9/11/11: A new American anniversary

In my most recent posts, I’ve discussed the terrorist attacks in Norway, offering quite a depressing analysis of their causes and implications, many of which are related to Islamophobia in America.  Fear of Muslims existed in the American psyche before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks ten years ago only amplified and cemented those feelings for many Americans.

Despite the horrible backlash we’ve seen against Muslims in the wake of 9/11, I am quite optimistic about the future of America and its relationship with its Muslim community.  The United States, unlike Europe, has an identity rooted in diversity and faith, and re-embracing these values will allow us to fight back against the Islamophobic forces in our society.


When immigrants began coming to America 400 years ago, they sought a place that would embrace their differentness.  When they established our country decades later, America’s founders intended to make our nation a place for diversity and the mixing of cultures.  Unlike those in Europe, our identity as Americans is defined by the fact that there is no one language, ethnic background, or religious affiliation that we all share.  Ironically, our unity stems from our differences.

Some Americans want new immigrants (like Latinos and Muslims) to ‘assimilate’ into American life and culture.  But is it possible to assimilate into diversity? Participation in our society doesn’t mean conforming to arbitrary standards that the often too powerful majority would like to set.  Rather, being an American means adding one’s unique history and perspective to the already-colorful American landscape.

If we look back on our history, most minority ethnic or religious groups have experienced discrimination and marginalization, especially during periods of economic uncertainty and war.  Catholics, Japanese, blacks, and Jews were perceived to be un-American and their racial, religious, or national heritage was seen as incompatible with being a loyal American.  Today, labeling members of these groups as un-American seems laughable—these people are irreplaceable contributors to American life.

Today, we see the marginalization of Muslims in the movement to ban sharia, attempts to block the construction of Islamic centers, and hate protests and crimes directed toward Muslims and their institutions.  But looking back at our history, we see that it is possible for us to outgrow our fear of the ‘other’ as we begin to see the important contributions that minority groups make to our society.

My hope in American progress and the eventual acceptance of the ‘other’ lies in stonework that was recently erected on the Washington Mall: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Fifty years ago, the persecution and marginalization of African-Americans was rampant and deemed appropriate by many Americans, and today, an African-American prophet is honored among the founders of our country and a black man leads our nation as president.


The United States is also fortunate to be a country rooted in religion.  In a recent Pew report, over 80% of Americans identified themselves with a particular religious tradition.  This is in contrast to the increasingly secularized Europe, where most citizens say that religion does not play an important role in their lives.  The levels of religiosity in America and Europe directly correlate to the regions’ level of acceptance of Muslims.  Religious people in America have something in common with Muslims—a belief in God and a devotion to their faith life—as opposed to Europeans who lack this point of commonality.  Thus, the marginalization and discrimination of Muslims has been far less in America than in Europe.

The founding fathers wanted America to be a place of vibrant and diverse religiosity, and explicitly included Islam in their vision for the country.  Thomas Jefferson praised the Virginia commonwealth for including religious protections for all people in its constitution, saying: “[the lawmakers] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim].”  Proud to own a copy of the Qur’an, Jefferson was the first president to hold a Ramadan iftar at the White House.  John Locke, George Washington, and others whose ideas shaped our nation were accepting of and welcoming to Muslims in England and America.

Building unity

Recognizing and embracing America’s unique claims on diversity and faith will help us respond to the Islamophobia plaguing our country.  Thanks to these two values, America has a chance to reverse anti-Muslim sentiment before it escalates to the level it has in Europe (where we see openly Islamophobic political parties, infringements on Muslims’ religious freedom, and violent attacks, culminating the terrorism committed by Anders Brevik in July.)

Gospel choir at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, diversity and faith were brought together at the 9/11 Unity Walk in Washington.  Teenagers in yarmulkes, mothers in hijabs, small children, and little old ladies strode down Embassy Row, visiting houses of worship, asking questions, andsharing their experiences of faith in America.  We heard from religious leaders and interfaith activists like Tony Blair, Karen Armstrong, and Arun Gandhi, Mohandis Gandhi’s grandson.  A D.C. gospel choir sang on the steps of the mosque, nuns gave out cookies at the Vatican embassy, and the Islamic call to prayer was recited at the synagogue.

