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The Case for an American Madrassah

This essay originally appeared on

The dearth of American Islamic scholars in America is palpable. This is a real problem. Islam and the Muslim world have both become critically important in the national and international affairs of America. The lack of American Islamic scholars creates a barrier to properly understanding Islam and its relationship to modern American society.

Once upon a time, perhaps as recently as 20 years ago, it was enough for medical doctors and engineers doubling as mosque presidents and imams to also be the official purveyors of Islamic knowledge at the grassroots level. There was much less of a need for “scholars” in the interfaith arena back then. Things have changed.

I was recently at a benefit dinner for a medical charity and one of my wife’s colleagues asked me what I did for a living. “I’m the executive director of a Muslim non-profit” I answered.

“Oh,” he responded, clearly not expecting that answer from the guy he just spent the last 20 minutes chatting with about golf and football. He asked me what my “Muslim” non-profit did and what I did for it. I told him that we organize mosques and other Muslim institutions and we work to build their capacity and work in interfaith collaboration with other faith-based organizations on public policy issues.

He politely listened to my answer but when I finished he got right to his next question. “Islam is not a religion so much as it is an ideology, a way of life, right?” he asked. Huh? I did not expect that response!

We talked some more and he mentioned some things he had read about Ibn Taymiyyah, shariah laws and the supposed incompatibility of Islam with Western values. Mind you, this fellow was neither a religious scholar nor a Muslim. It was unsettling because I was just barely equipped to engage him meaningfully.

This is not how it used to be. Just a few decades ago a lecture on Islam delivered by an civil engineer to a church group with an emphasis on Muslim belief in an afterlife, angels, the Virgin Mary and the miracles performed by Jesus was more than enough to leave the audience feeling like they learned something useful.

Today non-Muslim Americans are more skeptical of Islam. Non-Muslim Americans want to know about Wahhabism. They ask challenging questions about taqiyya, jihad and dhimmis. Many times they ask about these concepts having already studied these concepts to some degree. To make matters worse, Islamic scholars overseas and some who now reside in America, openly question the legitimacy of lay interpretations of Islam by American Muslim leaders as well.

This is the void that institutions like Berkeley, California’s Zaytuna Institute must fill. There are many who perceive (incorrectly in my opinion) Islam as incompatible with American society. There are some that even see America as being at war with Islam (which it is not in my view). These (mis)perceptions are held by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

These are religious questions that require a deep understanding of Islam and a deep understanding of America. An American Muslim taught in America under the rigors of traditional Islamic study by qualified American Muslim scholars is the best situated to dispel these misperceptions. To this end, Zaytuna is proposing the establishment of a “Muslim Georgetown,” a four-year accredited college open to all faiths and genders.

Whether the institution is called a college, a university or a seminary is not important. What is critical is that the institution be accredited, that it maintain high standards for admission and retention, that its instructors have the necessary traditional religious training themselves and that there be, among others, a course of study that confers an American-Muslim graduate with the requisite knowledge and skills to authoritatively opine on, among other issues, the compatibility of Islamic values and American values.

That such an institution is open to non-Muslims and is not exclusively an imams’ training institution could actually be an asset to all who matriculate from its programs and particularly for the Muslim students who are in an imamate track. Being exposed to thinking and analysis from a non-adherent’s perspective can create added depth to a Muslim student’s understanding of Islam and of the opportunities and the threats surrounding Islam’s hoped for integration into American society.

There is nothing unrealistic about this idea. Scholars like Zaid Shakir, Hamza Yusuf, and Umar Faruq-Abdullah have the unique mix of an American upbringing coupled with classical Islamic training to make this form of education a reality.

One of the bigger challenges will be in securing adequate funding that will allow the institution to maintain a high standard for the prospective students and in attracting high caliber students to this field of study.

Along the way Zaytuna Institute or any other organization that undertakes this important work of institution building will encounter the accusations of being an “American madrassah” in the vein of those institutions that are producing Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This challenge is neither here nor there. It is the reality of being a Muslim in America.

Individuals, irrespective of whether they are Muslims and or scholars, may draw their own conclusions on whether or not Islam and America are compatible. However, in order for American-Muslims to dispel the misperception of incompatibility it will take American Islamic scholars who have the educational and intellectual gravitas to go toe to toe with foreign trained and overseas scholars.

