Faulty Generalizations: Freedom House Cries Wolf
by Louay Safi
How would the Christian or Jewish communities feel if a research group of some repute visits a dozen of churches or synagogues, finds few books out of several thousands that includes questionable statements about people of other faiths, and then produces a report entitled “Hate Ideology Fills American Churches and Synagogues?” I am sure Christians and Jews would be outraged by such a sloppy and irresponsible conclusion.
This is exactly what the Freedom House has done in a recent publication entitled “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques.” The Freedom House Report confuses two separate questions: (1) are there Muslims who espouse bigoted views? And (2) are these views widespread or are they confined to a minority within the Muslim community? In failing to make this distinction, the Freedom House unfairly smears all mosques and all mosque goers in the United States.
American Muslims are aware of the shallow understanding of Islam that characterizes some of the writings that comes out from Saudi religious scholars. These writings speak more to the peculiar socio-cultural experience, and the lack of meaningful exposure to the rich experience of diverse societies by some Saudi writers, than to Islamic teachings. One of the most known and respected Muslim scholars of the 20th century, the late Muhammad Al-Ghazali, labeled such writings on Islamic law as the “Bedouin jurisprudence,” a decade prior to the critical review wahabism received in recent days. Most American Muslims abhor and reject the bigoted and mean-spirited statements cited in the Report.
I personally experienced such bigotry in Mid 1980s when a group of wahabi-leaning students vigorously protested the inclusion of a Shi’a religious scholar on a panel addressing a large Muslim gathering, and tried to oust me from my position as the president of the Muslim Students Association in Detroit. There design was ultimately defeated by the Association’s general body that rejected their bigoted views.
But to say that Muslims, like any other religious community, have their own bigots is far cry from claiming that hate literature fill all mosques in America, and implying that mosque goers tolerate hate and bigotry. The Freedom House Report fails in making this important distinction.
I was puzzled, as I was going through the report’s findings, as to how can any one who took an introductory course in research methods, let alone professional researchers hired by an organization that sets criteria for deciding who is free and who is not throughout the world. I kept asking myself how could anyone conclude that “Saudi publications on hate ideology fill American mosques” after discovering few copies of Saudi publications in 15 Mosques throughout the nation. There are more than 2000 mosques in the United States. 15 out of 2000 mosques constitute less than 1% of all mosques in the country. How could such insignificant number allow anyone to claim that Saudi hate publications are “spread from coast to coast and now fill the libraries and study halls of some of America’s main mosques.”
Many of the sloppy statements and erroneous conclusions are the result of failing to consult with mainstream Muslim organizations, and neglecting to understand the dynamics within the American Muslim community. The authors of the Report are unable to distinguish between main and obscure mosques in the American Muslim community. King Fahd’s Mosque in Los Angeles is a large and well-endowed mosque, but is hardly representative of LA Muslim community. Mosques that are part of the main stream American Muslim community in LA would include the Islamic Center of Southern Los Angeles, the Islamic Center of Orange County, the Islamic Center for Riverside, but hardly King Fahd’s Mosque.
The Report’s main conclusions are at odd with some of its findings. The Report rightly points out that most American Muslims are “upstanding, law-abiding citizens and neighbors,” and that they “decry the Wahhabi interpretation as being foreign to the toleration expressed in Islam and its injunction against coercion in religion.” The authors do not, however, bother to explain the discrepancy between the reality of the American Muslim community and claims against American mosques. They never discuss the extent to which what they have picked from the shelves reflects the attitudes and values of Mosque goers.
Evidently, the authors of the Freedom House Report never stopped for a second to ask: How has the presence of the Saudi literature impacted the attitudes of the mosque goers? Nor have they considered asking the leaders of the Islamic centers about their views and activities, or how the Saudi material was used. One would think that this is the most reasonable and sensible thing to do in a study that aims at ascertaining the truth and enhancing understanding.
The discrepancy between the Report’s claims and the reality it purports to describe is evident, for example, in the case of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), the Report frequently refers to as the Herndon Mosque. ADAMS is one of the most vibrant mosques, with an active interfaith program, and an exemplary program for developing civic awareness and public service. It has organized, in 2004 alone, more than 20 interfaith meetings, bringing Muslims into friendship and dialogue with people of other faiths, including the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, St. Thomas à Becket Catholic Church, United Christian Parish in Reston, St Annes Church, and Sikh Community, to name just a few. ADAMS regularly invites political candidates running for state and federal office to discuss with the congregation their political agendas, and does that on a non-partisan basis. And ADAMS is one of the few Islamic centers where women play an active role in running the mosque and serve on the Executive Board and the Board of trustees. 5 of the 13 Board of Trustees members are women, and ADAMS vice president is a women.
Do ADAMS’s profile, programs, and activities fit into the alarmist picture painted by the Freedom House Report? Is it fair to confuse mainstream and extreme voices when dealing with American Muslims? Is it acceptable to generalize from the particular? The authors of the Freedom House Report are, sadly, oblivious to these important questions.
Visit Louay Safi’s site at http://www.aninsight.org/2005/02/faulty-generalizations-freedom-house.html