'The Challenge Goes Out to All American Muslims'
Four Muslim Americans discuss the issues facing Muslims in today's post-9/11 landscape, and see a positive future ahead.
BY: Omar Sacirbey
It’s been five years since 19 Muslim hijackers changed the world, not least of all for Muslims in America. Though Muslims as a whole weren’t castigated immediately after 9/11, five years later tells a different story: A recent Associated Press poll finds 40 percent of Americans harboring prejudice against Muslims, who often are seen as enemies. Media stereotypes and inattention to Muslim efforts to condemn and fight terrorism have only fueled those negative views.
Yet many Muslim Americans, rather than retreating from public life, turned a tragedy into motivation to educate non-Muslims and unify Muslims against a shadowy, internal enemy. Others, facing hostility at home and watching Muslims suffer abroad, grew frustrated and angry. Many wonder if that anger can lead to violence. Beliefnet gathered four unique Muslim Americans to address these complex issues:
Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur lives in Atlanta and is active in the Muslim women’s movement and editor of the recently released book about Muslim women, “Living Islam Out Loud.”
Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi has watched the Muslim-American community evolve since coming to the United States in 1968, and is chairman of the North American Fiqh Council and director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, California.
Shahed Amanullah, who resides in Austin, Texas, is the editor of altmuslim.com, a popular website featuring news, analysis, and discussion about Muslim issues.
Imam Mohamed Magid was born in Sudan and is executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Northern Virginia, which serves 5,000 families. Among his many civic endeavors, Imam Magid is part of the Fairfax County Domestic Violence Prevention Policy Coordinating Council.
Five years after 9/11, are Muslim Americans still “taking back Islam,” or is the job done?
Amanullah: The general lay population within the Muslim community has reacted admirably. I know many personal examples of people who were completely apolitical, who isolated themselves, but after 9/11, they really took it upon themselves to reach out.
But notwithstanding these efforts, as long as people define our Islam by what people do overseas, it’s unfortunately going to be a losing battle. I think the hatred and the distrust of Muslims now is even worse than post-9/11. I think the polls will even bear that out. I still am hopeful but I’m starting to worry a little bit.
Siddiqi: Nine-Eleven shocked the Muslim community. We were not prepared. We were living quite comfortably--building our community and our mosques, raising our children, developing our schools. But now we realize that many of our neighbors don’t know us, and they are suspicious of us. So people have opened their homes, their mosques. I feel our community has done good work. The Muslim community in America is a very useful community, and they realize their responsibility.
Abdul-Ghafur: What I’ve found, particularly in interfaith circles, is that there’s this seeking of knowledge that was not there before September 11th. All of a sudden people understood that Islam and Muslims exist, and neighborhoods are meeting about these interfaith issues and really wanting to learn about Islam and Muslims.
I resist the whole defensive mentality of saying ‘do I need to take back Islam,’ because I think that’s a very reactionary and flawed perspective.
Siddiqi: I have to give a lot of credit to a large number of our fellow Americans who have been quite understanding and wanted to learn more about Islam. But [there are others] who are working very hard to spread hate against Islam and Muslims. They are using every opportunity to create misunderstanding. They have accused our Prophet, our Qur’an, our religious practices, our prayer, our fasting, our religious leaders, our organizations [of being evil]. They have not left anybody out. We have to see that. There is a lot of hateful propaganda against Islam and Muslims.
How do Muslims turn this hostility and suspicion around?
Magid: I think by engaging the American public in an open dialogue about Islam and who Muslims really are. Reaching out to people of other faiths is always of help. And we need to engage our youth in activities to make them understand that being an American Muslim means learning how to engage in civic and educational responsibility.
From my experience I know that when a person who is not Muslim meets practicing Muslims, how they look at them changes tremendously. And Muslims have to be open to receive tough questions about who they are.
Amanullah: I’ve always thought that if every American just had a Muslim friend, not just knew a Muslim at work or whatever, but had a friend who they would invite to dinner and vice versa, we would not have these problems.
I just had my 20th high school reunion, and I believe that because they knew a Muslim, over the course of 20 years it has completely shaped how they think about Muslims in general. And if every Muslim kid in this country was encouraged to make friends with their non-Muslim neighbors, more Americans can say, “Well, I know a Muslim, and they’re not like that.” That’s the only thing that’s really going to eradicate this. So really, the challenge goes out to all American Muslims.