American-Muslims cannot continue looking overseas only for Islamic scholars. American Islamic scholars need to be nurtured and trained in America.  And while institutions like Zaytuna Institute work on launching new educational institution, the rest of the American Muslim community needs to work concurrently to create professional opportunities for these future American Islamic scholars within our mosques, think tanks and other Muslim institutions.

7th Anniversary of 9/11: Reflections

On this seven year anniversary of 9/11 I want don’t want to focus on Muslims.  That has been done.  Today I want to focus on Americans, and how we as Americans can work together to enhance our national security.

On September 11, 2001 virtually all Americans were bewildered by the depravity of the terror attacks.  Many Americans harbored more than a little anger at Muslims.

Americans’ anger at Muslims, both abroad and at home, was an understandable gut reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks.  After all, the perpetrators and their leaders cloaked their ruthlessness in Islam, so what else are we to think?

Seven years later we have an enormous wealth of experiences from which to draw lessons for our future.  We tried extraordinary renditions.  We tinkered with internment.  We continue to operate the GITMO military detention facility and we continue to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But alas, the terror threat levels never seem to go down.

One lesson I draw from this is that our security at home cannot be won so long as Americans continue to eye America’s Muslims with suspicion.

Many Americans feel that Muslims do not speak out enough against terrorism.  They are wary of Muslims as result.

Pointing out to these folks that Muslims do speak out against terrorism is not the answer.  Obviously the message has not reached enough Americans.

It is also not acceptable to say that it is unfair to expect Muslims to explain why terrorism is not condoned by Islam.  The men who committed mass murder on 9/11 were Muslims, so Americans of other faiths have a right to seek answers and Muslims have a duty to supply them.  If Muslims want to blame some one for this extra duty, blame Osama bin Laden.

But Muslims cannot possible do it alone.  There are between 3 to 6 million Muslims among the 300 million people living in America.  The only way that one Muslim is going to have any chance of reaching enough people with a personalized message of what Islam really is and what Muslims truly believe is by winning over other Americans who can help carry the message to others.

It’s not about proselytizing.  It’s about understanding.

Americans of all faiths need to be proactive.  We cannot afford to let anger and distrust keep us from knowing one another. 

There are real consequences of distrust among neighbors.  For example, in Chicago, the FBI has been working with the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago to foster a partnership between law enforcement and Muslims.  Why, because Muslims are a vital resource in ferreting out would-be terrorists hiding under the guise of Islam.

But these efforts are often stymied on the street.  How?  Neighbors see these exotic looking people with strange names moving in next door.  Neither side ever makes much of an effort to reach out to the other.  Soon a call is made to the FBI.  The FBI says they must investigate all such tips. 

That means FBI agents end up knocking on doors of law abiding Muslims who happen to wear beards and dress in ethnic attire.  The agents have done some background research on the person or persons to be questioned.  They talk to these Muslims and conclude that it is a false alarm.  Case closed.

When this happens a lot, people start talking and a sense of victimization develops.  Muslims begin to feel, perhaps rightfully so, that they are being targeted because of their religion. 

These folks are not going to be keen to cooperate with law enforcement.  It is not out of spite, but out of fear of entrapment.

We need to get beyond it.  On this seventh anniversary of 9/11, Americans need to commit to developing personal relationships with others with whom they do not share a lot in common.

Since September 11 there have been many “one and done” bridge building and interfaith events that bring a lot of people together.  Many good people come together, lots of good words are shared and the event is done.  There is no follow up.  In many instances those who come are often the converted – people who already work on building relationships.

Still, these events are meaningful because they show us that different people can come together.

But we need to do more.  Real security starts in our neighborhoods and it requires personal relationships among neighbors.  All Americans share this responsibility.

Because we are a diverse society, our neighbors and co-workers may not look like us, they may not eat what we eat, nor pray as we pray.  Guess what?  These are precisely the folks with whom we need to connect.

Relying on pundits and politicians to tell us who is good or who believes what is foolish.  We need to make these judgments ourselves.  These judgments must be based on our personal contact with those we mean to judge. 

We need to meet and relate with our neighbors one on one.  We need to decide for ourselves, based on our personal contact, whom we can trust and with whom we can build our communities.

It may sound hokey but there is no substitute for knowing someone on a person level.

A Muslim Lawyer’s Defense of Publishing the Muhammad Cartoons

This article was also published at

I am a Muslim.

