I'm not really worried about myself. I blend in with most others on the street. I don't look particularly "ethnic," since I'm fairly light-skinned and I don't wear a head scarf. But one of my close friends here in New York wears hijab (the Islamic head dress) and she's afraid to walk outside today. Another of my friends who wears hijab is not allowed to leave the house because her parents fear for her safety, even though she lives in Los Angeles. Another is considering taking the hijab off. And I understand why.
My parents immigrated to this country in search of the freedoms not available to them in their home country. Although they did not face religious persecution at home, they knew that religious freedom was guaranteed in this country and they cherished the opportunity to live in a society where freedom of expression is protected under law. So it worries me to think that we're at a point when Muslim-Americans are no longer feeling they can enjoy rights and freedoms guaranteed to them under our First Amendment. As a society, it is our duty to make sure that their freedom of expression (to wear a scarf or to pray in public) is protected.
As I was walking the streets of New York the day of the attacks, I could hear the words "Muslims" and "Islam" being whispered. One person even said that this was a time for "extermination." There are reports that Muslims and mosques are being targeted. I don't know how many of the reports are true, but I do know that Muslims are keenly aware of the image that is out there--and they are worried for their religion, for their community, and for their country. We need to remember that the majority of Muslims in this country are American citizens. Islam in America has many colors--black, white, East Asian, Middle Eastern--but our common thread is that we are all American. American Muslims are grieving too.
Still, in our own country, the words "Muslim" and "Islam" are wrongly associated with terrorism. The problem is that Americans know very little about Islam as a religion, and so are susceptible to rumors, suspicion, and misinformation. We are quick to associate Islam with the Middle East and with the conflict around the world. Yes, there are conflicts, and yes, there are many zealots. But Islam is a religion that does not condone terrorism. It is a religion rooted in the Abrahamic tradition. Muslims pray to the same God as Christians and Jews, and they believe in many of the same teachings and prophets. Islam is a religion that in its history has provided for years of peace and prosperity among different religious groups.
When I was young, like many people in search of their faith, I went through a time of doubting and questioning Islam because of the very images that are still out there today. As a Muslim growing up in America, it was not always easy to distinguish between Islam and the images that the media has used to define Islam. Was it possible that Islam could be so different than the religion being shown on television? How could my friends, members of my family, and members and leaders in my community find solace in a religion that was depicted as so extreme, intolerant, and radical? How could such disparate images of the same religion exist?
When the Irish Republican Army commits an act, we do not blame Catholicism; we blame the IRA. Similarly, we cannot blame Islam for deeds that may have been committed by terrorists. As of this writing, we do not know who is responsible for this tragedy. We need to be careful not to point fingers. We learned that lesson from the Oklahoma City bombing, when Arabs and Muslims were unjustly accused.
Far too often, the word jihad has been misused and taken out of context. Jihad is not another word for terrorism. Jihad is a term that refers to a person's struggle to uphold justice. It can take many forms--from an inner struggle to do "right" to , an armed struggle during times of defense against aggression. But what is clear is that an armed struggle cannot target innocent people--that is just plainly against Islam. Terrorism is in no way justified or condoned in Islam. It's as simple as that.
There is the possibility that this event could drastically change the way our society works. Suspicion may run rampant and our freedom may be threatened. In the past few years, Muslims have had to fight the "secret evidence act." More than 20 Arabs and Muslims were held for up to three years without being told the charges and evidence brought against them. Nasser Ahmed was detained for three-and-a-half years without knowing what he was charged with, and Mazen al-Hajjar, an 18-year resident of this country, was similarly held for three years on secret evidence. A repeal of the act passed the House this year, but there is still a long way to go. What we thought could never happen in America already has: We have lost one of our freedoms. We must be careful not to let this wave of fear foreshadow something even greater and more dangerous to our individual liberties as Americans.
How we handle the situation now is crucial. As people search for an outlet for their anger and frustration, we need to make sure that emotion and anger do not cloud the need for due process. We cannot return to a McCarthy-like era where everybody becomes suspect; this would threaten the very foundations upon which our country was built.
We have a long process of healing before us. May God guide us all.