A New Year's Resolution for American Muslims

U.S. Muslims must bring to light the moral character of real Islam. Looking to the civil rights era (and Ali) can help.

In the course of producing a documentary on Islam over the last four months, I've traveled from New York and Boston to Miami and Los Angeles, crossing paths with several thousand Muslim Americans.



As you might guess, a lot of Muslims in America are engaged in some serious soul-searching these days, with results that range from blaming themselves to blaming others. The question I've heard them ask most often, in light of Sept. 11, is: "What can we do?"

Before I go on to discuss their answers, let's get something straight: Muslims feel doubly appalled by the horrific attacks on innocent civilians we now refer to as 9/11.

First, there is personal grief to bear. The outrageous violence of a handful of rogues wiped out innocent lives right across the social, racial, global and religious spectrum; as in the earlier U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, many Muslims were among the dead. In the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Muslims lost their lives alongside thousands of innocent Christians and Jews. Perhaps that is why since 9/11, mosques, synagogues, and churches of all denominations have opened their doors to each other as never before.

Second, Americans who follow Islam now have another, uniquely chilling weight to bear: the certain knowledge that these atrocities were committed by men who were spiritual failures--people who wrapped themselves in a perverse interpretation of a peaceful religion. Quite simply, they went down quoting the Qur'an and they called themselves Muslims.

No wonder American Muslims are asking, "What can we do?"

If my ad hoc opinion-polling means anything, Muslims born or long settled in this country seem to be making an unsigned pact with their consciences, to reclaim and reframe the moral character of a religion once known for its tolerance, wisdom, and peaceful ways. They feel moved to do so because a handful of enraged, suicidal maniacs have very publicly claimed Islam to be their own. Moreover, their "spiritual leaders" have dismissed anyone who disagrees as a weak-kneed heretic.

I also hear Muslim Americans suggesting that one way to go about reclaiming "true Islam" may be to draw on grassroots American social and political traditions. Let's look at this somewhat surprising suggestion. What are these social and political traditions modern Muslim Americans may turn to? I can think immediately of two wellsprings: the civil-rights movement and the United States Constitution as supplemented by the Bill of Rights.

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