Rand Paul is notorious to many in American politics because he represents a particular brand of politics: a shapeshifting, personality-driven, often questionable interpretation of libertarianism steeped in megalomania. I say this as a lifetime conservative with strong libertarian leanings.
Paul’s often refreshing focus on liberty has drawn in some young American Muslim conservatives who are sadly being duped by his glaring blind spot with Islamist theocracy. Rand, for example, has insisted that the genocidal dictator Bashar Assad should not be removed from power. He has further asserted that “they” (Arabs) “hate us.”
This week, the world mourns the death and commemorates the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali–a fascinating man, a captivating personality, and an undeniably great athlete. Muhammad Ali’s legacy is an example of an extraordinary American story. He rose to fame at a contentious time in our history, and passed away in like fashion.
Rand Paul—the self-appointed expert on all things Muslim—joined the international conversation about Muhammad Ali’s legacy this week in perhaps the most foolish way possible: he called for Senate legislation in Ali’s name to end the selective service program once and for all.
There are many things to praise about Ali, but his 1971 comments in Clay vs. United States on the U.S. military and war are certainly not among them.
There is no denying that Muhammad Ali inspired, and continues to inspire, many. However, when I later learned about theocratic Islamism and its shar'iah state, I began to recognize that Ali, at times, said and believed things that were deeply troubling—things he may not have believed at his death, but that we certainly wouldn’t promote today because we would recognize how deeply radicalizing those ideas would be to young, impressionable Muslims.
Whatever one’s feelings about the merits of the Vietnam War, or even about the draft, Muhammad Ali’s statements about enlisting in the military were deeply problematic and actually had little to do with either. His position has been vastly oversimplified as a conscientious objection (CO) based on the fact that African-American citizens of the United States were already involved in a war for their own rights and the draft had accentuated that disparity. However, his real views at the time were something else entirely: he refused to join the military or defend the United States because the brand of Islam he espoused would not allow him to join anything other than a holy war, or a “war declared by Allah."
Perhaps Senator Paul, in his rush to appear progressive and to remain relevant, missed these statements in Ali’s 1971 testimony:
“…and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tell us, and it is that we are not to participate in wars on the side of nobody who — on the side of nonbelievers, and this is a Christian country, and this is not a Muslim country…So, according to the Holy Qur'an, we are not to even aid in passing a cup of water to the even a wounded.
This testimony is, without a doubt, representative of the radical ideology Ali left later in life. But let's be honest. These views on war and loyalty in particular are not unlike the views of those youth who leave the United States or Europe to join the Islamic State (IS), believing that they must fight in a great “cosmic war” against the “infidel.”
As I recently wrote in a foundational piece at National Review, our strategy of engagement among Muslims to defeat ISIS and global Islamism, we must be the polar opposite of what Ali represented in Clay vs. United States:
Taking the side of reform-minded Muslims who champion liberty and eschew Islamism must be the centerpiece of the strategy. American Muslims living in this unparalleled laboratory of freedom, have a unique moral obligation to lead the way. For too long we have allowed the grievance narratives of Islamist groups to dominate, deflect responsibility, and radicalize. As American Muslims, we need to own the problem and address the root causes of Islamist radicalization.
Many Muslims bravely serve in the US military, but the numbers are nowhere near enough. Until the day Muslims are tripping over one another to join our armed forces and would rather die for America at a far greater rate than those who would want to die for ISIS or Islamism, the free world will never be safe from the global scourge of radical Islamism.
Conscientious objection demands pure pacifism, not selective pacifism. Islam is not a pacifist religion. It is not a religion that teaches us to never engage in war, and it certainly doesn’t teach us to be disloyal to our homelands. Rather, it allows for self-defense and the establishment of justice; it encourages us to protect our homes and fellow citizens, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. In fact, honoring the citizenship oath is central to this cosmic battle. All Americans are sworn to this too.
Muslims, or any American who can’t abide by this oath, with the exception of pure faithful pacifists, should find another nation to which they entrust their freedom. As a veteran of the U.S. Navy, I never felt a conflict between my personal faith of Islam and my choice to defend this country, where my family and I found our rights protected – more than they’d ever been in my parents’ homeland of Syria.
Why is Rand Paul mischaracterizing this particular chapter of Ali’s legacy? He is doing damage not just to Ali’s memory, but also to other American Muslims who may be seeking to reconcile their faith and national identity. Shame on Rand for taking the most central idea that can inoculate Muslims against radicalization—duty to nation—and handing it to ISIS and the Islamists forever enshrined in the name of Muhammad Ali.
I hope in the future that before Senator Paul opens his mouth to speak on what Arabs want in Syria, or what legacies are left by American Muslim celebrities, he get some more qualified aides to conduct his research—or he should admit that he is nothing more than a tyrannical, self-appointed belligerent himself.