I was most struck by my experience at the Islamic center as I stood in a long line of girls and older women, waiting to enter the prayer room.  As a sign of respect, women must cover their arms, legs, and hair in the mosque (traditionally men dress conservatively as well,) and girls like me, who were clad in shorts and t-shirts for the hot weather, had to wait to be offered a long jellabiyya and colorful scarf before going in.

Many American women misunderstand Islamic covering and feel that it is demeaning, and knowing this I was overwhelmed almost to tears by the enthusiasm of these non-Muslim women, who chose to cover themselves to enter the mosque.  These women chose to challenge the deep assumptions Westerners have about Islam and women, and decided to be open-minded and curious, withholding judgment until they’d had the experience.  While it was clear that all the women were not fully comfortable with covering (myself included—and I cover quite often,) that didn’t stop them from participating or asking questions respectfully.

The line of women waiting for scarves.

This attitude of openness and respect imbued the walk, and I wish that more Americans could have seen this wonderful example of how we must engage with those who are different from us.

9/11/11: A new date to remember

September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade of divisions—political, religious, and social.  It will remain on our calendars and in our hearts as a day of mourning for generations.

Now, September 11, 2011 offers us an opportunity to begin a new decade, one in which we choose to foster unity through an engagement with diversity and faith.  Let’s make sure we remember this new date, too, and hopefully in ten years, we’ll look back on September 11 not only with sadness, but also with joy.

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Arun Gandhi, center.

Thoughts on King’s “radicalization” hearings

“I remember doing a number of radio interviews [right after 9/11] saying we can’t do to the Muslims what we did to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.” (New York magazine)

Peter King at today's hearing

These are the words of Peter King, a long-time House representative from Long Island and the head of the House Homeland Security committee.  Before 9/11, he was an active supporter of his Muslim community; he even spoke and cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Islamic Center of Long Island.  As his quote suggests, he was concerned that post-9/11 backlash would lead to unwarranted suspicion of Muslims and unjust government actions taken against the group as a whole.

However, today King seems to be encouraging the climate of mistrust he sought to avoid ten years ago.

This morning, the House committee on Homeland Security—of which King is the head— began a hearing to examine “the Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” King is concerned that Muslims in America are becoming more radicalized and that the Muslim community is doing little to counter that trend.

Are King’s concerns legitimate?

In one respect, yes.  We have seen an increase in the attempted domestic terror plots

Figure 2

committed by American Muslims in the years since 9/11 (Triangle Center on Terror and Homeland Security, Figure 2).  This attempted terrorism is considered a strong indicator of radicalization.  (It is important to note that the number of terror attempts dropped by half, despite the fact that the attempts received more media attention.)

An increase in radicalization, however, cannot only be ascribed to members of the Muslim community.   In 2010, the number of hate groups operating in the US reached its peak, topping 1,000.  Some of these groups include neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, Klansmen, and black separatists (Southern Poverty Law Center).  “Other hate groups on the list target gays or immigrants, and some specialize in producing racist music or propaganda denying the Holocaust,” the center’s report also says.

Individuals, often associated with these organizations, have attempted to carry out terror plots in the US as well.  “In an 11-day period this January, a neo-Nazi was arrested as he headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted when police dismantled a sophisticated bomb; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested in a car filled with explosives outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich.” (Southern Poverty Law Center .) (I am particularly troubled that these instances of terrorism, especially the last one in which Muslims were targeted, were hardly reported in the mainstream media, unlike terror plots undertaken by Muslims.)

Clearly, radicalization is not just a phenomenon we see in a small number of Muslim Americans; it is a phenomenon that has been seen among whites, blacks, Christians and others across America.  As Mississippi representative Bennie Thompson, a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee said during the hearing, radicalization is a nation-wide problem affecting Americans in all ethnic and religious groups.  Because of this, he called on King to hold a hearing to address the radicalization of anti-government and white supremacist groups as well.

