Heritage Foundation Hosts Experts on Islam, Terror
By James McNeely


Akbar Ahmed (left) and Dan Sutherland

On September 20th, the Heritage Foundation, an influential Washington think tank, sponsored a panel discussion on how the United States and British governments can build their relationships with Arab and Muslim communities, with the goal of finding mutual ground and shared success in the war on terror.
Participants included Daniel Sutherland, the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; noted Anthropologist and expert on Islam Dr. Akbar Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University; and Dr. James Zogby, of the Arab American Institute.
Dr. Ahmed argued that a major problem facing the U.S. and British governments is the efforts of a relatively small number of radicals to use extremist rhetoric and attacks to draw media attention. According to Ahmed, these radicals misuse the teachings of Islam as a vehicle to spread their extremist ideology. Dr. Ahmed explained that both governments and the media pay undue attention to these extremist outliers, which in turn creates a false impression of influence. This overly-narrow focus on extremists gives momentum to these groups’ recruitment efforts and works to the detriment of mainstream Arab and Muslim communities, inadvertently offering extremist groups free publicity and lending them an air of credibility that they do not deserve.
Dr. Zogby praised Arab-American and Muslim-American communities for the ways many of them have come to embody the American Dream. He observed that while Arab and Muslim immigrants have preserved much of the unique heritage they brought with them, they have made a mark in American business and culture. Zogby concluded that America’s ability to absorb immigrants, and the desire the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities to be part of America’s plural society, will permit these communities to weather the shocks that terrorism has produced.
Sutherland is a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security and leads the Department’s efforts to develop partnerships with the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities. During the panel discussion, Sutherland agreed with Dr. Zogby by highlighting the importance of building greater understanding of the Arab and Muslim community. He pointed out the strategic importance of efforts by the U.S. government to cultivate “long-term, stable partnerships with broader Arab-American and Muslim-American communities.” Sutherland also explained his belief that thoughtful and sincere U.S. engagement with these communities could help foster support in the global War on Terror.
Sutherland continued by detailing how such outreach efforts are an integral part of the government’s security and law enforcement mission. He explained that the government is looking to the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities as a source of recruits with specialized cultural and linguistic knowledge. He stated that “[w]e need to better understand Islamic culture, so that we can build stronger ties to our friends, and better understand those who would misuse this religion—this culture—to their own ends. We also need our friends in these communities to know that we accept and welcome them as Americans, and we need their help.”
Dr. Ahmed in turn pointed out that the United States and British governments must continuing seeking productive ways to work against extremist ideologies, while avoiding the sensationalizing of the threat they pose. One thing that Dr. Ahmed views as very productive in terms of engaging Muslims in the U.S. and U.K. with mainstream society is interfaith dialogue. Ahmed said, “With interfaith dialogue, an alternative platform for genuine dialogue and respect for the Muslim community is created.” He added, “Some Muslims that have participated, for the first time feel that they are part of this fabric that makes up America.” Diverse religious groups often function both as outlets for worship and as civic groups within U.S. society.
Dr. Ahmed discussed partnering with Judea Pearl at interfaith speaker events. Judea Pearl is the father of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was slain by Al Qaida operatives. Dr. Ahmed also explained how Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s speech to the American Jewish Congress was a positive and very important step.
Sutherland said that the “struggle of ideas is more likely to be won by people from within these communities than by any government official.” Sutherland pointed to several types of individuals as key allies in the Global War on Terror, including:
• Islamic scholars encouraging open debate on topics such as the benefits of participating in secular democracy;
• A successful American businessman of Arab or South Asian origin, telling his family, friends and colleagues about the potential benefits of free markets governed by the rule of law;
• A sharp, young Arab-American with language skills and strong academics, who foregoes a promising private sector career for the demanding duties of public service in federal law enforcement; and,
• An imam who writes and speaks about the importance of critical thinking and the freedoms of speech and conscience.
Sutherland concluded that “we’ll see everyday heroes like these more and more, as the government continues to invest and build partnerships in the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities.”
James McNeely/ DHS
Photo by Andrew Blasko/The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC

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