The April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, and the revelations that have come out since about the identities and alleged motivations of the suspects, have renewed long-running debates in the media about whether terrorism represents an outgrowth of mainstream Islam or is a perversion of the faith.
In the dozen years since the Sept. 11 attacks, prominent Jews have found themselves in opposite camps when it comes to whether or not to engage Muslim groups. One side argues for dialogue and differentiates American Islam from more radical strains elsewhere. Those in favor of forming an alliance have worried that all American Muslims are being tarred by the actions of a tiny minority.
Their opponents state that while there may be moderate Muslims, there is no such thing as moderate Islam. Furthermore, many conservatives have argued that certain Muslim groups are seeking to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, on American society.
On April 23, a Jewish community event attended by more than 300 people featured three thinkers who espouse the latter position: Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy; Andrew McCarthy, a lead prosecutor on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum. (Pipes is the only one of the trio who’s Jewish.)
The program, held at the Crown Plaza on City Avenue, was dubbed “What We Need to Know About National Security for America and Israel.” Aish Philadelphia’s annual Israel event had been planned long in advance of the tragic events of April 15, but Boston became the dominant topic since the program fell just a few days after authorities had apprehended the second suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (The Jewish Exponent cosponsored the event, but the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia declined to lend its imprint, saying it wasn’t balanced.)
The audience was overwhelmingly receptive to the speakers.
All three panelists argued that Jewish groups should be wary of dialogue with Muslim leaders and organizations since Islam, as encapsulated by its legal code, is antithetical to American values.
“There is an Islam that is practiced authoritatively and is usually described by those as Shariah. It is immoderate to say the least,” said Gaffney, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces and arms control policy under President Ronald Reagan.
“And I think it is equally clear that there are many Muslims around the world, and most especially in this country, who practice what they consider to be Islam, without regard to Shariah,” he said, stressing that most American Muslims are law abiding.
McCarthy, who directs the Philadelphia Freedom Center, said he became concerned about the tenets of Islam while prosecuting Omar Abdel-Rahman, the mastermind of the 1993 Trade Center bombing that killed six and injured more than 1,000. Abdel-Rahman said that he had acted in accordance with his faith.
McCarthy said that if Abdel-Rahman was misrepresenting Islam, prosecutors would have caught him on it.
“We scrubbed everything he had ever written, every long, long speech he had ever given, every Friday sermon that we had tape on. And you know what we found out?” said McCarthy. “Every time he cited a verse” from the Koran or elsewhere, “he cited it accurately.”
Pipes, who has won fans and stirred criticism for his views on Islam, said he remains hopeful that the religion can transform itself over time to become compatible with modernity and democracy.
The scholar took Jewish institutions to task in a recent blog post on danielpipes.com titled “Mainstream Jewish Institutions Celebrate Anti-Zionists.” Pipes criticized Federation for hosting prominent Palestinian Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, back in 2011.
He also singled out the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy for a March 13 talk by Zak Ebrahim, whose father, El-Sayed Nosai, had a role in planning the 1993 World Trade Center attack.
Ebrahim told Barrack students his life story, his personal rejection of radical Islam and how he is haunted by the acts of his father and his father’s friends.
Sharon Levin, Barrack’s head of school, was incensed by Pipes’ critique and had privately asked Pipes to remove the reference to Barrack on the post. Pipes ultimately did so, saying in an email that he looked deeper and found that Ebrahim “does not attack Israel.”
Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer directs the department of multifaith studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and spearheads numerous interfaith projects involving Muslims. Kreimer, who was not at the Aish event, said in an interview that too many in the Jewish community have taken the wrong approach when it comes to Muslims and Islam.
“There is no cause for everyone in this country to turn around and say, ‘This is what all Muslims are like,’ ” she said, adding that the Tsarnaev brothers do not “represent Islam,” at least as far as it is practiced in most American mosques.
How is a non-expert to know what to believe — short of spending years studying the Koran and Islamic jurisprudence?
Kreimer said that is exactly the point: Studying the Koran won’t tell you about American Muslims any more than reading the Hebrew Bible — in all its gory details — will teach one about the lives of American Jews.
“You need a different conceptual frame to sort this out. We are not talking about what it says in ancient texts. We are Americans. What do Muslims living in our neighborhood think and believe?” she asked rhetorically, arguing that sociological studies have shown that, by and large, American Muslims have rejected extremism.
She stressed that religions are “complex weaves. We have strands of our tradition that are very peace-loving and strands that are very violent. It is true of Christianity — big time — and it is true of Islam.”