Moderate, peaceful Muslims should not be ignored

As a matter of fact, in my case, I further realized the prominent role of Sheikh bin Bayyah when I heard positive comments about him from an American Jewish scholar in terms of his contribution to efforts to promote moderation among the Afghan religious leaders and scholars. Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at George Mason University, remarked last year, “Sheikh bin Bayyah is one of the gentlest and most peace-oriented scholars I have ever met in the Islamic world. His commitment to train in the writing of fatwas by responsible, highly educated and moral students has been his most important contribution to global peace and the prevention of the hijacking of Islam by irresponsible extremists.”

Sheikh Bayyah is a central figure in the project of the U.S. Muslims to help promote religious freedom and rights of religious minorities in the Muslim world. Is it not normal to expect that the U.S. government would support such an effort? Is it not exactly in line with upholding the national interest of the United States?  In fact, the direction taken recently by Secretary Kerry at the State Department and President Obama has been a conscious effort to create common cause with such courageous scholars who are stepping forward teaching and educating millions of students in peaceful approaches to religion.    

As is explained on their website, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has been playing an important role in elevating the issue of rights of religious minorities in Muslim majority countries to the forefront of scholarly discussion in the Muslim world.  When from West Africa to East Asia communities are suffering from religious and sectarian divides and increasing confrontations, and at a time when the U.S. is paying ever-increasing attention to promote freedom of religion around the globe, is it not only fair and natural to expect that this constructive bridging role of the U.S. Muslims be praised and supported by the US government, institutions and public opinion?

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Being an active participant at open debates, particularly at the interfaith gatherings and academic think tank initiatives in the United States and around the world, has made the U.S. Muslim community wiser and more open-minded on tackling challenges and issues at a time when radicalization is taking hold in different parts of the Muslim world. When ISNA initiated its project, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary General Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu confirmed his support. In a 2012 letter to ISNA President Imam Muhammad Magid, he stated that “challenges faced by religious minorities in Muslim majority countries, as well as the task of inter-religious dialogue with faith-based organizations in the West, are issues of critical concern at the present time.” 

Defining struggles are going on in Muslim majority countries towards promotion of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, pluralism, empowerment of civil society, women and youth, as well as against terrorism and radical forces. This is not the time to target and alienate the very American Muslims who are championing peace and moderation and highlighting the work of courageous peaceful scholars. This is the time for the American community to support, applaud and encourage such efforts, and that is precisely what the White House and the Secretary of State are doing.

This is the right time for national governments, leaders and prominent personalities  to rise to the challenge and advocate compassion by acting as role models for the societies and particularly youth, to support scholars committed to peace, justice and compassion and respect for others. OIC Secretary General Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu’s visit to a church in Iraq after it was attacked, his recent visits to a synagogue in Suriname and to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. were not only human gestures but also an appeal for moderation, mutual respect and co-existence in the face of messages of hatred.  Similarly the initiative of Pope Francis to sign personally and send a message on the occasion of Muslim religious festivity Eid Al-Fitr, “as an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims” should be noted as a gesture of “reaching out.”  We desperately need replication of these positive examples of empathy and good will.

As for the U.S. society, the traumas created by the September 11 attacks and all the following devious terrorist acts and attempts, right up to the Boston marathon attacks, are understandable sources of fear and concern. However, it should not be forgotten that the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world reject the ideology behind these terrorist acts and attempts which have killed far more Muslims than U.S. citizens. Only joint action based on common sense will enable us to get over this malaise.  

We applaud the American Muslim community and the White House for reaching out in dialogue, mutual respect, and a determination to highlight the most respected and moderate voices of Muslim civilization.

Ambassador Gokcen is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's Permanent Observer to the United Nations.