He, many others, and myself believe that pigeonholing one group, as King has done with this hearing, is dangerous.  It not only ignores important security threats (the 1,000 hate groups I just mentioned), but it has the potential to create further radicalization among American Muslim individuals, who may feel that their government does not trust them, simply because of their religious background.

Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who agreed to testify but didn’t agree with the specificity of the hearings, said, “If you start to make a community feel besieged, they’re just going to feel more reticent. It’s just a natural human reaction to feel like a target.” (New York Magazine)

He also recognizes the need to investigate all forms of radicalism in order to better secure our country.  “If you took every Muslim in America and put them in a jail, it wouldn’t have stopped Gabby Giffords from being shot. It wouldn’t have saved the people in Oklahoma City. It wouldn’t have saved the guard at the Holocaust Museum. It wouldn’t have saved the students at Columbine or Virginia Tech. To me, it’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.”  (New York Magazine)

Even the title of the hearing itself is problematic, because it places the emphasis on the Muslim “community,” not on individuals.  This title only increases the perception that the US government is at war with Islam, and as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative has expressed, this perception has the potential to increase radicalization of Muslims abroad.

Now I’ll turn to King’s second concern: that the American Muslim community has not done enough to prevent radicalization and stop violence.

This claim, however, has been refuted by the Justice community and specifically by Attorney General Eric Holder, who asserts that the Muslim community has been highly helpful in providing tips that have resulted in the disruption of terror plots. (CBS)

According to the same Triangle Center study, fellow Muslims were most often those who provided initial information to law enforcement about Muslim American terror plots since 9/11 (48 out of 120 cases).

Though King disagrees, he has not produced any sources to support his claim that Muslims are uncooperative. (New York Magazine)

I also take issue with part of King’s list of witnesses.  He was right to ask Muslim representative Ellison to testify, yet he failed to invite the other Muslim representative, Andre Carson (who represents my district in Indiana.) No federal law enforcement officials were present; only a sheriff from Los Angeles was.  Thankfully, John Dingell, who represents Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population, was invited to speak, and reminded us that we can’t let a neo-McCarthyism—focused this time on Islam instead of Communism—take root.

I was also disappointed to see that mainstream Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (of the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement) and Imam Mohamed Magid (of the Islamic Society of North America—located outside Indianapolis!) were not asked to testify.  Only Zudhi Jasser (of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy), who was unknown to me until the hearings, was present.

Aside from Ellison and Dingell, it seems that the witnesses were brought in to back King’s own misguided positions, not to provide the full range of discourse needed.

It is hard to take King or this hearing seriously, not only because his list of witnesses, but also because of previous statements he’s made about American Muslims and his support of the Irish terrorist group, the IRA.

In 2004, King supported the claim that 80% of mosques in American were run by radical imams, and in 2007, he said that America had “too many mosques.”  The first statement is clearly unsubstantiated, false, and ultimately offensive to American Muslims and their supporters like me.  And his second statement questions Muslims’ First Amendment rights to express their religion by building places of worship.

King is strongly opposed to Islamic terrorism, yet he staunchly supported the IRA, a violent terrorist group that operated in Northern Ireland.  Tom Parker, a counterterrorism expert at Amnesty International, expresses my thoughts well: “My problem is with the hypocrisy.  If you say that terrorist violence is acceptable in one setting because you happen to agree with the cause, then you lose the authority to condemn it in another setting.” (Washington Post)

Why King decided to hold this hearing in unclear to me.  The reasons he cites are, as I hope I’ve shown, incomplete and misinformed.  While I do not have any definite answers, I fear politics may play a part.  As the Park 51 Center made headlines last summer in anticipation of the midterm elections, this hearing is making the news as talk of the 2012 elections begins.  The American Muslim community became a political pawn last summer, and I fear that the same will happen in the future, because of this hearing.  Sadly, the climate of fear of Muslims, created and sustained by politicians and the news media, can be easily exploited for political gain.

