“Where are the moderates?”

In her comment on one of my previous posts, blogger Teresa said, “How many moderate Muslims have you seen speak out against 9/11 and other terrorist attacks? I have not seen many Muslims speak out.”

Teresa expresses the sentiment of many Americans who are dissatisfied with the “moderate” Muslim response to the terrorism and violence perpetrated by extremists.  They claim, “How are we supposed to believe good things about Islam when the only Muslims we see and hear from are supporting violence?  True, many American Muslims are not openly supporting terrorism, but they aren’t condemning it either.”  As it was expressed in a hurtful forwarded email I received a few years ago, many believe that the “silent majority” of the Muslim population is passively supporting aggression committed by fellow Muslims.

Despite their absence in the mainstream media, many moderate Muslims have indeed been speaking out.

There was little coverage of the many, many leaders who were making clear that the Muslim community in the U.S. far from supports the 9/11 attacks or terrorists’ actions.  The little reporting that was done was hard to find unless you were intentionally looking for it.

The main-stream media failed horribly in it s duty to fully inform American citizens.  In order to boost ratings and profits, the media chose to only cover a few violent or extreme events happening on the fringe, rather than focusing on the things that the majority of Muslims were doing and saying.  This poor coverage gave Americans the perception that American Muslims were unwilling to stand up to the terrorist acts committed by other Muslims.

I assumed that, as more moderate Muslim voices entered the national discussion and received more coverage, people would no longer have an excuse and the issue would go away.  But it didn’t.

In the midst of the Park 51 controversy, we’ve heard a lot from one moderate Muslim in particular–Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim leader of the project.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

He and his wife have been all over T.V. promoting and explaining the new Islamic center, a place that is “attempting to prevent the next 9/11.”  Rauf’s career has been spent working for better understanding between the Muslim world and the West.  Under Bush and Obama he has worked as a key diplomat, hoping to heal the wounds between the U.S. and majority Muslim nations.  His book, “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America,” discusses the good things that Islam and America have to offer one another and the factors that have made their relationship so strained.

So the problem should be solved, right?  We’re hearing from the moderates like we wanted to.  These Muslims are condemning terrorism and even working to prevent another 9/11!  But people still aren’t satisfied.

Rauf and other moderates are finally “speaking out,” but their status as moderates is now in question.  Does Rauf support Hamas?; did his father have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant Islamist organization that began in the 1930s?; does he support shariah law?; does he think that the U.S. deserved to be attacked on 9/11?  (For answers to these questions, check out this comprehensive and detailed summary by the New York Times.)

These kinds of questions began swirling around the imam.  Americans, egged on by soundbite-producing media with its own biases, began to discredit the imam, claiming that he wasn’t a moderate at all.  Rather that being seen as a moderate, he was painted as and understood by Americans to be a quiet extremist whose family ties and former statements discredited his stated goals to foster peace, reconciliation, and understanding.

True, Imam Rauf might not have been the kind of “moderate” that Americans were looking for.  They were probably seeking secular Muslims who would encourage their fellow believers to abandon their Islamic beliefs, culture, and way of life and whole-heartedly accept the entirety of “superior” Western culture.  They probably wanted to hear from someone who would condemn all of Islam, even the parts that don’t harm and (I would argue) enrich American culture.  Finding a “moderate” who would fit this definition would allow Americans to hold onto their negative view of Islam, without having to pay attention to or try to understand the religion.

But his kind of “moderate” is not a moderate at all.  That person would be an “extremist” in a sense, because he or she would occupy the other end of the spectrum, the side without any religion at all.  And the term “secular Muslim” is an oxymoron–how do you expect a religious person to abandon his or her faith?

It quickly became clear that the call for moderates was just an excuse, a way for Americans to justify their belief that Islam was a religion of violence.  No one really wanted to hear from the moderates; rather they just wanted to be able to give a reason for their ignorance or negative view.  The lack of moderate voices in the mainstream provided that.

Now that we’ve heard the moderate voices, people have lost their excuse and are in need for a new one.  They claim that Rauf and moderates weren’t even moderates to begin with; they dismiss the moderates as being “radical” and thus allow themselves to hold tight to their long-standing and uninformed views.

It’s time to stop making excuses.  Only when we accept the truth can we begin the process of fixing this mess.  Lying to ourselves only makes things worse.

“You still hear from a lot of people, ‘Why aren’t the moderate Muslims speaking out?’ And…at some level you …feel like, I’ve lost my voice from speaking out.” Omid Safi, George Washington University, 2001

Addressing the “insensitivity” argument

Note: This post–and others down the pipeline–were intended for last Saturday (September 11.)  Though I wanted them to correspond with the anniversary of the attacks, the pieces are still relevant, I hope.  This first one addresses the “insensitivity argument” and the others will come later this weekend–I hope!   Homework may once again get in the way.

