Ross has an interesting response to my earlier posts on Rauf and the mosque controversy. He writes:

The harder question, and the one that’s on the table in the case of Feisal Abdul Rauf, is how we should judge American Muslim leaders when they talk about regimes and movements in the Islamic world that are anti-Semitic, terrorism-sponsoring, theocratic and so on down the line. And it’s both telling and appropriate, I think, that nearly that nearly all of the criticism of Rauf that’s found traction outside of the Pamela Geller vortex (where everything the imam says is proof of a vast Islamist conspiracy) has focused on exactly these kind of issues — on his comments during Iran’s election crisis, on his non-responsive response to a question about terrorism and Hamas, and on his remarks, at different times, about America being “an accessory to 9/11? with “more Muslim blood on its hands” than al Qaeda has non-Muslim blood.

The answer to the harder question is that we should judge them fairly and not read things into Rauf’s remarks that aren’t there. For instance, when he refrained from denouncing Hamas, this is what he said:

I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.

One could reject this and argue that building peace requires calling things what they are, which means that Rauf ought to call Hamas a terrorist organization, or one could take seriously that Rauf is more interested in not alienating persuadable Muslims than he is in passing a political litmus test. It seems to me that Rauf’s statements here could very easily be understood as his attempt to avoid appearing unduly biased.

As for his remarks on the Iranian election, I don’t see how they can be taken as an endorsement of the “premises of Iranian theocracy,” as Ross originally described them. There is call for Obama to express respect for Iranian principles of government, which seems to be little more than an extension of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on mutual respect. In fact, as Rauf said, the presidential election was not a referendum on the “foundations of the Islamic Republic,” and he saw a chance for Obama “to show Iranians that he understands their Islamic Republic and how it developed — and to lay the groundwork for negotiations once the election dispute is resolved.” Rauf was working on the assumption that the majority of Iranians accepted the existing political system, and on this point he seems to have been right all along. Granted, this is worlds removed from the hysteria of pro-Green advocates in the West who convinced themselves that a distinct political minority represented the vast majority of Iranians and claimed that the Green movement was going to topple the current government, but then most of the pro-Green commentary in the West was ridiculous and wrong about many of the political realities in Iran. It is also important to note when Rauf wrote his column. Rauf’s column has a posting date of June 19, just one week after the presidential election and before most of the worst violence of the crackdown had occurred. Most of the outrages and crimes the regime committed came after his column appeared. That makes it a lot harder to fault him for supposedly “bending over backward to avoid saying anything negative” about the Iranian regime.

Clearly, it is the last two sets of comments that were the most provocative and they are the ones that have generated the greatest anger. This is unfortunate, because they also happen to be basically true. While I was driving during my recent move, I heard something Reza Aslan said about the “accessory” remark on the radio. Here is the NPR transcript from earlier this month:

People like Reza Aslan, a Muslim author and scholar, says Rauf’s attempts to explain terrorist actions are not the same as supporting them. Aslan says government officials do the same thing.

Mr. Reza Aslan: I know this not only because of my own personal interaction with counterterrorism officials, with military officials and with officials in the CIA and in the White House and in the State Department, I know this because I read the 9/11 report. And the “9/11 Commission Report” says the exact same thing.

Have U.S. policies resulted in the deaths of more innocent Muslim civilians? That seems the most easily confirmed claim of them all. Mind you, Rauf made a point of qualifying that statement by insisting that he was attempting to explain the sources of anti-American anger and political violence. The link Ross provides in this case does not include those qualifications, but excerpts out only the parts that the person making the compilation thought would be most inflammatory. Even as this tendentious FoxNews article tried to misrepresent his statements, it still had a more complete account of what Rauf said.

Sanctions on Iraq did terrible harm to the civilian population, resulting in the unnecessary and premature deaths of at least one hundred thousand people, and the U.S. government was the one most responsible for imposing those sanctions and keeping them in place. All of this is true. Is Rauf supposed to pretend that these things didn’t happen, or that our government is in no way responsible for them? Is he supposed to pretend that these things did not cause resentment, or that they did not become fodder for jihadist propaganda? To pretend that the U.S. government is not responsible for the consequences of its policies would not be evidence of moderation, but of self-deception. It seems that when it comes to understanding the causes of the deepest resentments of Muslims against the West and the U.S. in particular, which one might think would be at the center of any work of fostering mutual understanding, Rauf should say nothing if he doesn’t want to be vilified. Perhaps he could go on a speaking tour to tell Muslims how much gratitude they should feel because of U.S. intervention in Kosovo or Somalia.

Could Rauf have phrased some of his remarks in less provocative ways? Probably, and it might have been better if he had. At least in that case we would be spending more time discussing the substance of what he was talking about rather than fixating on how he made an offensive comparison or how he used the wrong language. Of course, he was trying to get Westerners to see things from the perspective of many Muslims. It seems to me that the inflammatory language (blood on hands) and the comparison with the number of Al Qaeda’s victims were intended to provoke some recognition that there are identifiable causes for resentment and political violence. Rauf seemed to be saying, “You are unaware that this happened, or you have rationalized it as a good or necessary thing, but I’m telling you that it is widely perceived elsewhere as deeply unjust and wrong.” Perhaps they were also intended to have his audiences imagine how they might react if a foreign government had done these things to their country or co-religionists.

Ross concludes that Rauf makes “excuses for sinister figures, and curries favor with them,” but it is genuinely difficult to find any of that in any of the statements under discussion. To explain something such as terrorism is not to excuse it, and failing to denounce official enemies on cue is very different from actively seeking their approval. Ross says that he wants a high standard for Rauf and other Muslim leaders like him, but the standard for moderation and assimilation is being set so high that quite a few non-Muslim Americans, myself included, wouldn’t even get close to meeting it.

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