Instinctively, one might think that Muslims promoting the ideals of individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and universal human rights might therefore dominate the list. Indeed, having such a significant amount of our own citizens on such a list would be a tremendous opportunity to showcase how the United States allows Muslims to lead in every arena, while embracing a pluralistic interpretation of our faith.
Sadly, it seems that this opportunity has been missed. The United States is represented instead by individuals like Nihad Awad of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR); Imam Siraj Wahhaj (vice-president of the Islamic Society of North America [ISNA], former national board member of CAIR, defender of The “Blind Sheikh”, etc); Imam Mohamed Magid (current president of ISNA); Sheikh Hamza Yusuf (founder of Zaytuna College), etc. These are, to say the least, not the best representatives of Islam in America.
On a broader scale, the picture of those considered the “most influential” Muslims is even more grim. Holding the top spot of most influential Muslim in the world is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who, while certainly not admired by the majority of Muslims we know, absolutely heads the global Islamist enterprise with his kingdom’s petro dollars. Others in leading positions on the list include Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of increasingly Islamist Turkey; Dr. Mohammed Badie, the “supreme guide” of the Muslim Brotherhood; Ayatollah Khameini, Yusuf Qaradawi, and Muhammad Morsi (the new president of Egypt).
The creators of the list disclose at the start that these are not necessarily individuals they endorse – but that they are individuals they’ve determined to hold the greatest influence worldwide. While we wonder about the likelihood of some people having influence over those not on the list (for example, another American – Sheila Musaji – makes the cut, but not Fatima Mernissi, legendary and widely loved Moroccan feminist? Further, we know from the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center’s polling that American Muslims simply don’t feel represented by groups like CAIR and ISNA); we know that regrettably, those Muslims who have the most political and financial influence worldwide are Islamists. We also must note that the list itself was the brainchild of Prince Gazi bin Muhammad of Jordan; it is produced by a Jordanian think-tank bearing the name “Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre”; and Harvard’s John Esposito has served as a chief editor of the publication in the past – and so while its creators claim to be presenting only the objectively influential voices from within the Muslim community, such a claim is dubious at best. In fact, we find it both puzzling and troubling that Omar Sacirbey, whose write-up on the publication appeared in the Washington Post, called this a “respected think-tank.”
Even if the list itself were listing individuals based on reasonable and objective measures of influence, the devil is, as they say, in the details. The only individual listed as influential in Syrian politics is Bashar al-Assad, the mass murderer responsible for the slaughter of roughly 40,000 Syrians, and the torture, mutilation, rape of countless others. The paragraph about Assad is eerily neutral:
“Al-Assad is an Alawite Shi’a and president of the Syrian Arab Republic. Because of its strategic position in the Middle East, Syria is regarded as a major player in any peace agreement in the Middle East. The violent crackdowns on protests in 2011 have lead to what is now a civil war. Claims of atrocities and misinformation abound on both sides.”
Describing “claims of atrocities” in a way that suggests that there is any comparison in scale or scope of violence between the murderous and bloodthirsty regime of “Bashar the Butcher” and the many Syrians who seek to oust him is despicable – and reflects the overall quality and tenor of this report on “Muslim influence.”
We do recognize that the list isn’t entirely problematic. Listed also are individuals like Waris Dirie, a Somali model, author, actress, filmmaker and courageous fighter against female genital mutilation. A survivor of both FGM and forced marriage, Ms Dirie went on to found the Desert Flower Foundation, which works to end FGM with no exceptions for culture or religion. Naser Khader, former member of the Danish parliament, critic of Islamism and defender of free speech also made the list. So did Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somalia’s first female gynecologist and founder of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, whose work means over 90,000 Somali refugees have a place to live. Her foundation also works on education, agriculture and healthcare issues.
Whether the list is biased toward Islamists or not, it reveals what we at AIFD already know: liberty-minded Muslims have a long road ahead of us if we wish to overtake Islamists when it comes to having more influence than they do in the public sphere. While many of us are well respected in our personal and professional circles, and often have many Muslim friends and colleagues who think the way we do and support us in our work, the fact is that most majority-Muslim organizations (and countries!) are run by theocrats who see pluralism, liberty, and freedom of conscience as threats to be defeated rather than as the life forces of any healthy society.