Through today’s hearing, King hoped to increase America’s security and protect its values.  However, I’m afraid the hearing chipped away at both, just as anti-Japanese policy did 70 years ago.  We cannot let the Muslim Americans of the 2000s become the Japanese Americans of the 1940s.

I don’t think it is overly dramatic to say that this hearing could be the first step down a dangerous and bigoted path that our country has unfortunately walked before.

Many people might counter me, saying, “That could never happen again. Today is different.  We are more tolerant now.”

Sadly, I’m not so sure.

For more reflections on the hearing, check out:

Religious leaders comment on the significance of the hearing on the Washington Post’s  “On Faith” blog.

Islam & women piece: Seeking questions from my readers

“Why do you cover your hair? Do you have to?”

“You’ve never had a boyfriend. Will you ever date before you get married?”

“Why do you and the other girls stand behind men when you pray?  Why don’t women lead Friday prayers?”

“Muhammad had several wives.  Is polygamy still ok in Islam?”

Before coming to Georgetown, these are some of the questions that I had for Muslim women, but I didn’t have any way to get real and thoughtful answers.  I knew of a few women in my community, but not well enough that I felt I could talk to them about these deep and complex topics.

Sadly, for many Americans, this image defines their understanding of the relationship between Islam and women.

Despite the fact that we as Americans hear so much about “Islam” in the news, good resources about Islam and its female followers are hard to come by.  The only resources we have to guide our understanding about Muslim women are books like A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (the author of The Kite Runner) and news articles like TIME’s recent cover story about abused Afghan women—accounts which are not representative of the lives lived by many American Muslim women.  The most important means for understanding—daily interaction with real people, in this case, Muslim women—is not something that most people have.  I didn’t have it either.

Since coming to Georgetown, I have fortunately had those daily connections that have helped me answer my questions about Islam and women.  Spending classroom time my Arabic professor and TA; meeting female leaders and mothers affiliated with the campus; and forming friendships with students have provided me with a perspective of Islam and women that I wouldn’t have possibly received by simply watching the news or reading popular fiction.

However, many other Americans still have many of the questions I did, and they lack the daily interactions that can help provide answers.

In order to remedy this in the smallest way, this winter a Muslim friend and I will be writing a joint piece for my blog about women and Islam.

Finn (left) and Sam (right) from Glee

It is this friend* who initially provided me with this interaction. During my first semester, we became instant friends and she is now one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.  In between watching hilarious Youtube clips and arguing over whether Sam from Glee has an awkwardly big mouth, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what it means for her to be a Muslim women in America today.   She and I both think that her first person accounts can help give non-Muslim Americans a new, much-needed look into the lives and perspectives of Muslim women.

The piece (which will probably turn into a series of smaller pieces) will look like this:  I will organize a series of questions that my friend will respond to based on her personal experiences.  I will add any context that may be useful to a non-Muslim or Christian audience.

Because of our deep immersion in these topics, it is difficult for her and I to step back and identify what specific questions should drive the piece.  We don’t know what many Americans want and need to hear about.

This is where my readers come in.  What questions do you have?  Is there something you’ve heard relating to women and Islam that discomforts you or makes you curious?

I will be happy to receive any and all questions you may have.  To encourage you to ask whatever is on your mind, I will keep your questions anonymous when I use them in my piece.  Even my friend, who will be responding to the questions, will not know their origin.

So please do not worry about sounding insensitive, uninformed, or politically incorrect—all questions expressed respectfully are valid.  Meaningful and productive discussions require that we address all of our thoughts and questions.

If you know of a family member or friend who may have questions but who doesn’t read the blog, send them the link so they can submit a question.

My friend and I greatly appreciate your questions and support of this project.

My email address is jed56@georgetown.edu.  You can send me your questions there, or post them in the comments section of the blog.

*You probably noticed that I did not use my friend’s name in this post.  Because she doesn’t want her name floating around in the blogosphere, she has decided to work on this project under a pseudonym (we haven’t picked it yet).  Also, given the nature of this honest discussion and the increased hostility we’ve recently seen directed toward Muslims in America and Europe, this will allow her to respond without worrying whether her statements will be taken out of context and used against her later.