Whatever we may think about Imam Rauf and his Manhattan project, sooner or later we are going to have to face a serious problem: what to do about the hundreds of radical mosques in this country. It’s a serious problem because, as Bernard Henri Levi wrote some years ago, every terrorist has a mosque. Indeed, some became terrorists because of what they were told in mosques. Many young, alienated Muslims found the meaning of life by joining jihad, and they were encouraged to become terrorists by radical imams and ayatollahs.
We in Greater Washington know a thing or two about this process, through the story of the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church. The Center employed Imam Anwar Awlaki as its prayer leader from 2000 to 2002. Awlaki met privately with two of the 9/11 hijackers in closed-door meetings, and radicalized three American terrorists: the Fort Hood killer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan; the “Christmas Day bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad. Now designated as a key member of al-Qaeda, Imam Awlaki is hiding in Yemen.
Take another local case: An Iranian-American imam named Muhammad al-Asi was for several years the head of the Muslim Community School and the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Maryland. He was also briefly the imam at the Islamic Center of Washington. The Islamic Education Center distributes literature direct from Tehran, including the Ayatollah Khomeini’s celebrated death sentence on the novelist Salman Rushdie, and sells anti-Semitic tapes from Switzerland that praise Khomeini as a latter-day Hitler. Al-Asi has been honored at an official dinner in Tehran, with Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamene’i, presiding.
We’re not talking about a handful of mosques, and the schools associated with them. As of 9/11, there were at least 1,200. Most are radical. The American Sufi leader Sheik Hisham Kabbani, who founded the Islamic Supreme Council of America to combat the influence of radical (Saudi) Wahhabis in the United States, testified at a State Department hearing that 80 percent of the nation’s mosques were under radical influence or outright control.
It’s safe to say that most of Awlaki’s words, like al-Asi’s, were religious, and that, even if law enforcement officials had known about them, they could not have acted. That’s because we avidly defend free speech, and religious speech is specially protected. All manner of self-proclaimed religious leaders are free to preach. I wouldn’t change it; I cherish it. On the other hand, I don’t want the likes of Mr. Awlaki exploiting “protected speech” to inspire and recruit terrorists. And there is no doubt that those schools and mosques are breeding grounds for future terrorists. In some cases they are actual pieces of the terror network itself.
What to do? We can’t criminalize religious speech, but it’s folly to give radical Muslim clerics an unchallenged opportunity to indoctrinate their followers. There is a great range of “Muslim doctrine,” much of it admirable. On the other hand, the terror imams didn’t invent the Koranic language they used to indoctrinate the killers. We have to expose and condemn them, and their doctrines.
We don’t want to undo our Constitutional protection of speech, but the same First Amendment that protects radical imams enables us to defend our culture and our lives against them.
Some will no doubt say that we non-Muslims have no “standing” to attack their beliefs, but Americans have historically spoken out against ideas — political, religious, artistic, literary, whatever — that we find odious. It’s self-defeating to remain silent in the face of evil and those who advocate it, whoever or whatever they are.
Lots of people in the West have, as a brilliant book explains in elegant detail, been paralyzed by guilt, and dare not criticize our enemies. This disgusting and dangerous censorship goes by the Orwellian name of “political correctness,” and underlies a great deal of the crisis we’re in. It pretends to show sympathy by forbidding criticism of most anyone (except a conservative, a Christian, or a Jew), but in fact it is the opposite: we show no respect to Muslim Americans by pretending their ideas do not matter to us.
Many scholars of Islam yearn for an Islamic “Reformation” that would modernize the faith and enable Muslims to participate more fully in the modern world. Perhaps we can help. Yes, they can say whatever they wish. And we can tell them what we think about it. It’s called free speech and vigorous debate.