2016-06-30
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.

In the first week after 9/11, thanks to the daily television news, I saw pigs' blood thrown at the door of a mosque in San Francisco. I saw 300 marchers waving flags and shouting "USA" as they tried to descend on a mosque in suburban Chicago. I saw a disturbed individual wearing what appeared to be a bomb in the parking lot of a Muslim school in Silicon Valley. I heard gunshots in Texas. I saw mosques vandalized in Washington D.C. I read electronic hate mail flooding the chat boards of ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. (Example: "It's time to eradicate Islam.")

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.

It is tragic to see Islam's respectful restraints being loosened. Muslims say, "But Israel! But India! But the Russians!" Muhammad taught us to win over opponents, not revile them.

It is harder to be a Muslim after September 11, and it is harder to be Jewish after Jenin, as it is harder to be Roman Catholic after widespread airing of sexual abuse among the priests. It is as though the world's three major monotheist religions are all being charged with dragging themselves kicking and screaming out of a nightmare and into the twenty-first century.

In the year since September 11, mosques and Islamic Centers across the country have engaged in more exchanges with people and institutions of other faiths than over the entire preceding decade. Every Sunday for months after the attacks, mosque parking lots in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and Atlanta were jammed with cars belonging to visitors from neighboring churches and synagogues. The interfaith open house became almost as regular an affair as the jumma prayer. Everywhere one went, and in every mosque one heard about, Muslims were reaching out to soothe their shock, share their solidarity, and convey Islam's common ground with other faiths. Of all the ways that the attacks on New York and Washington changed American Islam, this may be the most profound.

The tragic events of September 11th ended years of Muslim isolation in America, as long pent-up desires to break the average Muslim's sense of otherness found expression in a natural urge to share communal grief and draw together in a tragedy. Had the 9/11 perpetrators foreseen this outcome, they would probably have stayed at home that Tuesday.

One measure of Islam's maturity in the years ahead will be the degree to which we continue to partner with other religions to work together for the common good. In that sense, September 11th was a beginning we can't afford to end. There is really no choice in this matter. America is a pluralist society. If Muslims remain true to their watch words, eschewing compulsion in religion, making relations with others easy rather than difficult, then Islam's long term prospects here are good. Just as one value of religion is its capacity to draw good out of evil, so the events of September 11th should lead America's Muslims to put into practice the social ethics of their faith, not in some future Utopia or dreamland Caliphate, but here and now in New Jersey, in Birmingham, in Dearborn, in Denver, in Los Angeles.

Although some Muslims reject the term "American Islam," the fact remains that without a faith shaped to ground one in this country, the risk of being swamped, emotionally, socially, spiritually, is very high. A person doesn't anchor that sort of faith by eating with the right hand and never with the left, or adhering to cultural norms from other centuries. You gain that ground by putting core values into practice--of compassion, sacrifice, and gratitude, for instance. Islam is more than a set of values; it is a practice, one that has survived through balanced adaptation in hundreds of cultural contexts worldwide. Now, it is searching for ways to practice itself through American Muslims. How that will look in a hundred years is anybody's guess. One thing seems certain: Its ways will not be exactly the ways of Baghdad, Islamabad, or Riyadh.

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