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 begin with the civil-rights movement. The changes it brought about sprang from a deep realization that we as citizens should no longer equip bigots with the legal, institutionalized means to hold down and profit from any group of people because of their skin color. When we think of the people who best expressed what was at stake during this period, we think of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. Two of these three people were Muslims.
Among this trio, the Louisville Lip has my vote as the single most inspiring citizen of the period. King and Malcolm were professional revolutionaries. They lived and breathed to accomplish certain things, and then died for them. Ali did not live on this higher plane--he was more like you and me. Ali was just trying to do his job in America, which in his case meant boxing and holding up in the limelight. And he did both superbly, despite attempts from very high places to send him packing.
Ali, with unerring moral instinct, came down on the right side of every major social issue, frequently paying the price for it. He was vindicated long ago by an outpouring of the world's love, which ought to give all of us less courageous people pause. Ali spoke for the poor; he thumbed his nose at a dirty war; he accepted the crown for America, then watched America take it away, then won it back twice over. Who today can recall the names of the creeps who cried out for Ali's professional scalp and got it?
Because of that he is the number one example of what it means to be a Muslim in America. The civil rights struggle improved life in America and around the world. Muslims were instrumental in making it happen.
I'm speaking here of a way of knowing and feeling, inherent in our approach to the Constitution, that goes beyond the usual respect for tradition. For at the heart of America's legal tradition is a notion that from time to time history, Fate, God (call it what you like) delivers us a set of circumstances, utterly new and completely urgent, that require creative applications of timeless law. That is the key to the continued relevance of the Constitution. It is also what is missing around the globe in a lot of the hidebound, "traditional" Islam now being purveyed by Muslim states that oppose free expression in matters religious, social and economic. (This is the crossroads at which Afghanistan now stands. A number of other countries have yet to approach it).
What is the connection between America's civil-rights ethic and the Constitution, on one hand, and the moral character of real Islam on the other? Well, a quick review of the Qur'an and Muhammad's teachings makes very clear that the moral character of Islam rests on three bedrock ideas: 1) Equity, especially the racial equality of all people before God, 2) Justice, or the notion that life can and must be improved by each individual, and 3) Charity, which, being the world's most worn-out word, I'll define here in the negative, as a deep-seated distaste for hoarding coupled with an unwillingness to watch the weaker parts of society--the poor, the dismissed, the disenfranchised, those with no voice--suffer under a status quo that doesn't serve them, that instead sucks nourishment from them without repayment. Or, you might define charity as the emotional urge to show another person's suffering the door.
These three ideals--Equity, Justice, and Charity--are central to the best in American democracy and in Islam. Let me quickly add here that in both cases these ideals have sometimes been used to oppress, torture, and cheat others, often even in the name of God. Nothing is so easy to fill with your own personal poison than a sacred text. Hitler, Meir Kahane, Ramsi Yusef, and the Ku Klux Klan all did this.