- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

It is disquieting to hear reports that, in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington, mosques and other Muslim institutions across the United States have been receiving threats. Americans of any faith or creed should not have to fear that other Americans pose a threat to their lives or security for simply exercising their First Amendment rights to practice a particular religion.
Freedom of conscience is one of the most basic rights, backed up by the scrupulous separation of church and state. Like many others, Muslims from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have found refuge in this country to practice freely their faith.
No American state agency regulates the construction of mosques, imposes a particular version of Islam or clears preachers and texts for Friday sermons common occurrences in much of the Muslim Middle East.
It is very true that Islam should not be equated with terrorism. It is an unfortunate reality, however, that religion has been used as a cover for terrorist activities. Claims of religious persecution have been used to obtain asylum and entry visas for radicals; charities have been set up to raise funds for terrorist groups; and schools and student organizations created to recruit and indoctrinate new members. Such a situation will create increasing pressure on the U.S. government to more actively intervene in the affairs of the Muslim community. This could lead us down a slippery slope the Founding Fathers expressly wanted to avoid the entanglement of the government in the internal affairs of communities of faith.
American Muslim leaders and communities have largely condemned violence and terrorism. However, they may now need to take much more proactive measures to ensure that Islam as a faith in the United States is not used as a veneer for organizing and abetting terrorism. Although Islam lacks the hierarchical organization of most Christian churches and is divided among a variety of ethnic groups, American Muslims may wish to form some sort of umbrella group that could take more vigorous action, such as denying known extremists the use of mosques to meet and recruit members, preventing videotapes and other multimedia items produced by radicals from being disseminated via American Muslim networks, stricter accounting demanded of charities raising funds for Islamic causes, vetting of spiritual guides arriving from the Islamic heartlands and the expulsion of radical elements from associations denying them any ability to cloak their activities behind legitimate religious organizations. All of these are steps that may have to be taken.
There is historical precedent. During World War II, Japanese Buddhist congregations across the United States met to create the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). The BCA repudiated all ties to Japan, redefined its relationship to its mother movement (Nishi Hongwanji) in Kyoto to prevent any attempt to misuse spiritual ties for political purposes and reorganized its governing structure to give American citizens rather than foreign nationals predominance in charting the group's affairs. Similarly, after the 1917 Revolution, most Russian Orthodox congregations in America severed all administrative links with a patriarch in Soviet-controlled territory. After the Soviet Union began to intensify its campaign of infiltrating overseas Russian communities especially churches, for purposes of espionage and disinformation the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America pledged the full cooperation of his community with American intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to thwart the Soviet threat. By taking these additional steps to prevent the perversion of their religious communities by political forces hostile to the United States, leaders in the Buddhist and Orthodox communities two faiths once perceived, as Islam is today, to be "alien" to the American experience, won toleration and acceptance in the American mainstream.
Some Muslim acquaintances of mine fear that they cannot reconcile their Islamic identity with their American heritage, especially when they are in disagreement with U.S. policies in the Middle East. There need be no disconnect. Many Serbian-Americans, for example, vehemently disagreed with the decision to undertake the air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, but no one questioned the patriotism of American Serbs serving in the Congress, government or armed forces.
Muslims suffer from the perception however inaccurate that they, as a faith community, are ambivalent in their loyalty to the United States, that there remains a fundamental divide between the Crescent and the Stars and Stripes. Distinctive dress or religious customs have not prevented Jews, Hindus or Buddhists, after all, from being perceived as Americans (at least in political terms).
One area where American Muslims need to be much more visible is in defending the United States and its system of government to their co-religionists abroad. Muslims here enjoy much greater political and economic freedoms in the United States than do Muslims living in the Middle East and South Asia. This includes the very important right of being free to interpret the Muslim faith as they see fit. Muslims are free to seek converts, to set up schools to propagate their faith and to seek redress in the courts if their First Amendment rights are violated. The United States may not be a perfect society, but a flourishing community of 7 million Muslims in the United States is proof that American institutions and indeed American society are not incompatible or hostile to Islam.
We now stand at a historic crossroads. Most Americans are now aware of "Islam in America." The question is, can Islam become American?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is incoming executive editor of The National Interest magazine.

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