STEPHEN SACKUR (HARDTalk HOST): There are close to two million Muslims living in Britain. According to opinion surveys, many feel angry, alienated and victimized. Recent national debates about the veil, hate schools, and anti-terror legislations have exposed a host of raw nerves. But does it need to be this way? Well, my guest today is a senior figure in the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Are there lessons to be learned from the U.S. about integrating Muslims in Western society?
SACKUR: Ahmed Rehab, welcome to hard talk.
AHMED REHAB (CAIR-Chicago): Thank you very much. Glad to be on.
SACKUR: There are about eight million Muslims, eight million or so, in America. Are they well integrated, do you believe?
REHAB: I think for the most part we tend to be well integrated. In America, Muslims tend to be more affluent than the average American, which I understand to be different from the situation of Muslims in Great Britain.
SACKUR: Very different. Do you think it makes a big difference?
REHAB: I think it does make a difference. The other two main differences I would say is that Muslims integrated into a heterogeneous society. Americans for the most part are themselves of immigrant backgrounds, and so we have this legacy that we became a part of; whereas, many Muslim immigrants coming from South Asia into the United Kingdom came into a homogeneous society, and it was harder for them to integrate into this single, uniform block…
SACKUR: So the cliché about America being a nation of immigrants; It does matter, does it?
REHAB: I think it makes a big difference because we don’t tend to see ourselves as “the” other. There are many other “others” which makes it a lot easier for you to see yourself as an American - as opposed to something else.
SACKUR: We’re gonna talk a lot about politics, the political climate. Has that made a difference to you – let’s personalize it – has it made a difference to you since 9/11, your feeling of being American in a very particular political climate?
REHAB: Strangely enough, it has made me feel more American because it has challenged me to ask myself, ‘Am I or am I not American?’ In the past, I used to take it for granted and now I look at it from a different perspective, which is: ‘I’m being challenged.’ I’m being told that I’m not American enough, and so I have to question –
SACKUR: Who’s telling you this?
REHAB: Well, we feel that we’re being told by aspects of the media, we’re being told by certain polls that are administered within mainstream American society. We’re being told by certain politicians, and it’s almost on a daily basis. It’s not in so many words, but the understanding or the insinuation is as such.
SACKUR: But why, if you believe that the American establishment has turned on Muslims, why does that make you more American than ever?
REHAB: Because in the history of America, the government has always had problematic stances. This isn’t the first time. Other communities have been challenged. But every time, the challenge has an opportunity within it. I want to take advantage of that opportunity. Each cloud has a silver lining; I focus on the silver lining – you know, the glass half full as opposed to half empty - to try to make something positive out of the situation.
SACKUR: Well, if I may say so that is in itself, I suppose, classically American – as an outlook, but I’ve just been looking at your organization’s website and there it refers, and I’m quoting from it, to an historic spike in anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States. It’s not quite so positive, is it?
REHAB: It’s not positive and according to a Washington Post ABC News Poll that was administered in March of 2006, forty-six percent of Americans surveyed say that they have a negative view of Islam, which is a seven percent increase from the same survey administered five years ago in the weeks immediately after 9/11. So, five years later, things have gotten worse.
SACKUR: You’re from Chicago, you live in Chicago. Is there a significant Arab-American and Muslim-American community there?
REHAB: I would say around 400,000 Muslim-Americans in the larger Chicago area.
SACKUR: And have you noticed a change in the way you are dealt with by other Americans?
REHAB: I haven’t personally, but because of the nature of my work - I work with a lot of civil rights grievances and complaints that come to my office - and there has been an increase in these grievances and complaints.
SACKUR: Again, looking at your website it talks about a growth in racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, which infringes on due process, preventing Muslims from participating fully in American civic life. So again, despite your determination to be positive, you’re actually saying that Muslims are being prevented from being called Americans.
REHAB: But the whole idea is for us to focus on the goal, and the goal is to respect the rule of law. As a civil rights activist - Muslim or not - my goal is to hold my government accountable where it makes mistakes to tell it: “the rule of law should reign supreme.”