As a Muslim I am offended, disturbed and dismayed by the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 and subsequently in numerous European publications. I am also offended by the whole brouhaha that erupted after the cartoons’ publication. I am offended by the rude and vile depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. I am disturbed that so many enlightened people in the West fail to see that these bigoted caricatures maligning the entire Muslim community are symptomatic of a rapidly growing, irrational hatred for Muslims.

I also am dismayed by the idiotic and shortsighted response to these cartoons by Muslims all over the world. Despite my personal feelings about the cartoons, I am helping Acton Gorton, the young man who reprinted some of these same cartoons in the Daily Illini, a newspaper that serves the University of Illinois community in Champaign, Illinois. I am Acton’s attorney. Acton was suspended by his employer, the Daily Illini, for publishing the cartoons. Those who noticed that I am a Muslim attorney quickly pointed out the irony, and I readily admit that it is ironic.

However, strange though it may be, it is the right thing to do. By defending Acton I am defending First Amendment rights. In responding to the cartoon controversy many Muslims in the West, and particularly in the United States, seem to have forgotten that our community is suffering an ongoing curtailment of our First Amendment rights. Too many people in the post-9/11 world are ready to abdicate these and other fundamental rights in the hopes of greater physical security.

There is evidence of the erosion of First Amendment rights of Muslims everywhere. Muslims are increasingly being forced to suppress deeply held beliefs, candid political observations, and personal convictions for fear of governmental and vigilante reprisals. Today, imams who speak to Muslims about matters of self-defense and jihad as Qur’anic injunctions are in jeopardy of criminal prosecution for incitement. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anyone who dares to link U.S. policies with Al-Qaeda sponsored terrorism is vilified and demonized. At this rate non-violent civil disobedience by Muslims very soon will be characterized as providing material support and aid to terrorists.

I object to such curtailments of the First Amendment. As a matter of principle then, I must also object to any attempts to censor the republication of the cartoons. To demand unfettered free speech only when it suits me would be hypocritical. Some have framed this issue as being about responsibility rather than free speech. Everyone is charged with exercising his or her rights in a responsible manner.

However, responsibility is not the same as tact. In Acton’s case, I found that he acted responsibly and tactfully. He did not publish the cartoons to thumb his nose at Muslims. He took responsibility for publishing the cartoons, he made it clear that he too felt the cartoons were bigoted, and he stated clearly his desire to promote understanding in the community over the worldwide controversy by actually showing the cartoons in the Daily Illini.

Acton had me at the First Amendment, but it did not hurt that he conducted himself responsibly and tactfully as well. This just made it more enjoyable to work with him.

Although I knew from the moment I was asked to help that this was a case and a cause with which I wanted to be involved, I did pause to consider the possible fallout. My concern was how my involvement in this case would be received by my fellow Muslims. I steeled myself for some hate email and dirty looks, and then jumped into the fray.

So far the reaction from other Muslims has been muted. Maybe that’s because Muslims in the U.S. are very enlightened and thoughtful people. In part it may also be that I do not get out much, and so I have not heard what people are saying. And of course apathy is always involved to some degree.

There has been more of a reaction from my colleagues outside the Muslim community. The day after my role in the case was reported in a local paper, a colleague from the ACLU called to say some words of encouragement and to find out “how the reaction has been.” The first time I walked into a court building after taking the case I was approached by several attorneys and court personnel who wanted to know how and why I got involved in Acton’s case.

I hope that my work with Acton Gorton will be productive beyond the legal issues of this case. Often times I find that there are many erroneous pre-conceived notions about the “other” when it comes to talking about the West and Islam. It would be wonderful if we could refute a few stereotypes along the way.



American Mosques Promoting Wahabi Hate Ideologies?

[This is my first blog post ever – from February 2005]

By Junaid M. Afeef Published by , Institute for Social Policy & Understanding & Muslim Journal

A new study entitled “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques” was recently released by Freedom House. Whether the study is accurate or not, it will certainly invite greater governmental scrutiny on the American-Muslim community.


The stated purpose of the study is to “probe in detail the content of the Wahhabi ideology that the Saudi government has worked to propagate through books and other publications within [U.S.] borders.” Its conclusions and recommendations are of vital concern to the American-Muslim community. The American-Muslim leadership in particular needs to analyze the study and to respond quickly and effectively. If this study’s conclusions are accurate, then the American-Muslim community needs to undertake a monumental overhaul of its institutions and the management of its resources and infrastructure. On the other hand, if there are errors, inaccuracies, methodological problems or additional relevant facts not considered in the study, then it behooves the American-Muslim leadership to correct the record. In either case, the failure to act by American-Muslims will be extremely deleterious to the community’s safety and well-being.


