As The Smoke Began To Clear
Reflections on Islam in America after September 11
Last September 11, my initial thoughts were not so easy to separate from the tangle of disbelief and stunned reactions I shared with people who were experiencing things firsthand in New York and Washington. Like the landscape itself, thinking had to wait for the smoke to clear. When that began to happen, my mind started to move in several directions. The very idea of being an American Muslim, after Muslims had bombed American landmarks and killed civilians from over 80 countries, opened my thinking to several points of view.
As an American, I was horrified by the level of violence and by the coldness of its execution, too. Like many people, I felt angry. Day by day, I also witnessed unparalleled heroics, performed without an ounce of rhetoric, in the service of other human beings. In the face of these heroics I felt proud to be living where I do.
As a Muslim, I had other, different, feelings. The actions of the perpetrators appalled me, and especially their claim to be acting in Islam's name. Well before their actual identities emerged, many Muslims knew who these people were: political desperadoes wrapped in the flag of a peaceful faith. It wasn't difficult to disavow them, and the principal Muslim advocacy groups all weighed in within hours against the perpetrators and on the side of the victims and democracy.
But other American Muslims refused to believe that people who call themselves Muslims could have done this. Why? Was it the classic reluctance of a persecuted group to accept the worst about any of its members? Or was the penchant for conspiracy theories and the distrust of American government so pronounced among some Muslims that the simplest claims of the FBI were considered lies? I've heard both these explanations many times. Here is a third: that if Muslims admitted that other Muslims had committed such atrocities, then all Muslims would be tarred with the brush of guilt. I tend to favor this third explanation, because nothing fuels denial quite like fear, and because in America these days guilt by association is as common as the Lincoln penny.
And that led to my third set of feelings, as an American who has become a Muslim. Within a few days I began to feel the old, familiar disgust that is my usual response to the antics of many white Americans when given half a chance to hate somebody. I use the word 'white' intentionally here, for most Muslims in America are colored. In my experience, American Islamaphobia is largely racial, partly political, and only at the margins theological.