SACKUR: But five years on from 9/11, you’ve failed, and isn’t it time to start saying, “we have failed and our government is not listening to us”?
REHAB: Oh, we have been saying that actually longer than just now. We’ve been saying it for quite a while, but at the same time we need to be doing something about it, and for us it is community empowerment, it is civic engagement; continuing to talk to our politicians and to challenge them where we feel they’ve failed.
SACKUR: The point is though - isn’t it - that the American government’s intelligence services look at the Muslim-American community and they do believe there is a significant potential threat within it.
REHAB: I think the bigger problem, both for the government and for the mainstream American society, is that they fail to differentiate between the domain of Islam and the domain of terrorism. They may intersect at certain areas, but they’re definitely not concentric and the problem is when we deal with them as if they were one and the same.
SACKUR: But there are individuals, we can name a few, who have been arrested, some charged, some convicted: U.S. citizens of Muslim religious beliefs who’ve been proven to be involved in Al-Qaeda activities.
REHAB: Well for the most part those who have been accused of doing this or that have not been indicted, and have not been convicted, but those who have…
SACKUR: Well, I can quote two individuals. One, Ayman Faris: naturalized U.S. citizen…
REHAB: I’m not denying that. What I’m telling you is that the majority who have been accused have not been convicted. But those who have been convicted - I would say - operate under the threshold of the community just as they do under the threshold of law enforcement. It’s not like they’re being embraced or being held up as representatives of our community; our community is not aware of their presence.
SACKUR: Can you categorically assure me that as far as you are aware every single Muslim community in the United States would report to the authorities, activity which led them to believe there was some sort of extremist terrorist activity going on?
REHAB: Now, I’m not a soothsayer, so I can’t tell you that. But what I can tell you is that from my experience working with different mosques at every level in the Chicago land area - which I think is a pretty representative sample of Muslim America - I would say that yes, the overwhelming majority of mosque leaders would report such problematic activity if they were to be aware of it.
SACKUR: You could be being very complacent, couldn’t you?
REHAB: I don’t think so, because it isn’t - first of all - my personal nature to be complacent. I’m a rather cynical individual.
SACKUR: Well, I’ll take your word for that. But let me just quote to you Shaikh Hisham Qabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. He warned the state department as long ago as 1999 that there was the real possibility of terror threats coming from Muslim extremists in the United States. Two years later we have 9/11.
REHAB: I take his words as demagoguery because when he talks about eighty percent –
SACKUR: You may take it as demagoguery, but as I say, he foresaw 9/11 two years before it happened.
REHAB: But my point is, when he says “eighty percent” and he puts a number as that; a very specific number: ‘Eighty percent of America’s mosques are being led by extremists,’ I mean, did he run a survey? If so - where is the survey? And what are the methodologies used in the survey? And so you can’t really just come out there and slap a number on the table without you having done any real research, having not interacted within the community you are purporting to represent or to talk about. Now the fact that he was right about his prediction, well it’s a hit-or-miss situation. Every turn of the day people are predicting problematic things that will happen in the future – they may or they may not.
SACKUR: I began in my introduction by wondering whether there could be lessons to be learned in terms of the place of Muslims in American society when it comes to considering Muslim identity in the UK. You’re here on a visit to the UK. Do you think you bring with you lessons for the Muslim community here?
REHAB: I really do, as I do bring an open mind for me to learn from the experience of the Muslim community here, it goes both ways. But I do think that in the United States of America, we have engaged - probably more than here - in a process that I would ‘call civic engagement at the grassroots level.’ Trying to empower –
SACKUR: Sounds like jargon. What does it mean?
REHAB: What it means is… the first thing if you want to empower your community is: to talk about shedding the victim mentality. We cannot look at the world through the lens that we are victims who have been mistreated here and there. Although that may be true, we may have suffered certain racist acts, or come from countries that suffer post-colonial economic crisis, so on and so forth, that isn’t our focus. We’re aware of it, but our focus is to the future. What can we do to -
SACKUR: You’ve been talking to me about a massive spike in anti-Muslim discrimination. You’ve been talking to me about racial profiling. You’ve been talking to me about open discrimination on the streets in the United States.
