Terror in Paris. Mass killing in San Bernardino. These words were burned into my mind in the past few months as we were faced yet again with the horrific slaughter of innocent people, and also with a media barrage once more blurring the line between Islam — and the majority of Muslims in the world — and terrorism. The American consciousness is infused with very selective portrayals of world events, portrayals that present the “other” — foreign, dangerous — at fundamental odds with everything “we”’ stand for. The notion that “we” solely uphold the highest standards of civilization and humanitarian ideals, in contrast to the rest of the world, permeates the information we receive from news and entertainment, and is further given currency by all those around us who have been equally indoctrinated. The result is the perception of an actual “us vs. them” scenario. In the minds of so many, the identity of “them” is equated with Muslims.
It is not an “us vs. them” scenario. The vast majority of those killed or wounded by ISIS are Muslims.
Muslim leaders worldwide have roundly condemned ISIS, and the vast majority of Muslims around the world consider ISIS to be utterly contrary to Islamic teachings and principles. Yet, despite the near universal denunciation of terrorism, the media hypes up fear and hysteria about Islam and Muslims in the wake of a terror attack, seldom providing contextualization, larger perspective, or an agenda that brings Americans together. This results in American Muslim citizens (as well as Muslims in many other Western countries) being targeted as part of a backlash after each event; many report living in fear, always looking over their shoulders, taking extra precautions like standing farther away from the edge of platforms in train stations, women wearing hats rather than hijab, and men shaving their beards.
Progress Has Been Made
Although at times the current state of affairs seems dismal, we have to note that much progress has been made by our communities since the horrific attack on American soil, the September 11 attacks of 2001. Much of that progress, taking many forms of dawah dovetailing with a good number of Americans getting curious about Islam, is in fact directly related to those awful attacks and the resulting near-obsession in the media about Islam and Muslims, however negative. It’s the proverbial silver lining in a terrible event.
The allegations against Islam have caused many to question themselves, and to feel inclined to know their religion more profoundly than before.
For many Muslims, being wrongfully accused of moral depravity and being associated by default with a miniscule minority of extremists who happen to be very loud, has lit a fire of motivation. In some respects, it is as if there is a renaissance of Islamic learning, practice, and a new fervor for civic involvement. Many Muslims have been harshly awakened, as if from a deep slumber, by these events. The allegations against Islam have caused many to question themselves, and to feel inclined to know their religion more profoundly than before. Many want to know Islam’s stance on violence and revenge, on tolerance and forgiveness. The struggle to gain greater knowledge facilitates a deeper connection with the Quran and Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. For many of those who have begun reading the Quran more intently, and have put increased importance on learning about the life of the Prophet, they have found doors opening to a more purposeful life, filled with greater humility, gratitude, and faith.
Islam Brought Into Daily Awareness
For many non-Muslims, these events have brought Islam out of the peripheries of consciousness into the forefront of their daily awareness. It’s no longer just a boring page in a history textbook, but something that actually affects life in the real world. Personally, before 9/11, I had barely an awareness that there was a religion called Islam. The attacks, and the fear and agitation I felt as a result, caused more than cognizance. It motivated me to try to discredit religions altogether through research and logical analysis.
Many Americans today, faced with the ongoing turmoil in the world and the increasing number of terror incidents, want further information about Islam and Muslims.
It was 9/11 that spurred me and many other Americans to read the Quran for ourselves. Some felt motivated by macabre curiosity, others asked the question, “How can this be? What kind of religion actually encourages killing civilians?” A number of individuals had an intuition that it was not, in fact, the religion, but political agendas and grievances behind these acts. Looking into Islam became necessary for those of us who craved to understand our vulnerability and how to respond to threats to the safety and well-being of our families and nation. My journey of inquiry ultimately led me to embrace Islam as my religion and way of life. I discovered that rather than promoting violence and chaos, Islam inspires profound peace.
Many Americans today, faced with the ongoing turmoil in the world and the increasing number of terror incidents, want further information about Islam and Muslims. Initiatives such as the WhyIslam billboards and the mobile advertising trucks of HateBusters (a non-profit charitable organization “dedicated to teaching people how to like people and how to oppose hate”), and numerous websites are furthering the conversation by providing public access to authentic sources of the tenets and teachings of Islam. When activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, present credible and thought-provoking information to the public, discourse becomes more genuine and more aligned with reality, helping to break down stereotypes and fear.
By Allah’s Mercy, and the increase in the number of Americans researching Islam, many Americans are adopting Islam as their way of life. It is estimated that some 20,000 Americans accept Islam every year. This means that the fabric of the American Muslim community is changing. It’s becoming even more diverse, and with more native-born American Muslims, Islam is becoming less foreign to the American public, challenging the standard stereotypes. I would argue that having more Americans, especially of European descent, accepting and adopting Islam, causes many non-Muslim American families to feel differently when they hear Islamophobic rhetoric. Knowing the people who are being targeted is very different from when the victims are completely unknown.
