Which is the more serious problem today: Islamic extremism or anti-Islamic bigotry?
The latest contribution to this debate comes from The Nation, the leading magazine of America's left, in its current special edition on "Islamophobia: Anatomy of an American Panic." Its articles address a real and serious issue -- but they also illustrate the pitfalls of ignoring its other side.
There's no doubt that virulent rhetoric depicting all Islam as inherently evil and violent, and virtually all Muslims as potential jihadists, has gained alarming currency on the right. Such Muslim-bashing is not simply demeaning but can lead to violence, harassment and infringements on the fundamental liberties of Muslim Americans. The New York Police Department has been criticized for overly broad surveillance of ordinary Muslims. Recent years have seen a wave of attempts to block construction of mosques and Islamic centers across the country. Bills seeking to outlaw the use of Shariah law in American courts -- already illegal if it infringes on citizens' constitutional rights -- could interfere with private contracts rooted in religious law.
Yet nowhere in The Nation will one find recognition that extremism in Islam is a particularly serious problem. One author dismisses the issue by stating that "every group has its loonies." Another writes that while misogyny and religious repression in some Muslim countries should be denounced, it can be done without generalizing about Islam.
Of course all religions have fringe groups and ideas. But for complex historical and cultural reasons, radicalism in Islam is far closer to the mainstream than in other major religions right now. There is no country today where a Christian government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy or illicit sex; several Muslim states do, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Some supposedly moderate Muslim clerics, such as Qatar-born Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, defend executions of gays, sanction "light" wife-beating and peddle hatred of Jews.
Most American Muslims do not share such repugnant views; the Muslim community here is far more integrated into the mainstream than it is in Europe. Yet the problem of radicalization is real. Freedom House, an esteemed human rights organization, reports that many U.S. mosques carry extremist literature. Supposedly moderate Muslim groups such as the Islamic Circle of North America have hosted speakers with extreme ideas. A 2007 Pew poll [pdf] found that 27 percent of American Muslim men younger than 30 believe suicide terrorism in defense of Islam is at least sometimes justified.
Many American Muslims stress the importance of combating not only anti-Muslim bigotry but extremism in Muslim ranks. The modernization of Islam is an essential priority for the world. Right-wing Islamophobes such as bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are hostile to this effort, insisting that Islam is beyond reform and any talk of moderation is a deceptive smoke screen.
But where do left-wing defenders of Muslims' civil rights stand? One of The Nation's articles attacks philanthropist Nina Rosenwald for bankrolling supposedly Islamophobic causes. Some groups Rosenwald has funded deserve the criticism, but the article also singles out her support for the work of "dissident" Muslims such as Irshad Manji, an openly gay Canadian journalist who argues that Islam must overcome the still-powerful legacy of sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. When a progressive leftist magazine goes after a gay Muslim feminist because she is too outspoken against religious reactionaries, something's wrong.
Concerns about bigotry are justified. But they should not deter legitimate debate about problems in modern Islam.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday, where this article originally appeared.