SACKUR: That’s winging, isn’t it?
REHAB: Well, that’s part of what has people think or believe that they are being victimized - rightfully or wrongly. But my point now is talking about our reaction to that. We’ve spoken about that itself, but how do we react? My point is this: we can be aware of it, as we should, but when we react we don’t focus on the negative, we focus on the ray of hope. Even if ninety-nine percent of our experience is negative, I say, ‘Let’s focus on the one percent.’ What can we do positively to empower ourselves; to seek equality, not special status, it’s very important to make that distinction. We don’t want to have special rights as Muslims living in America, but equal rights to everybody else! And that is the foundation of our civil rights work.
SACKUR: It’s a loaded word, “victimization.” Do you in your contact with Muslim community leaders here in Britain, do you feel that they are assuming this victim mindset?
REHAB: I can definitely say that my general experience, my general feeling, is yes, that this victim mentality runs strong. There are many that I have met in this country in the past few days that are aware of this and they are attempting to challenge it, which is a ray of hope for us and I think they will be doing that strongly in the coming days and years.
But I think that part of the reason why this victim mentality exists is because we have had a sort of crisis intellectually within the faith where we are talking about ways of interpreting the faith that are no longer viable. Not to say that the constants of the faith ever change! I’m not trying to say that. What I am trying to say is that within the law of Islam there is a context of interpretation and we have to be looking at today’s context of time and place: the West, 2006 – and not so much fourteen hundred years ago in Arabia.
SACKUR: Are you suggesting that the problem lies in the mosques themselves and with the preachers and the imams who perhaps in your view are stuck in the past?
REHAB: Well, I think integration is a two way street, and I think that part of the problem lies on our shoulders for sure, as it does on the shoulders of the community that is the host community. You know, where racism is a problem, that’s not something we can take credit or discredit for, but what we can focus on, on our end, to integrate, is being able to understand the culture that we have moved into.
When my parents made the decision to emigrate to the United States of America from Egypt a few years ago, they made the decision to be part of that community and so they know that they have rights and responsibilities. Now, when our rights are being jeopardized or undermined, they fight for these rights. They’ve taught me to fight for my rights. At the same time, we also know our obligations and responsibilities, and we are obliged to make them happen.
SACKUR: Let’s talk more about the political climate. We mentioned it already. Let me give you some poll numbers from the last year in the UK. An NOP survey in April of this year found fifty percent of British Muslims thought 9/11 was a conspiracy that had essentially been organized by America, the Jews, Israel. One in four thought the July 7 bombings in London were justified because of British support for the war on terror. How can you explain numbers like that?
REHAB: I would explain it again going back to the fact that intellectually speaking we have a crisis within the community that needs to be resolved theologically and intellectually. For us to be looking at one wrong and then countering it with another wrong, hoping to create a right is absolutely un-Islamic and unacceptable. What is wrong is wrong; what is right is right. Terrorism is wrong, period, full stop. No buts, no ifs. To take innocent lives away because you happen to have a political inclination of one way or another is simply un-Islamic.
SACKUR: But do you think the poll and numbers would be so very different amongst American Muslims?
REHAB: I think they would be. I think we’re more politically mature, that’s one aspect of it. But also I think that our leadership needs to, in this country, our Muslim leadership, needs to step up and they are beginning to do that.
SACKUR: You mean in this country.
REHAB: In the United Kingdom.
SACKUR: You’re talking about your current visit to the UK.
REHAB: Exactly. They need to step up to the plate in terms of acknowledging first of all that these numbers are problematic and doing something about it.
SACKUR: So that’s a failure of leadership?