Who Is Behind The Study?

The study was done by Freedom House and its Center for Religious Freedom. Freedom House describes itself as a non-partisan, non-profit organization working to advance worldwide economic and political freedom. It is headquartered in New York City. Founded over 60 years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Wilkie and others, today it is led by a board of trustees that includes, among others, R. James Woolsey (former CIA Director), Steve Forbes Jr. (President of Forbes, Inc.), Samuel Huntington (Harvard professor), Farooq Kathwari (President of Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc.), Jeane Kirkpatrick (former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. ), Mara Liasson (NPR White House Correspondent), Azar Nafisi (Johns Hopkins University professor), P.J. O’Rourke (journalist), and Bill Richardson (Governor of New New Mexico).

The “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques” study was funded by two foundations. The first is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is a private grant-making organization founded in 1985. According to the Foundation’s website it is “devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles and values that sustain and nurture it” and its “programs support limited, competent government; a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual, and cultural activity; and a vigorous defense at home and abroad of American ideas and institutions.” However, Mark O’Keefe of Newhouse News Service reported about the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation as follows: “Name a conservative idea — whether it’s school vouchers, faith-based initiatives or the premise that there’s a worldwide clash of civilizations — and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is apt to have its fingerprints on it.” Furthermore, in June 2003 Salim Muwakkil of In These Times wrote that the “Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has been the economic fount for the neoconservative notions of global affairs now ascendant in the Bush administration” and that “[a]ccording to a report by Media Transparency, from 1995 to 2001 the Milwaukee-based foundation provided about $14.5 million to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the think tank most responsible for incubating and nourishing the ideas of the neocon movement.”

The JM Foundation is reported as the other source of funding. JM Foundation is headquartered in New York City. Its stated objective is to “encourage market-oriented public policy solutions; to enhance America’s unique system of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, private property ownership, and voluntarism; and to strengthen American families.” Many of JM Foundation’s other grant recipients can also be found in People for the American Way’s “Right Wing Watch” list.

How Did They Do The Study?

By its own admission the study is not a general survey of American mosques. In fact, it actually looked at only 15 mosques throughout the United States. No explanation has been proffered as to how these particular mosques were targeted. The libraries and book collections of the selected mosques were inspected in November and December 2003 and again in December 2004. Seven of these mosques were on the east coast (NY, NJ, D.C., VA). Three mosques identified in this study were from Texas. On the west coast there were four mosques in California. From the midwest there was only one mosque from Illinois in the study. The report includes a list of the mosques and their respective addresses. Some 200 books and publications were collected. However, only 57 of these books and publications were used in the study. All of the 57 books and publications used in this study were written in Arabic or English. In the case of the Arabic literature, the texts were translated into English. Interestingly, the translators identities are withheld. This is reportedly for safety considerations.

The study includes a bibliography of the books and publications used. In addition to the texts, the study cites newspaper and magazine reports, books and journal articles, interviews and online resources. Some of the more interesting and or well known individuals cited include Khalid Du’ran, Stephen Emerson, Stephen Schwartz, Hisham Kabbani, Cheryl Benard and Fouad Ajami. The study’s report includes four pages of citation notes.

What Did These Books and Publications Say?

The cited materials are, as a matter of fact, extreme, incendiary and vitriolic. The study divided the subject matter of these books and publications into 7 categories of “hate ideology”. The categories are: (1) Christians, Jews and Other “Infidels”, (2) Jews, (3) Other Muslims, (4) Anti-American, (5) Infidel Conspiracies, (6) Jihad Ideology, and (7) Suppression of Women. One document states that it is a Muslim’s duty to cultivate enmity between oneself and unbelievers and that hatred of unbelievers is proof that the Muslim has completed disassociated himself from the unbelievers. Another document state’s that Muslims may have non-Muslim domestic workers in their homes, but that the Muslims must hate their “infidel” domestic workers and not treat them as they would another Muslim. The study cites many other, similarly obnoxious pronouncements such as the prohibition of Muslims initiating greetings with non-Muslims and the prohibition of Muslims greeting non-Muslims on their holidays. However, the study also cites to some other, more serious examples of hate in which Muslims are commanded to “spill blood” of infidels and apostates.

