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.
These initial feelings were clear and singular. They were defined by sadness for the victims' families, on the one hand, and on the other, by a deep resentment for the cheap theologizing that allows people with grievances to justify making others grieve. In the English language, you address a grievance. Or you redress it. You don't drown it in jet fuel and call the act heroic. Suicide, killing civilians, the wanton destruction of property, assaulting the fabric of society are all crimes under Islamic Law. I'm not sure what to call people who fight that way. That they call themselves model Muslims is absurd.
Here and around the world today, rage remains the emotion-of-choice for people who find themselves victimized by forces beyond their control. In certain quarters, desperate spokesmen waving the flag of this or that Higher Cause have raised suicide-with- murderous-intent to the status of martyrdom. I'm not speaking here of dying in protest, of third century Christian zealots martyring themselves, or of Buddhist self-immolations in Vietnam. I'm talking about dying by acts designed to take some of your opponents with you, often civilians who have no more control over where they live than you do.
Today, some Muslims seem to believe that their group is a vast moral improvement on the rest of humanity. If acceptance of others is any measure, I'd have to disagree. Although Islamic law and ingrained Muslim manners kept prejudices more or less in check for centuries, a hard look at the world today should tell you that Muslims without their traditional restraints are in danger of behaving as badly as anyone. What distinguishes Islam, in theory, is its inherent quest for justice and a pluralistic vision. These strengths seem designed to thrive in America, where almost everyone comes from somewhere else. But abroad, in the dictatorships of the Middle East for example, what hope do minority populations have of a prosperous future? Jews, Copts, Zoroastrians, gypsies, even Muslim Kurds and Shiites on the wrong sides of various borders are in increasingly desperate circumstances, thanks to Muslim regimes.