When I began this blog in early June, I had no idea it would be so timely.  I posted some links about the protests against the then-called Cordoba House (now Park 51 center) early on, and then soon after that the swirl of controversy began as the center, its supporters, and detractors began receiving much more attention from mainstream news media and politicians.  I was greatly surprised by how many ordinary Americans were paying attention to and weighing in on this debate on both sides.  This passionate dialogue is exemplified by a reader’s response to my 9/10 post from last friday.  Both this reader and I have both been paying close attention to this issue (though we have been receiving our information from far different “news” sources) and the fact that she took the time to write a lengthy paragraph in the comments section below my post is quite telling of her passion and the passion of so many others who share her views.  (Check it out here and please weigh in.  Who do you agree with?  She or I?  Do you fall somewhere in the middle?)

Though I’ve posted often about the Park 51 controversy, I haven’t written many of my own thoughts, and because of that I wanted to use the next few posts to do that.  I’m thankful for the woman’s comment because her views represent the those of many Americans, and by responding to her I can also respond to the concerns of many.

The flawed premise of the “insensitivity” argument

Many have argued that building the Park 51 center, an Islamic recreational, cultural, and religious center, near ground zero is “insensitive” to those who lost their lives on 9/11.  They claim it is insensitive to build a center with ties to Islam so close to the site where a few murderous men who called themselves Muslim killed many Americans.

This argument cannot stand on its own if we examine its main premise with even the littlest effort.  It presumes that the religion of Islam sanctioned and encouraged the kind of violence and terrorism that occurred on 9/11.  It equates the motives of the terrorists to the goals of all Muslims around the world; it assumes Islam is one violent monolith whose believers all adhere to the same radical principles; and it purports that because some people who claim to be Muslim (I and others would argue that the terrorists are not truly Muslim) believed blowing up buildings was an expression of their religious piety, that all other Muslims believe the same.

It should be obvious how completely false this premise is. Sadly its falseness is not immediately apparent to Americans due to the fear-based ignorance that I discussed last Friday.  If it were possible to move beyond our fear, we’d be able to learn about Islam from our classmates, teachers, and neighbors–our fellow citizens. We’d realize that the goals of Muslims are the goals of all religious people–to live in a peaceful and prosperous world around family and friends who love them, and in service of a God who blesses them.  We’d be able to see that Muslims are a diverse community within which, like any other religion, there are those who will use religion to attempt to justify their political goals.  Islam, like any other religion, is one which promotes peace.  The word, “Islam,” and the word for peace, “salaam,” are derived from the same Arabic root (s-l-m).

"Peace" written in Arabic

Additionally, many prominent Muslims have spoken out against the 9/11 attacks, making it clear that Islam does not sanction terrorism.  Whether or not the public chooses to listen is another topic that I’ll discuss in my next section.  I have never met a Muslim who supports or excuses what happened on 9/11–rather they are appalled that some “Muslim” men with destructive political goals would harness their religion as a way to (unsuccessfully) justify mass slaughter.

Just because Islam is associated with 9/11–just because the terrorists who committed the attacks called themselves Muslim–doesn’t mean that Islam is the cause.  As we discussed in my IR class last week, a correlation between two things doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other.

If Michael Enright, who stabbed and almost killed a New York City Muslim taxi driver a couple of weeks ago, is Christian, would we say that Christianity was the cause?  Would we blame the religion of Christianity and assume that all other Christians are murderers too? Not at all.  The same simple answer should come to our minds when crimes are committed by a Muslim or a person of any other faith.

I am not sure if Enright is Christian or not.  As it should be, his religion was not mentioned in news reports I have read.  His religion, whether it is Christianity or not, is not a significant factor in his crime, given that he ignored a fundamental rule of all faiths: thou shalt not kill.

The insensitivity argument can only stand if one believes that Islam is guilty and responsible for 9/11.  And it isn’t. I hope I’ve been able to successfully prove that here, in this short post.  If I haven’t convinced you, let me know, and I’ll address your concerns in future posts.

The Park 51 center has nothing to do with 9/11.  The link between the Park 51 center and the attacks on September 11 was created by those who thought they could exploit a  potential link for their own political purposes.

_________________________

The insensitivity argument also disregards the fact that Muslims were negatively affected by the attacks.  Many perished and even more were first responders in New York.  Check out this PSA distributed by CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

First-responder CAIR public service announcement

The next two posts will also reflect on the current situation, specifically focusing on many Americans’ calls for “moderate Muslim voices” and the criticism that many of these moderates have “ties to terrorism.”

Postponed

On Friday, I said I’d be posting two more reflections on 9/11 this weekend, one yesterday and one today.  But nothing was posted last night, and it’s likely nothing will be posted today.   I wrote a lot yesterday, didn’t finish, and didn’t finish a lot of important homework.   I’ve got to deal with this homework before I finish up yesterday’s post and start on today’s.  So it might be a few days down the road before they’re up.  They won’t be so timely, but I think they’ll still be quite relevant.

