Amid Extremism, Muslims Take Up Nonviolence On Friday, a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired several plots to attack Americans. But human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar says al-Awlaki represents an extreme minority, and a majority of Muslims prescribe to a peaceful side of Islam. He discusses his new book, Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.
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Amid Extremism, Muslims Take Up Nonviolence

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Amid Extremism, Muslims Take Up Nonviolence

Amid Extremism, Muslims Take Up Nonviolence

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Switching gears now, there are a number of stories in the news right now that bring the issue of Islamic extremism to the front pages yet again. There's of course the death of radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. But there's also the arrest of another U.S. citizen who is charged with trying to link up with al-Qaeda to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

And of course, there's the start of the trial of the so-called underwear bomber who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day, 2009. But according to our next guest, there is another side to Islam that is more powerful and pervasive, a side that until this year's surge of a peaceful Arab Spring protest rarely made the headlines.

And he says this side of Islam that values democracy, human rights and peace is far more reflective of the views of the majority of Muslims around the world. Our guest is Arsalan Iftikhar. We hope you know him as a long-time contributor to TELL ME MORE's Barbershop, but today he's here to tell us about his new book, "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." He's with us once again at our studios in Washington. Arsalan, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Always an honor, Michel.

MARTIN: Before we talk about your book, I did want to ask you about the al-Awlaki, and how significant is this for the broader Muslim global community, if we can use those terms to describe that? Because obviously, you know, Americans are very concerned about his role in promoting, you know, violent jihad among particularly Americans because he knew the culture so well and so forth.


MARTIN: So how significant is this worldwide?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think, at least from a Western vantage point, it's very important. I think it is a game-changer. I think after the death of Osama bin Laden a few months ago, you know, the United States and Western nations were really more focused on lone-wolf terrorists who might be recruited via the Internet.

And because of that, Anwar al-Awlaki was sort of that figurehead on the Internet with his audio messages, his video podcasts, who was able to reach out to people like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber; the Fort Hood shooter; Faisal Shahzad, with the failed Times Square bombing. And so in that sense, it is a game-changer, in getting rid of one of the key charismatic figureheads on the Internet and in the virtual world.

MARTIN: The key thesis of your book is that figures like al-Awlaki, figures like Umar Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, this person who was recently arrested for this not very effective, you know, plot to allegedly attack the Pentagon and so forth are attention-grabbers. But your view is that they don't represent the totality of opinion among Muslims around the world and in fact that they are not - they're discredited by most Muslims. What's your evidence for that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, my evidence for that is summed up in two words: Arab Spring. You know, here in one calendar year, we've seen, you know, nonviolent, grassroots, democratic political movements rise from places like Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, all around the Middle East where, you know, last year, even if you told Middle East experts that people like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi would both, you know, fall in the same calendar year, we would have probably laughed at you.

But again, what we're seeing here is what I'm calling the beginning of the post-Osama era, you know, where we have young, millennial Muslim girls and boys from different walks of life who have access to YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, who understand that they do not need to resort to the politics of despair and rage and can live as proud, practicing Muslims but still adhere to platforms of nonviolence.

In a sense, what we are trying to do, this young, millennial Muslim generation, is to help shift that meta-narrative on Muslims, creating and shaping our own narratives by becoming public intellectuals, grassroots activists, doing things in positive, peaceful manners with our friends and neighbors of all different religions, races, nationalities and otherwise.

MARTIN: Important to note that you were working on this book long before the Arab Spring occurred.

IFTIKHAR: Correct.

MARTIN: And one of the other points that you make in this book is that far more Muslims around the world have been victims of terrorism than have Americans, even with the September 11th attacks.

IFTIKHAR: That's a very good point that you bring up, Michel. You know, West Point Academy's Combating Terrorism Center came out with a report once that said up until 2008, 96 percent of al-Qaeda's victims worldwide were Muslims. And in the two years after that, it went up to an astounding 98 percent of victims being Muslims.