REHAB: I would say it is a challenge of leadership, definitely. And I think that they’ve done a lot of things right. But they’re a young community in terms of the organizational aspect of the community. The organizations haven’t been around for too long. They’ve made mistakes, they’ve acknowledged that. They’ve told me as such. And they will make mistakes in the future, but they are at least open-minded to talking about these mistakes and trying to do things differently, which to me again, is a ray of hope.
SACKUR: Do you think it helps when the British government goes to the Muslim community at large and says, and I’m quoting Ruth Kelly, the minister responsible for communities, “We want a fundamental re-balancing of our relationship with Muslim organizations. We must shift funding and strategy, specifically to those organizations that proactively tackle extremism.” Is that the right way to go about it?
REHAB: Again, that is a loaded way of saying what I might be saying on a different day which is “we need to work with organizations that understand where we’re trying to get as governments or as societies,” which I think most Muslim organizations in this country - including the MCB and others - are. But the point is this, it is to understand first of all that they condemn terrorism - they don’t support terrorism or extremism - but that they have issues, and these issues a lot more complex than black and white and that they need to be resolved over time. They’re a young community. They need time to be able to find their way and the government should be working with them, not against them.
SACKUR: But none of this is easy, is it? If we take the Muslim Council of Britain, we look at their deputy leader. He was seen not long ago on a march, a protest march, about British policy and the war on terror in which there were banners flying saying - expressing support for Hezbollah, for Hamas - saying “we will liberate Palestine with blood and arms.” Do you think it is a mistake for Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom to associate themselves with that sort of sentiment?
REHAB: I do think it’s a strategic mistake. I think it’s a mistake because there are different issues and it’s problematic when Muslim leaders look at conflict as if it were all one and the same
SACKUR: So you would entirely condemn a group like Hamas, would you?
REHAB: Well, Hamas definitely has an arm that engages in terrorist activity and I would condemn terrorism if it were at the hands of Israelis or at the hands of Palestinians. So I do condemn that…
SACKUR: But that wasn’t exactly straight-forward…
REHAB: Well, I will finish and then you may feel that it is straight forward…
SACKUR: Do you condemn Hamas straight-forward, yes or no?
REHAB: Do I condemn the hospitals run by Hamas, or the schools that help children learn, in Hamas? No, I don’t condemn that. But do I condemn the blowing up of Tel Aviv pizzerias or cafes. Definitely, I condemn that. That’s a straight-forward answer.
SACKUR: Then you agree with the American government that Hezbollah for example is a terrorist organization?
REHAB: Well, once again the militant arm of Hezbollah because of the acts they have done against civilians would qualify them as terrorists, but as far as the schools and the hospitals –
SACKUR: It’s not so easy for you, is it? It’s not so simple.
REHAB: Well, to me that is a pretty simple answer. I mean, I would be hard-pressed to condemn a school or a hospital where no one else is helping these individuals empower themselves. They’re living in ghettos with high unemployment rates, no electricity for many hours of the day, no food or running water and when a certain group attempts to educate these individuals or create hospitals to help them our when they’re sick or injured; for me to turn and say these are terrorists - not that particular group of individuals.
SACKUR: The problem is, the opinion polls show, and I’ve referred to them already, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom are furious with government policy when it comes to Iraq, the war on terror, anti-terror legislation. It would be very difficult for the Muslim leaders, whom you are calling upon to show a new muscular form of leadership to be so far removed from the opinion of their constituents, wouldn’t it?
REHAB: Well it wouldn’t if we were to reconfigure our vision, and here’s how: we need to stop looking at things in a monolithic way. We complain rightfully so when Western agencies, whether the media or governments, look at Islam as if it were a monolith, stereotyping all Muslims against the worse that they have to offer, which is the terrorist contingency. Likewise, yes I can complain about the war in Iraq as a bad foreign policy, or the blind support for Israel - you can support Israel, but to blindly support Israel as it kills innocents is a bad thing to happen.