Identity and Civil Rights
For Muslims, terrorism and the resulting backlash against Muslims has raised the question of identity. American Muslims who are deeply moved and disturbed by attacks on their country, yet also suffer from a backlash of hate and bigotry based on guilt by association, at first may feel obliged to choose between being Muslim or being American. But the vast majority of American Muslims have taken ownership both of their Islamic and their American identities. In fact, since the September 11 attacks, mosques and Islamic centers have increased by more than 74 percent. Numerous programs disseminating Islamic knowledge to both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences have also cropped up across the country.
By Allah’s Mercy, and the increase in the number of Americans researching Islam, many Americans are adopting Islam as their way of life.
Meanwhile American Muslims are increasing their civic involvement and currently two Muslims are members of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, and several others have been elected at the state level. Muslims have garnered a much greater presence in the media since 9/11 as well, appearing as guests and experts in mainstream media, both TV and radio. We are also taking advantage of social media to make our presence and ideas known. Muslims have also recognized that, as citizens, we have constitutional rights to practice our religion freely. With the help of organizations like CAIR, Muslims are reporting discrimination, litigating their cases, and in a growing number of cases, winning in court. We are becoming savvier, more confident in the knowledge that many Islamic and American principles and values are identical or compatible.
According to a 2011 Department of Justice report titled “Confronting Discrimination in the Post-9/11 Era: Challenges and Opportunities Ten Years Later,” the FBI reported a 1,600 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2001, following 9/11. The report notes that the initial spike went down but “it was soon replaced by other bias-related incidents, including discrimination in education, employment, and religious land use.” Government officials moved to strengthen existing civil rights laws and to ensure the rights of Muslim Americans and other individuals, like Sikh and South Asian Americans, who were targeted following the 9/11 attacks. Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, has stated, “The threats were nothing new. My life had been threatened before. My office had been firebombed in 1980. Never a prosecution – ever. Since 9/11, three people who threatened my life have gone to jail. I’m not proud of it, but I’m pleased to know that there is somebody there to defend me.”
The DOJ Civil Rights Division has put out statements encouraging the inclusion and embrace of American Muslims, to counter the impulse amongst some Americans to demonize, exclude, or merely tolerate Muslims. They have stated in no uncertain terms that anyone who infringes upon another’s rights, will be brought to justice. They have increased outreach to vulnerable communities and listened to concerns. Amber Khan, the Corporate Secretary of Muslim Advocates, has noted that “DOJ leaders within the first few months after 9/11 attended more than 100 meetings and events with representatives from the Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities.”
Greater Muslim Presence, Representation, and Responsibility
The fact that a new generation of American-born Muslims is coming of age and choosing from a broad range of professions, including those in politics and media, means that we will have greater presence and representation, with Muslim narratives, concerns, and contributions becoming more and more mainstream and familiar to the broader American public. Muslim women journalists wearing hijab, as well as Muslim politicians or political commentators, all without foreign accents and who appear culturally current and natural, help transfer Muslims, in the collective consciousness, out of the realm of foreign and strange. This is an important step in creating a distinction in the public mind and discourse between Muslims and terrorists.
Although much progress has been made, we are still at the beginning of an era of change. The fact that mosques and Islamic centers have increased is good – but, are these centers truly ready for this new era? While years ago it was acceptable to have Islamic centers catering exclusively to immigrant populations, today we must transform all our places of worship into facilities that are welcoming to all. We need more programs to help Muslims acquire knowledge and develop a truly Islamic character. We also need to increase outreach initiatives and programs to encourage the participation of our non-Muslim neighbors. And with the large number of converts to Islam, all of our Islamic centers should have services supporting and assisting new Muslims so that they feel an integral part of their new community as they journey on their path of seeking knowledge and practicing Islam in their daily lives. Also, the fraternity of believers is an area that needs development. Fractured communities erode unity and solidarity and programs and events are needed to foster a sense of fellowship and love for all Muslims, regardless of ethnicity or culture.
Because Islam was meant as a mercy for mankind, our centers should reflect that principle and wherever there is a masjid, the residents in the neighborhood should feel that it is indeed a blessing. This can occur if we collectively work to improve our communities and the lives of our neighbors, whether it be by cleaning up the streets, providing assistance to the less fortunate, or by hosting beneficial events for the entire community. Our presence, as a minority, in this nation obliges us to be visible and positive representatives of Islam. It is our responsibility to spread the word about Islam. And remembering all of Allah’s prophets can serve to give us great strength. In the face of adversity they persisted with patience, integrity, and unwavering commitment to Allah and the message of true success, the surrender to God alone. That is our path and they are the best models for us to emulate.
If we do our part, perhaps we can turn the tables and be the reason our non-Muslim neighbors are curious about Islam, rather than as a result of atrocities. Perhaps when we work harder to be good Muslims, better neighbors, friends and citizens, people will not respond to acts of terror with fear, suspicion, and hatred toward all Muslims. They need to know that these actions contradict Islam and that the vast majority of Muslims condemn and abhor them. It starts with each one of us. If we follow the beautiful guidance in the Quran, we will find that indeed Allah is the best of helpers:
“And strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. [It is] the religion of your father, Abraham. Allah named you ‘Muslims’ before [in former scriptures] and in this [revelation], that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakat and hold fast to Allah. He is your protector; the best to protect and the best to help” (Quran 22:78).