Interview with Wajahat Ali

Wajahat AliWajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer, and political commentator. His play, The Domestic Crusaders, made its Off Broadway premiere at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 2009 and was published by McSweeney’s last year. He is currently doing research on Islamophobia for ThinkProgress and preparing a pilot for HBO. He talks here with FPIF about the Homeland Security Committee hearings on Muslim extremism, the “threat of sharia,” and the reception of his play.

John Feffer: Why do you think the congressional hearing on Muslim extremism organized by Peter King (R-NY) is taking place now, of all times?

Wajahat Ali: Basically, the reason they’re taking place now is that this is an unprecedented time in American history for the mainstreaming of Islamophobic sentiment and rhetoric. What was once allowed to operate on the fringes and by fringe actors has been co-opted by mainstream political actors and parties to capitalize on people’s fears, panic, and hysteria. You see this pattern in American history. When there is a moment of panic and fear around an economic downturn, politicians and people in cottage industries turn on minorities. It has happened with Jews and with African Americans in the past.

Peter King has an interesting history. He has had warm relations with the Muslim community in the past. But, since 9-11, many of those supporters now feel betrayed by him due to King’s bigoted comments and now this Homeland Security hearing. This disapproval is shared by interfaith leaders and diverse religious communities from his Long Island district, who protested at King’s office and voiced their strong disapproval.

Some of these old time, “mainstream Republicans” like King are now being chased by tea party rabble rousers and fringe elements, and these Republicans have to flex their muscles to show their strength to their base. This is why you see Newt Gingrich, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, espousing this “fear of sharia” rhetoric. He narrated a movie by Citizens United that posited a civilizational war between “the West” and “radical Islam.” Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have also used this rhetoric.

I don’t think that anyone would disagree that we need an intelligent discussion on extremism or radicalization. The problem with the hearing is the wide breadth with which King is trying “execute” this “investigation.” He’s not singling out individuals. He is castigating an entire American community, an entire religion. He is lumping together, without any nuance, a lot of Americans and their faith under the rubric of radicalization and extremism.

Over the last two to three weeks, interfaith leaders, counter-terrorism experts, law enforcement officials, civil rights leaders, thought leaders in the mainstream media, several politicians, and many Americans have said that this is not the most effective manner to investigate radicalization, if that is King’s intended purpose. King is being marginalized by people in Washington. There’s been a speech from the White House critical of the endeavor. Pretty much every mainstream outlet has published something to the effect that this hearing is not useful. Indeed, the hearings serve to alienate an American community that happens to be Muslim. It is reminiscent of McCarthyism, of the bigotry against Japanese Americans during World War II.

Also, King has asked these self-proclaimed experts on Islam to testify on Islam but they have no legitimacy in the Muslim community. Zuhdi Jasser, for instance, is a credential-free, right-wing American Muslim who heads up the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He claims to be an expert on Islam, Muslims, and radicalization. But the mainstream Muslim community doesn’t know who he is. He’s just an opportunist. The other two witnesses, Melvin Bledsoe and Abdirizak Bihi, don’t have any counter-terrorism credentials either.

You need a specific kind of messenger to hold a hearing on alleged “Muslim American radicalization,” and Peter King is not the right messenger. He’s gone on the record saying bigoted comments about Muslims. He’s repeated the fallacy that 80 percent of American mosques and its religious leaders as being radical; that there are too many mosques in this country; that Muslim Americans do not cooperate with law enforcement. This is very troubling to Muslims and also to all people of faith. He has said that American Muslims are different from other Americans when it comes to patriotism. When confronted, King says he won’t be cowed by the PC police. Basically it’s like have a hearing into the American contributions of Jewish Americans chaired by Mel Gibson. It makes you suspect the intentions of the endeavor.

Furthermore, there’s a rank hypocrisy because King himself so staunchly allied himself to the IRA in the 1980s. The United States designated the IRA a terrorist entity. Without a hint of irony or self awareness, King still defends his support of the IRA. You lose your moral high ground if you say you are dedicated to fighting terrorism but continue to rationalize the actions of one terrorist group.

John Feffer: As a lawyer, how do you respond to the various controversies around sharia law in this country, including the referenda passed in Oklahoma in the last election?

Wajahat Ali: 9/11 was a major catalyst. Right after 9/11, George W. Bush and the Republican Party explicitly made it clear that we are not war with Muslims and Islam. His Republican aides spread this kind of messaging, that this was a war against al-Qaeda, not Muslims in general. There wasn’t a high level of sensationalism.

But there was also a concentrated effort by certain individuals, backed by a lot of money, to put forward a different message, that Muslims are the enemy. Some of these individuals are connected to an extreme right-wing settler mentality. Others say, “Remember 9/11!” Others like Newt Gingrich use it for explicit political gain.

We have to acknowledge the tremendous surge in “hate groups” in America, which are now reported to be a record 1,000 according to the latest Southern Poverty Law Center Study. Most are a result of “radical rightwing expansion, represented by hatemongers, the nativists, and the antigovernment zealots.”

And quite a few have made money out of this anti-Muslim campaign: Steve Emerson, Pamela Geller, David Horowitz. The controversy surrouding The Park 51 – or “Ground Zero mosque,” which was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero, focused a lot of this energy on one event. This campaign thrived on “guilty by association” and lumped all Muslims into one category: potential suspects and terrorist sympathizers. And, of course, it took place only a few months before the mid-term elections last year.