But I remind myself that I can’t look at America as a monolith. I cannot look at the American flag and think only of these strategic errors in terms of foreign policy and forget that we are the leader in terms of scientific advancement, medicine, space exploration, so on and so forth - great things that we have given to humanity. I see America as a whole, and as such I can say that I am proud to be an American while reminding myself that I can challenge the problems in our foreign policy through the legal channels of America.
SACKUR: Senior members of the British government in their determination to push for a new form of integration and community cohesion as they put it have decided to take on some difficult social issues. For example, they have in recent days declared their severe problem with women wearing the nikab, the full veil, in public. You as an outsider from America, do you think that is a helpful thing for government ministers to say?
REHAB: It depends on how they contextualize it. See, I would understand that position if we were talking about security. Indeed, you need to see a person’s face to maintain security.
SACKUR: So, in the American context you would say women should not wear the full veil, the nikab, in their public dealings, would you?
REHAB: …where it jeopardizes security. But my point is this: in terms of my theological stance on the issue, I actually don’t believe that covering the face is necessitated or mandated in Islam; covering the hair, which is the hijab, yes; but the nikab, covering the face, no. But it’s not about that –
SACKUR: So making it a political issue as some Muslim community leaders have done in this country is wrong?
REHAB: It doesn’t really represent where our faith stands on that issue. But my point is this: in terms of freedom of expression, which has nothing to do with my theological stance or anybody else’s, I have to say that this woman, or any other woman is entitled to cover her face, cover her hair, color it pink; do whatever she wants to do with herself. That’s part of the freedom of expression that we in the west have embraced a long time ago. Within that context I say that they should be permitted to do so, so long as it doesn’t jeopardize national security or local security.
SACKUR: You’ve already suggested you have problems with the leaderships shown by some Muslim community leaders in this country. Do you actually think they are perpetuating separation, even “ghettoization”?
REHAB: I think certain statements that have been made definitely point in that direction. But I do think that there is a new contingency especially among the second generation and third generation youth that are very much understanding of the issues.
SACKUR: But it’s actually often the youth who want to adopt things like the Hijab, for example, because they feel it shows some sort of political rejection of the direction the government is moving in on key issues.
REHAB: Hmm. I would say that is very inaccurate. First of all, adopting the Hijab doesn’t mean that one is against integration or one is against working together with other faith communities and other communities in general, including the academic and government communities. Secondly, the youth of which I speak are the ones who are in leadership positions within existing organizations and they tend to be very understanding of the issues and very forward-moving rather than looking at the past too much.
SACKUR: Do you think the British government is looking at citizenship and trying to instill a stronger sense of British-ness? Are there lessons to be learned from America there?
REHAB: Yes, indeed. As I mentioned earlier integration is a two-way street, likewise is identity. When we talk about Muslim-American identity, we talk about being able to adapt, or adopt, the values of America. At the same time, American identity itself is flexible enough where it can expand and absorb part of our values as well into its larger identity structure. The same has to happen in England. We cannot expect Muslims to assimilate, where they lose their particular values that they have. They need to be able to maintain those while becoming part of the British fabric.
SACKUR: The ability you seem to have is to disassociate your essentially positive view of the role Muslims can play in the American society from the politics of the moment. But in the UK it seems much harder for leaders to do that. Why do you think that is the case?
REHAB: It really is a question of political maturity and growth. I think not too long ago –
SACKUR: That’s very patronizing, isn’t it …
REHAB: Not really.
SACKUR: … to community leaders in this country?
REHAB: Well, here’s my point: in the United States of America not too long ago we were in the exact same position where we defined ourselves and our relationship with the west entirely through conflicts happening around the world. You know, where we’re not supporting Bosnia fast enough, or we’re supporting Israel too much against Palestine, or we’re not listening to the pains and cries of people dying in Chechnya. All these are valid concerns to be had, but we have learnt moving forward - partially because of 9/11 and what has happened since - that we cannot continue to define ourselves and our community, and our faith even, within these very particular struggles. They’re just part of our concerns and grievances; they’re not everything that we stand for.
SACKUR: Ahmed Rehab, thank you very much for being on Hard Talk.