John Ashcroft: Islam's Liberal Reformer?

Have new domestic security policies instilled American Muslims with a greater sense of civic participation?

August 1, 2002

Have new domestic security policies instilled American Muslims with a greater sense of civic participation?

If there were a contest to identify who was hated most by American Muslims, Attorney General John Ashcroft would easily defeat religious right-wingers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham.

The civil rights environment in the United States has declined drastically for Muslims with the passage of the USA Patriot Act and with the new measures taken by the FBI and INS to monitor Muslims, their institutions — and their immigration status.

Muslims believe that they are the targets of a witch-hunt, of racial profiling and growing Islamophobia in America. Even today, hundreds of Muslims still remain in detention, not knowing why they have been detained — and what will happen to them.

American Muslims place the blame squarely on Mr. Ashcroft for this deterioration of their civil liberties. Many American Muslims also believe that the Attorney General himself harbors ill will towards Islam and Muslims.

I too have struggled with my heart's desire to hate him. I have never missed an opportunity to make a snide comment or a witty rebuke at the expense of the Attorney General.

But for a few months now, I have grudgingly developed a sense of gratitude towards Mr. Ashcroft: He has performed a minor miracle.

The attorney general has succeeded in only two years where many liberal Muslim reformers have failed over many decades.

Mr. Ashcroft has managed to instill a sense of appreciation for secularism, the American constitution, the Bill of Rights and — most importantly — for the rule of law and democratic participation among Muslims.

In trying to cope with the changing legal environment in this country, American Muslims have been undergoing a silent revolution.

Today, there is no more talk of making America an Islamic state. Any reminder of this pre-Ashcroft vision of some American Muslims generates sheepish giggles and snorts from Muslim audiences.

Today, the overwhelming desire of most American Muslims is that America remains true to its democratic and secular values. They want to ensure that its constitution is not violated by legislation, such as the USA Patriot Act.

They also want to guard against counter-terrorism measures that use racial profiling, secret evidence or other techniques from the bag of new tricks introduced by the Department of Justice.

In short, American Muslims have now become vocal champions of the Bill of Rights and great admirers of Thomas Jefferson.

I travel all across the country and speak to Muslims in universities, in mosques, in hotels, behind closed doors and in open forums. I can see the slow and silent, but definite and definitive shift in Muslim attitudes towards the virtues of liberal democracy.

One can understand that having got used to civil liberties and having witnessed the decline of their protection, they now focus on civil rights activism. But what is interesting is the realization that if religion influences policy it can be detrimental to minorities.

The Ashcroft revolution has deeper manifestations. It is having a fundamental impact on American Muslim identity.

American Muslims remain concerned about assimilation and our number one goal is identity preservation. Before 9/11 our goal was to preserve and manifest "the Muslim" in the American Muslim.

This also explained the obsession with conspicuous consumption of Islam through the emphasis on constructing Mosques with Islamic architectural designs and the proliferation of the prefix "Islamic" in nearly every project.

But now the emphasis has shifted — and the community is determined to underscore "the American" in American Muslims.

The best example of this is the advertising campaign launched by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), in which Muslims announce that "We are American and We are Muslims.” It is not without design that the "American" is stated first.

For a long time, Muslims argued that they were Muslims who happened to be in America — and not American Muslims. In contrast, the term American Muslims, much more prominent today, suggests that we are Americans who are also Muslim.

The proposed USA Patriot Act II, which — if passed in its current form — could strip some American Muslims of their citizenship, has settled the debate. We are now indeed American Muslims rather than Muslim Americans.

When American citizenship was taken for granted, its value and virtues were not acknowledged. But now that it is in danger, Muslims are embracing it.

Increasingly, young Muslims are turning towards the legal profession. Many are also contemplating a life of public service or careers in public policy.

Young Muslims today ask me in whispers: "Should I join the FBI or the CIA? They need people like us — and I could do a lot for America and Muslims by helping the United States make good policy." I reply: "What do you think I am doing at the Brookings Institution?" And I refuse to whisper when I answer their questions.

Before John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice put Muslim civil rights at risk, the American Muslim community was primarily a foreign policy community — focused on changing U.S. policy towards Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq.

American Muslims invested little in developing institutions for civil rights protection, completely trusting the U.S. government to do so.

But now that the U.S. government itself has become the greatest threat to Muslim liberties, the community is reconstituting itself as a domestic policy community.

The latest slogan among American Muslims is to go local, go mainstream — and go American. With this new sense of what it means to be an American — and, more importantly, what the loss of civil rights entails — the "mainstreaming" of American Muslims is becoming a reality.

The changes taking place within the American Muslim community are profound and will have far reaching consequences. They will not only have a positive impact on the Muslim world — but also on U.S. relations with the Muslim World.

As a Muslim reformer seeking to promote freedom and respect for rights and democracy among Muslims, I grudgingly concede that Mr. Ashcroft has done more towards the democratization of American Muslims than any single individual.

But he should not go any further in curtailing the civil liberties of American Muslims — lest they lose faith in America and American values like liberty and democracy — which they now so dearly value.