Siddiqi: Islam teaches us that where we live we should help the people and area. We should not just expect others to do something for us, but we should do what we can. We should participate in society.
Is homegrown terrorism a legitimate threat here in America? If so, what can Muslim Americans do beyond simply condemning terrorism?
Magid: Muslims do need to address this kind of fear because it really became a legitimate concern for Americans after they read about the incidents in France and Madrid and London. The way to respond is by engaging our youth in a true dialogue, and to make sure that our youth are not targeted by extremists.
But we have to have in mind that the American experience is different from the European experience. The Muslim youth in America are very much integrated into society. Nevertheless, it’s still Muslims who have to be alert and vigilant to make sure their mosques and organizations are not being used as platforms to promote hatred or intolerance.
Do these radical Muslims exist in America? How do we identify them and weed them out of our communities?
Siddiqi: The North American Fiqh Council, after London, immediately issued a strong fatwa that said very clearly--from Islamic teachings from the Qur’an and the hadith--that it is haram (forbidden) to be involved in any act of violence. It is a duty of every Muslim to cooperate with law enforcement, and to protect people in the society in which we live. In California, we established a Muslim Homeland Security Congress involving many Islamic organizations, ethnic organizations, youth groups, Muslim Student Associations, and the Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles and other law enforcement bodies.
So, you have to work on different levels--on the level of what Islam teaches and also be vigilant and be aware that this infection may not come to our community.
Amanullah: First, I think we have to admit that there are people with extremist thoughts within the community. They do exist. Traditionally, before 9/11, whenever mainstream Muslims found somebody with extremist thoughts, we would never confront them, and unfortunately that would allow them to keep talking.
I think we’ve done better after 9/11, but we have to keep in mind that people are susceptible to extremist thoughts when they are isolated from the mainstream community. And these days, you don’t even need a ring leader, you just need an internet connection.
Once again it comes down to the grassroots level. If we notice people in our communities that are kind of falling through the cracks, I think we need to make more of a community effort to bring these people back in, to find out what’s isolating them. If we let the extremist side grow more, then it might actually metastasize into something actual.
Are Muslims a persecuted minority in America, or are they citizens as free as any other minority group?
Magid: I do worry that people of other faiths, or the government, might look at Muslims who criticize their government as not being loyal to this country. But it’s very important for us to have that opportunity to be able to raise our voice and to object foreign policies and so forth and not feel intimidated.
Siddiqi: Muslims are not a persecuted minority. Muslims have some difficulties and problems, but they are much better off than Muslims in many other places, including the Muslim world itself. We should be really thankful to God and thankful to our fellow Americans with whom we are living, because this is a good society.
But at the same time, we must acknowledge that our government’s actions in some parts of the Muslim world have been terrible. And since 9/11, people are asking, “How much revenge is America going to take? How many Muslims have to lose their lives? How many thousands have to be killed in order to satisfy this anger of America?”
Muslim women enjoy a lot more freedom in this country than elsewhere. What are the most important things happening in the Muslima-American community?
Abdul-Ghafur: Most important, there is a dialogue. A couple of years ago there was no public discourse on women and gender relations within our communities. Most people I spoke to said, “I don’t want to create a problem in my community about it. But I am concerned about the way women are treated.” I heard that so often.
Now I see Muslim communities wrestling with gender. Beyond what you think about a Muslim woman being a prayer leader or being the president of a mosque, what is healthiest is that there now is a debate. I completely support a Muslim woman’s right to lead prayer and to be a full and equal partner in communities. But I am an even bigger supporter of communities making holistic and transparent decisions around this.
Siddiqi: A lot of things have to be done. Muslim women in America are highly qualified and very educated. They’re professionals. Their talent must be properly utlilized in our communities.
But some people are still struggling with their old ideas and prejudices and don’t give women their proper place. There are many mosques where women are not participating on the board. There are many places where they do not have proper facilities for their prayer and for their meeting. So a lot of improvements have to be done.
Amanullah: You have to acknowledge that in the last ten years there has been quite an improvement in the way that our society has treated women. Ten years ago I helped start an organization called Muslims Against Family Violence, and we were universally shunned from every mosque we tried to do business with. But now, those same communities, you have Muslim women’s shelters that have the full support of the community.
Unfortunately, I think this is one of those areas where I think the leadership is more enlightened than in a lot of mosques. There are so many mosques where the treatment is just abhorrent. We still have a long way to go. After 9/11, on a very practical level, men said, “We need your help.” I think we need to take that kind of practical acceptance of a woman’s place in our society and turn it into a really heartfelt one.