The anti-sharia movement came out of this. The Oklahoma referendum against sharia law has now spread to 15 other states. But it didn’t happen overnight. It was a well-orchestrated effort. One or two elected officials joined up with anti-Muslim bigots. They introduced the legislation. They held press conferences.

The wording of these referenda comes from David Yerushalmi – self-proclaimed expert, who has also written about the superiority of “Whites” to “Blacks.” He’s a big buddy of Frank Gaffney, who runs the Center for Security Party, which released a report on the “sharia threat” a few months ago coauthored with Andrew McCarthy and James Woolsey. The American Prospect has done good exposes on Yerushalmi. The people who are saying “no sharia”? It’s like they’re saying, “we want no unicorns.” People get upset about the issue. They galvanize their base. They try to amend the law. And if they’re successful, they say, “See we protected America from unicorns.” Any sane person would say, “Yes, but there are no unicorns in America.”

Federal law protects U.S. citizens from being “infected” by foreign law. If foreign law is in conflict with U.S. law, the foreign law gets knocked out. The notion that sharia could take over is a fallacy.

Obama’s supposed foreignness and otherness is a major catalyst for this: 50 percent of the Republican Party thinks Obama is a Muslim and 18 percent of Americans think he is Muslim. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said recently that the president was born in Hawaii, spent time in Indonesia, and was colored by Mau Mau thoughts. He has implied that Obama is an American but a different type of American, one who’s not Judeo-Christian, who’s not mainstream, who’s not so firm on national security issues because he’s buddy-buddy with the enemy.

There’s also an implication that Muslims engage in taqiyya, that it’s part of their religion to lie about their true intentions, that you can’t trust your Muslim neighbors, that this is behind the threat of sharia. First, taqiyya has been incorrectly defined as “lying” to deliberately paint all Muslims as an unreliable and deceptive fifth column in America. Historically, this practice was followed only by a minority of Muslims, and it allowed them to conceal their faith only if they faced threats of death, violence, or persecution due to their religious identity. But if you ask most Muslims about taqiyya, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. They would think taqiyya is a new taquito or taco from Taco Bell.

And what do most Americans know about Muslims? A recent Time poll showed that 60 percent of Americans don’t know a Muslim. And nearly half of Americans think Islam is a violent religion. The favorability rating that Americans have toward Islam and Muslims has gone down since 2001.

John Feffer: As a playwright, can you talk about the culture of Islamophobia? Despite these polling numbers, are we seeing any changes in how American view Islam?

Wajahat Ali: It’s really scary to see the mainstreaming of Islamophobic sentiment – on talk radio, on Fox News. The anti-Islamic rally at the Islamic fundraiser in Orange County – that was really scary. But I believe that most Americans are well-intentioned. They want to be good American neighbors. I think a lot of Americans are on the fence. Their lack of knowledge about Muslims and Islam is the main cause of their doubt and fear. Statistically speaking, the people who know Muslims and know something about Islam don’t have such bigoted views. They might disagree with Islam, but they don’t see their Muslim neighbors as a threat. We need a form of cultural diplomacy in this country where Americans get to know Muslims and Muslim-Americans.

In 2003-4, when I began staged readings of my play The Domestic Crusaders, the political climate was a bit different. The Dixie Chicks, the whitest people on earth, said the most benign comment about President Bush, about being ashamed that the president was from Texas, and there was an active campaign to discredit them, calling them anti-American. So, when I released the play, I thought, “If they did that to the Dixie Chicks, what are they going to do to a brown guy with a multi-syllabic name?”

The initial hesitation by theaters and artistic directors to put on this play was due to a two-fold fear, that mainstream audiences wouldn’t understand it and that there would be protests and controversy. But whenever we do the play, our audiences are always multicultural and have always given it rousing applause or standing ovations. They’ve said things like, “Your play really opened my eyes” and “I didn’t know we shared so many similarities.” Jewish audiences have consistently embraced the play.

Katie Couric recently came up with the idea of a Muslim Cosby show. The response to this proposal has been illuminating. Several right-wing sources went crazy that she would even come up with this idea. Even Couric herself said that she knew it was a crazy idea. And I thought, “Why is this crazy?”

It just means we have a ways to go. There has been a resurgence in the Muslim American community in the way we see ourselves and portray ourselves to the world. It’s no longer a monochromatic presentation. We’ve seen the emergence of mainstream Muslim comedians and hip hop artists. Dave Eggers released the book Zeitoun. There have been more and more Muslim op-ed columnists. There have been more and more Muslims and Arabs on TV. With the events in Egypt and Libya, some American Muslims with American accents appeared as commentators on TV. That’s different from the 1980s. Americans are getting used to the multiculturalism of this country. For all our problems, we do have a biracial president.

There is a new demand for American Muslim stories. Business is business, and this is an untapped market. I’m writing a pilot right now for HBO with an American Muslim protagonist. We’ll see if it succeeds. After all, we still don’t have any major Muslim personalities on the air. There’s no Muslim Ellen, no Muslim Tom Hanks. To change peoples’ attitudes and shift away from dangerous and inaccurate stereotypes about Muslims, we need to access the mainstream through sitcoms, movies, and music. These have a tremendous amount of power, much more than a policy report or a nonfiction book or a talking head. We need to create stories that are “By Us, For Everyone.”

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer, and political commentator. His play, The Domestic Crusaders, made its Off Broadway premiere at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 2009 and was published by McSweeney’s last year. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.