And what that has resulted in, as Gallup and Pew have done in some of their global polls, is show plummeting public opinion for al-Qaeda and extremism. And again, you know, what I'm trying to do with my new book "Islamic Pacifism" is similar to what we've seen in the Jewish community with tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for repairing the world - or even "A Purpose-Driven Life" - in the sense that we want to use religion only for good - using the Ten Commandments, using the Golden Rule concepts of loving thy God and loving thy neighbor, which beats at the heart of every major world religion today - to show young Muslim girls and boys around the world again that you can be proud, practicing Muslims and adhere to a platform of nonviolence.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Arsalan Iftikhar. You'll recognize his voice, we hope, from his regular stints in our Friday Barbershop roundtable. Today, though, we're talking about his new book "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

Well, there's that evidence. But what do you say to those who look at, say, Pakistan, where one of the prominent figures there who preached - a governor who believed in - who was a practicing Muslim himself but who preached of religious diversity, religious tolerance, was assassinated.

And there are posters hailing his assassins. There is a legal defense fund. There is all manner of kind of public support for killing him. And then you look at evidence of that, and there's never been a fatwah against, for example, the people who committed the 9/11 attacks. And, you know, all across - not all across, but you see -

IFTIKHAR: No, I see what you're getting at.

MARTIN: So what do you say to that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, and the entire first chapter of my book is called "We Condemn This Act." And basically what I've done is I've consolidated every major fatwah after 9/11, condemning not only 9/11 but the 7/7 London bombings, the Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai bombings, basically consolidating every major edict by mainstream religious Muslim scholars, condemning terrorism in all of their forms, like the Oman Message, the Mecca Declaration, the Madrid Declaration, the U.N. Alliance of Civilization, the U.S. Muslim Engagement Project, also interfaith efforts that have been undertaken between Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh communities to show that we are actually trying to use the tragic legacy of 9/11 to make sure that we create a better world for everybody of all different faiths.

MARTIN: So your argument is, in part, that that story doesn't get the headlines, that the story, the consistent condemnation by - I don't know how you feel about the term moderate, but of people who disagree with the violence, who don't embrace violence, who have a different message, who embrace democracy and human rights, doesn't get the headlines.

IFTIKHAR: Right, you know, because...

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that is?

IFTIKHAR: Well because people like Osama bin Laden had essentially yanked the microphone of global Muslims, and the vast majority of Americans and Westerners don't know very much about Muslims or Islam. And then again, you know, for those people, there's 40 percent or so of Americans who still somehow equate Islam with violence and extremism. With my book, "Islamic Pacifism," I want them to know that, well, we know of at least one Islamic pacifist, also.

And I also want people to know that Muslims are contributing members of society. We know that the greatest athlete ever, Muhammad Ali, and the funniest dude in America, Dave Chappelle, are both Muslims. We have public intellectuals like myself who are Muslims. We have actors. We have people who are - you know, three out of the last nine Nobel Peace Prizes were Muslims.

And so, you know, to think of us outside of the meta-narrative of extremism and violence, to show that, you know, we are now entering a post-Osama era, where there are millennial Muslims who are going to perform Islamic pacifism every day of their life.

MARTIN: The last question that I have for you, and maybe it's an unfair one, I'll ask it anyway: Do you feel that the greatest challenge of definition, of self-definition is within Islam or outside of Islam?

IFTIKHAR: I think it's both. I think that, you know, again one of the reasons I wrote "Islamic Pacifism" was both for Muslims and for non-Muslims. For Muslims, I want to give young Muslim boys and girls the audacity of hope and let them know that they can practice their religion in peace.

For non-Muslims, I want them to know that the vast majority of mainstream Muslims - we don't really like the term moderate, we like mainstream because that represents the major cross-section of the global community - that we will not only be contributing members of society but that we want to live in peace and harmony with everyone else.

MARTIN: "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era" is the title of Arsalan Iftikhar's new book. Of course, you hear him on Fridays on our Barbershop roundtable. He was nice enough to come back and see us to talk about his new book. Arsalan, thank you so much for joining us.

IFTIKHAR: Always an honor, Michel.


MARTIN: Just ahead, what does it mean to be Latino in the United States? A new documentary highlights the triumphs and struggles of prominent Latinos, including actress America Ferrera.


AMERICA FERRERA: The casting director stopped me, and she said: Okay, can you sound more Latina? Can you make your accent sound more Hispanic?

MARTIN: We'll talk with the journalist Maria Hinojosa about the new documentary on HBO. It's called "The Latino List." That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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