I attended this year's ISNA convention in Chicago over Labor Day weekend, and was struck by the fact that the dominant theme of this year's conference was civil rights. Since September 11, the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans and the civil liberties of all other Americans are under attack. In fact, the Muslim political agenda for the 2004 election cycle will be "Civil Rights Plus." The confluence of the ISNA convention and the 40th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech caused me to reflect deeply. I listened to the entire "I Have a Dream" speech for the first time this year, while watching a commemoration of the event on public television. What surprised me was that the "I have a dream" portion of the speech was the least significant part. The most important part of the speech-- to me-- was when King said, "In a sense, we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note...that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of 'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness'...Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt."
These words impacted me, and they echo in my mind.
I've been angry since September 11, 2001. The erosion of our civil liberties under the guise of fighting the "war on terrorism" has made me angry. I get angry when I see Arab and Muslim Americans racially profiled in America's airports and on America's streets. I am angry that my patriotism and loyalty are continually questioned solely because of my faith and ethnic background. I get angry when I see Arab and Muslim-Americans--along with non-Muslims who look like Muslims--physically attacked because of their identity. I get angry when I see mosques and Islamic centers attacked, vandalized, ransacked, and even burned to the ground--the latest in Georgia in August. All these new realities for Muslims in America make me very angry indeed.
My anger, however, quickly turns to shame. Now I have had a taste, if only the slightest taste, of what African-Americans have experienced for centuries in America. Racial profiling is not new. Allegations of racial profiling against African-Americans committed by police officers and others have been leveled many times before September 11. African-Americans have been looked at with suspicion for decades before I was even born. African-American churches have been ransacked and burned to the ground, not only in the 1940s and 50s, but as recently as the 1990s. African-Americans, including many Muslim African-Americans, have shed their blood on America's streets so that I can enjoy relative freedom from the discrimination they suffered for centuries. They are my heroes, and I am ashamed.
The infamy of racial profiling is just as repugnant when it is directed toward African-Americans or Hispanics as it is when directed toward Arab and Muslim Americans. I was not yet born when Americans marched in Selma, Ala., to protest racism in America. But I should have been on the streets protesting the racial profiling of African-Americans and other minorities when I came of age a decade ago. My faith demanded such of me, and I fell short of its standards. I am ashamed, and I pray God's forgiveness for my shortcomings.
I recently told an African-American colleague of mine that it has become quite difficult for Arab and Muslim Americans after the September 11 attacks. He looked at me and said, "Racial profiling is not new...get used to it." He was half-joking, but his words have echoed in me. He is right; racial profiling is not a new phenomenon, and I will do my best to protest and combat this ugly manifestation of racism in America in the future. I would not be truly Muslim if I did not.
One last thing. Just up the street from ISNA's convention was the annual convention of the American Muslim Society (AMS), a predominantly African-American Muslim organization. For whatever reason, there could not be one joint convention of both Muslim organizations. That makes me sad. I must give Muslim leaders credit: both conventions had reciprocal registrations, meaning anyone who was registered for one convention was automatically registered for the other. That is a start. But I also support a suggestion made by Muslim activist Rami Nashashibi: If ISNA and AMS hold their conventions in Chicago next year, they should hold one large conference. If that isn't possible ISNA should cancel its convention and join AMS. What an excellent idea.