Do Muslim Americans accept dissent and criticism from within their own community? How room space is there for tolerance?
Abdul-Ghafur: Terrorism can still be within our communities. It was so surprising to me when we hosted the woman-led prayer [in New York in 2005] and we got death threats. People actually called my house and my parents. And they were Muslims--people who knew me, who threatened my physical safety and threatened the physical safety of my friends and family. Somebody traced one of the emails and it was a 16-year-old Muslim kid who lived in the same state. We need to rigorously not be allowing that type of stuff.
Magid: We need to accept pluralism and disagreements. Islam has debated so many issues. Even the Qur’an has reported the debate. Therefore we need to have open minds on both sides.
Amanullah: It’s good that there’s internal debate and good that America sees it because one of the fears Americans have about American Muslims is that we’re automatons that do what people tell us to do. When Americans see our internal debates, I think that reassures them that we’re human, and we’re trying to resolve our issues.
But it has to happen in a very civil manner, and there’ve been instances where people really cross the line. We have to remember people are watching us, and we have to be very careful about the way we resolve our internal issues. We cannot call for people to respect our opinions and beliefs while at the same time we’re internally threatening or belittling each other. We have to be consistent.
Siddiqi: Freedom of expression is fine, but sometimes people in the name of freedom of expression abuse the community, saying that a majority of the people are terrorists and extremists, and that truly hurts people.
You will find that if somebody is contributing to the community and has served the community, if that person makes some criticisms, people listen because he’s a part of the community. But if such a person uses his status to abuse the community, that’s an entirely different issue.
Abdul-Ghafur: There was a lot of discussion about how terrible Irshad Manji was for the community and how she was just doing it for book sales. But consider her story: What we know is that she was abused at the hands of Muslims, and the Muslim community did not come to her aid and in fact condoned that abuse. So that is what happens when we don’t do the internal work that we need to do. That’s the lesson I take from her.
Mid-term elections are coming up in November, and there isn’t a single Muslim congressperson currently in office. Why aren’t Muslims winning in politics?
Amanullah: I think most people are aware of Keith Ellison’s campaign in Minnesota. His is a very good example of a Muslim who put in his dues and gained the trust of the community. We can’t just toss our hat in the ring and expect people to vote for us. We’ve got to gain trust.
Magid: As long as Muslims think that our important issues are the concerns of what happens overseas, they will not become successful politicians. It’s not only about what’s happening in the Middle East, but also what’s happening in our local community:taxes, education, and environmental issues.
Does the gap between African-American Muslims and other Muslim Americans still exist?
Abdul-Ghafur: I think immigrant Muslims come to this country and just adopt the stereotype that nescient Americans have about African-Americans, and it creates major bumps.
But there are more inroads with second generation Muslims than our parents, particularly when I look at African-Americans marrying people of Indo-Pakistani or Arab descent, which was a huge no-no one generation back, and still continues to be a huge no-no among [many of] my peers. But they’re willing to fight that battle.
And as Muslims are being profiled and are struggling with illegal detention and things like that, I see more immigrant Muslims reaching out and saying we need to draw on the experience of our African-American brothers and sisters.
Magid: It seems today that Muslims are doing more to integrate. American Muslims are reaching to their African-American brothers and sisters; and I see a lot of leadership among African-American Muslims. Times have changed, and I believe the immigration of African-Americans to the suburbs and some immigrants to the city have created that mix in the mosques.
One year from now, how do you think the Muslim-American community will be different than it is today?
Amanullah: Muslims are going to continue to reach out to their neighbors. I think we’re going to continue to make progress in this internal dialogue that we’re having about what our American-Muslim values are.
And I’m hoping that we’ve seen the worst of the mistrust of Muslims. I’m really hoping that a year from now that we will have changed that a little bit.
Siddiqi: There will be more programs and activities, more mosques and schools, and more interaction with non-Muslims and involvement within the community. I think what we are seeing is a trend. I hope there is no other 9/11. May God forbid that. We have to be very careful, very cautious, that nobody does anything that will destroy everything we have created--because we’re living in a very vulnerable time.
Abdul-Ghafur: It’s all good, as we say. I think you’re going to see more Muslims who were previously alienated from their communities coming back because we have our mosques that are open and inviting. And we’re in the process of purging the things that don’t work for Muslims and that, quite frankly, don’t work in Islam either.