The Study’s Conclusions & Recommendations

The study concluded that American mosques are filled with Saudi publications that promote hate ideology. All of the books and publications were found to have some connection to Saudi Arabia. According to the study, these publications advanced a “dualistic worldview in which there exist two antagonistic realms or abodes that can never be reconciled – Dar Al-Islam and Dar Al-Harb, or Abode of War…and that when Muslims are in the latter, they must behave as if on a mission behind enemy lines.” The study also concluded that these publications “pose a grave threat to non-Muslims and to the Muslim community itself.”

The study further found that the “spread of Islamic extremism, such as Wahabbism, is the most serious ideological challenge of our times” and that “[t]he Saudis’ totalitarian doctrine of religious hatred – now planted in many America mosques – is inimical to our tolerant culture, and undermines the war on terrorism by providing the intellectual foundation for a new generation of Islamic extremists.” Preempting any constitutional defense that might be proffered from “marketplace of ideas” types, the study places these Saudi publications outside of First Amendment protection. The study argues that these publications are beyond even protected hate speech because “it is a totalitarian ideology that can incite to violence.”

Given the strong language used in the report, one might fully expect that the study calls these documents a clear and present danger to the United States. The study makes several recommendations based on its conclusions. First and foremost, the study recommends that the United States “take into consideration the high-stakes struggle over ideology within Islam and the central role Saudi Arabia continues to play in it” when formulating foreign policy. Other recommendations include: (1) an “official study of the Saudi export of hate ideology around the world”, (2) “an official protest at the highest levels of the Saudi government about its publications and fatwas lining the shelves of some of our most important mosques”, (3) a call for “mosque leaders to remove these hateful publications and materials” and (4) a call for “private sources of financing” to replace the Saudi publications in American mosques with “textbooks and tracts that emphasize religious toleration and the principles of individual religious freedom and other basic human rights.”


The study clearly shows that these 15 American mosques included some very hateful books in its libraries. However, to suggest that all American mosques are filled with such publications is a stretch. While the title does not technically use the phrase “All American Mosques”, the implication is evident. The concern is that these “hate ideology” tracts are influencing American-Muslims. However, this is probably not likely since, as the study found, 90 percent of the books and publications found were written in Arabic. The majority of American-Muslims are not of Arab descent and certainly a majority of American-Muslims do not read and understand Arabic. So, even as these books sat on bookshelves in the 15 mosque libraries, very few people could actually read them.

The study did not assess or evaluate the other books in the mosque libraries it investigated. Were there other books and publications that espoused views different from those spotlighted in the study? After all, in the “marketplace of ideas” the best way to counter hateful ideas is to inject speech that counters and challenges such ideas.

Another issue is the frequency with which these mosque libraries were actually used. These issues should have been addressed. They were not, and that certainly has an impact on the credibility of the study’s conclusions and recommendations. Another problem with this study is its uncritical inclusion of Hisham Kabbani and Stephen Schwartz’s claims that 80 to 85 percent of American mosques are controlled by Wahabbis. This claim is unsubstantiated. As a matter of fact, there is good reason to believe that radical, salafist/wahabbi views represent a very small segment of the American-Muslim community.

In the summer of 2004, several months prior to the release of the Freedom House study, the “Detroit Mosque Study” by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that only 6 percent of Detroit’s mosque-attending population espoused salafist/wahabbi views. In fact, the study concluded that the vast majority of Ameican-Muslims eschew extremist views. ISPU’s “Detroit Mosque Study” received significant media attention. It has even been favorably cited by the U.S. State Department. The “Detroit Mosque Study” certainly should have been considered by Freedom House in the interest of producing fair and balanced research.

The last concern is one that should resonate with critics who find nefarious undercurrents in the alleged presence of Saudi money in American-Muslim institutions. This study was funded by foundations that have clear right wing agendas. The cited experts have a history of being inimical to Islam in general and American-Muslims in particular. The lack of balance puts significant portions of the study under a dubious light. American-Muslim leaders must thoroughly scrutinize this study.

Despite its limitations, the study highlights an ugly undercurrent in modern Islamic discourse that American-Muslims must openly confront. However, in the vigor to expose strains of extremism, we must not forget that open discussion is the best tool to debunk the extremist literature rather than a suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.