toward you, if you don’t behave in a violent way toward us.

I pray that this commentary will be accepted in the spirit in which it is being conveyed. I am an American. But I am a Muslim first!

El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan is a Washington, DC-based human rights advocate, and executive director of The Peace and Justice Foundation

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