But making these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned. Instead, dialogue needs to coexist with pressure: Figures like Ramadan and now Rauf should be held to a high standard by their non-Muslim interlocutors, and their forays into more dubious territory should be greeted with swift pushback, rather than simply being accepted as a necessary part of the moderate Muslim package. (This is particularly true because Westerners have a long record of seeing what they want to see in self-proclaimed Islamic reformers, from the Ayatollah Khomeini down to Anwar Al Awlaki, and failing to recognize extremism when it’s staring them in the face.) And what’s troubling about some of the liberal reaction to the Cordoba Initiative controversy is that it seems to regard this kind of pressure as illegitimate and dangerous in and of itself — as though the First Amendment protects the right of Rauf and Co. to build their mosque and cultural center, but not the right of critics to scrutinize Rauf’s moderate bona fides, parse some of his more disturbing comments, and raise doubts about the benefits (to American Islam as well as to America) of having him set up shop as an arbiter of Muslim-Western dialogue in what used to be the shadow of the World Trade Center.
Of course, critics have the right to scrutinize Rauf’s qualifications as a moderate and parse any of his comments. That’s what has been happening for most of the summer. It would help matters a lot more if the scrutiny were honest and the parsing fair. The critics might be meeting with less resistance if they weren’t attempting to interpret a few of his comments in the worst possible light in order to misrepresent his overall record. There would probably be less frustration with Rauf’s critics if they didn’t impute statements to Rauf that he didn’t make. Were most opponents of Park51 merely “raising doubts” about the benefits of the project, rather than demonizing it as a monument to Islamist victory, it would be a lot easier to take them seriously.
On the one hand, Ross urges us not to believe that “all religious cultures are identical, or that the intellectual climate in contemporary Islam is no different from the intellectual climate in Judaism or Christianity,” but he wants to apply “a high standard” to high-profile moderate Muslims, which in practice means that they are supposed to act and speak as if their religious culture is no different and the intellectual culture in Islam is the same. At least, that’s what his call for “swift pushback” against “forays into dubious territory” suggests. If all religious cultures are not identical, might it be the case that what Ross judges to be a foray into “dubious territory” is actually a “necessary part of the moderate Muslim package”?
The call for pushback brings us once again to the matter of what constitutes “dubious territory” and whether or not American Muslims are going to be permitted to say politically controversial things without being absurdly vilified as fanatics. As far as I can tell, what Rauf’s critics want is not merely someone who is a moderate Muslim, which presumably means someone moderate in his interpretation of Islam as a religion. What they would apparently also like is someone who has no sympathy for the political causes or grievances of any other Muslims in the world. If moderation is defined in that unreasonable way, there probably aren’t very many moderate Muslims after all.