Reflections on 9/11, Part 1

This weekend is a unique one.  Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan.  Tomorrow, Americans of all faiths will mourn the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

It seems quite ironic that these two days–arguably the most significant days for Muslims in America and around the world–fall on the same weekend.  Clearly, these days are important for different reasons.  Ramadan and Eid mark a time of self-sacrifice, community, friendship, and peace for Muslims, while the anniversary of September 11th marks a day of slaughter and the beginning of a trend of fear, suspicion, and division.  At a time during which Muslims are celebrating the vitality of their peaceful community, many in America are using Islam’s (distant but exaggerated) connection to the September 11 attacks to cast a shadow of fear and mistrust over the religion and its people.

The fact that this holiday and day of memorial fall on the same weekend–that they are connected and unable to be separated–is symbolic of the relationship between the Muslim community (here and abroad) and post-9/11 America.  One cannot be understood without the other.

The occurrence of these two events on the same weekend offers me the perfect opportunity to address many of my recent concerns about America’s response to Islam in the post-9/11 world.

I’ll break up my thoughts into three topics and post them over three days:

PAST: Today, on September 10th, I’ll discuss the U.S. reaction to 9/11 and the steady increase of Islamophobia over the past nine years.

PRESENT: Tomorrow, on September 11th, I’ll discuss this current moment of crisis in the relationship between Islam and post-9/11 America.  I’ll specifically make comments about the recent events like the Park 51 controversy, planned Qur’an burning, hate crimes, etc.

FUTURE: On Sunday, September 12th, I’ll talk about the actions that we as individuals and as a country must take in order to reverse this trend of Islamophobia, and I’ll offer a historical example after which we can model our actions now and in the future.

I urge you to share your views as well, or at least give yourself some time to think about these issues.

9/10: Looking at the past nine years

In my International Relations lecture last week, the professor asked my classmates and I to identify the event that first caused us to think about international relations–the event that made us realize there was a bigger world outside our city or country.  I, along with over half of the class, responded that September 11, 2001 was this event.

Though we didn’t realize it as 10-year-old fifth graders, the attacks would greatly change the spirit and culture of our country.  Before the attacks, Americans were confident about our country’s rising status and power in the world.  With the fall of the Soviets 10 years before and a booming economy, it seemed nothing could stand in our way.

On September 11th that changed.  It appeared that our way of life was being challenged by a mysterious and hostile entity.  The climate of confidence reversed completely, becoming one defined by fear.  Suspicion and judgement were tools we were urged by our government to use, or else we’d risk being attacked again.  A pall of xenophobia began to descend slowly over our country as foreigners and even citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage were questioned about their patriotism and motives.

This climate of fear prevented our country from having a much needed national discussion about the key question surrounding the attacks: Why did this happen? If this question had been grappled with–if knowledgeable scholars, journalists, activists, and civilians had been consulted–then the second important question, “What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” might have been answered in a way that didn’t result in two foreign wars that have only increased hostility toward the U.S.

One thing that didn’t change on 9/11 (something that desperately needed to change) was American ignorance, and our tendency to act on that ignorance.  Before 9/11 we were unaware the implications of our policy decisions in the Middle East and South Asia, and how often those military and political actions produced feelings of anti-American sentiment in the places we affected.  Today is no different; we act without real forethought and with little knowledge.  Except today our actions are not driven so much by confidence but by fear, which is a much more dangerous motivator.

Our fear prevents us from learning how to better conduct our foreign policy, but even more problematic is how it affects our daily interactions with and perceptions of our fellow Americans.  The fear that stemmed from 9/11 encourages us to continue living in ignorance–to not learn about and not reach out to those who may appear to fit the ethnic or religious profile of a “terrorist”. We cling to our old notions, or ones fed to us by prominent politicians who fear-monger in order to maintain or regain power.  The media simultaneously magnifies and mystifies issues surrounding Islam through its 24-hour coverage that somehow still fails to provide in-depth and balanced information.  This news coverage only reinforces our incorrect stereotypes.

This ignorance propped up by fear has allowed many Americans to believe that Islam the religion perpetrated 9/11.  Many are unable to make the distinction between those who hijacked religion in an attempt to justify a political cause with those who practice that religion in order to serve God and neighbor.  Because of their fear, they refuse to take a close look at Islam and subsequently come to false conclusions about this religion of 1.5 billion people.

9/11 offered us an important opportunity for expelling this ignorance and we failed to take advantage of it.  Instead we only allowed it to grow quietly and slowly.  It wasn’t right after 9/11 that I heard anti-Islamic remarks from acquaintances, received anti-Islamic emails from family friends, and heard broad generalizations and unfair associations spewed by politicians.  It was several years down the road that the Islamophobia began to make its way out of the woodwork (at least in my experience.) This trend of American Islamophobia has been rising over the past decade, but it moved quietly, subtly and slowly.  Only during the past summer has it exploded into full view, as politicians hope to bring out and harness this fear in order to regain power in the fall elections.

A national discussion about Islam in post-9/11 America has begun, but the dialogue seems to be increasing tensions rather than alleviating them.  And sadly this discussion is happening nine years too late.

Also, I’d like to wish “Eid Mubarak” to all of my Muslim friends, especially those here at Georgetown University.