We are Muslims. So what?

SAFDAR KHWAJA decries the anti-Muslim sentiments dredged up by Election 2008 and wonders why American Muslims must always be defined by 9/11

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 9, 2009

Elsheba Khan embraces the headstone on the grave of her son, Spc. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan.  Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08314/926336-109.stm?cmpid=news.xml#ixzz0x9i34GUE
Elsheba Khan embraces the headstone on the grave of her son, Spc. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Election 2008 was the whispering campaign that Barack Obama was a Muslim — with the implication that this meant he was dangerous, secretly plotting to destroy America or, at the least, unqualified to be president. No matter how many times the candidate or the media pointed out that Mr. Obama is Christian, more than 10 percent of Americans still thought he was Muslim.

Further inflaming the situation was the distribution to more than 20 million Americans of a DVD titled, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” This incendiary faux documentary purports to portray only a small slice of the Islamic world but effectively paints all Muslims as closet terrorists who should be feared. Intended to influence the election, the DVD was inserted in Sunday newspapers, including the Post-Gazette, in key battleground states.

To his credit, John McCain at one point tried to tamp down the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment running rampant among his supporters. At a rally in mid-October, a woman told him she distrusted Mr. Obama because he was an “Arab.” Mr. McCain responded, “No ma’am, no ma’am, he’s a decent family man, [a] citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Mr. McCain was booed at one point when he tried to assure his audience that they needn’t be scared if Obama became president.

Although his heart was in the right place, Mr. McCain inadvertently fertilized the widespread prejudice against Arabs by implying that only a non-Arab could be a “decent family man.”

Within a week of this sobering event, former Secretary of State Colin Powell finally got it right. Recalling the photo of a mother draped over the gravestone of her soldier son killed in Iraq, a gravestone etched with the crescent of Islam, Gen. Powell questioned those who were stirring up anti-Muslim fervor:

“I’m also troubled by — not what Sen. McCain says — but what members of the party say … such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, ‘He is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian.” … But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer’s ‘No, that’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

There may be as many as 6 million Muslims in the United States, representing all major ethnicities and races in the world — Arabs, African Americans, whites, South Asians, East Asians and Europeans among them. They live mostly in cities, they are about as affluent and educated as the rest of the U.S. population and they come from all walks and stations in life.

American Muslims belong to various political parties and have diverse views on social, cultural and public-policy issues. They tend to be conservative on social issues — on abortion and gay marriage, for instance — which led most of them to vote for Republicans when George W. Bush was first elected.

Their religion obliges them to follow local laws, to give generously to charity and to struggle for social justice and equality. The extreme radicalism espoused by a tiny minority of Muslims for political purposes is in jarring disharmony with the teachings and traditions that Muslims learn and understand.

Muslims belong to the youngest of the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and maintain through the teachings of the prophet Muhammad spiritual and theological linkages with prior divine messengers, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. Muslims are taught to especially honor the “people of the books” — those who consider divine the revelations of the Torah, the Bible and the Quran.

According to the Quran, divine messages were received by all nations on Earth, which means that all nations are worthy of respect. It teaches that superior conduct and performance of duty becomes self-evident and represents the highest form of nobility, regardless of faith. Other Americans should expect a Muslim to follow the golden rule and respond to others with superior conduct.

Mainstream Muslims find inspiration in a rich history, especially from the 7th through 18th centuries when Muslims ruled in many parts of the world, including Arabia, Persia, Spain, India and Ottoman Turkey. For the most part during this period they embraced all races and religions and fostered a fertile intellectual environment in which science, culture, law, education and public administration flourished.

The call to educate one’s self and to understand nature are abundant in the Quran. Kids hear this uplifting narrative at the knees of their grandparents, who urge them to live up to the highest ideals of civilization.

Many Americans seem to think that Muslims were introduced to this country on Sept. 11, 2001. They also seem not to recall that the tragic acts of that day, perpetrated by Muslims unworthy of the name, were uniformly condemned by all major Muslim schools of thought, as well as by Muslim political leaders worldwide — as have been similar acts ever since.

In truth, Muslims arrived in America long before there was a United States of America. Their story is the American story.

The Pinzon brothers captained the Nina and the Pinta for Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Most of the navigators and scientists on the early New World voyages were Muslims.

Columbus’ scribe recorded sightings of mosques near Hispaniola (now Cuba), and women in Moorish dresses. Muslims and Jews, fleeing the Reconquista and later the Spanish Inquisition, rushed to the Americas. Ruins of Mosques and minarets inscribed with Quranic verses have been discovered in Cuba, Mexico, Texas and Nevada.

The second wave of Muslim immigrants were among the tragic victims of the “middle passage.” Up to 25 percent of the slaves brought from Africa were Muslims. Among them, in 1767, was Kunta Kinte, a Muslim from Gambia who was made famous as the ancestor of author Alex Haley in the book and TV movie “Roots.”

A third wave of Muslim immigrants came from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean as labor to fuel the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

The most recent wave arrived after World War II, mostly from the Near East, South Asia and East Asia. These immigrants were attracted primarily by educational and economic opportunities — and by the American ideals of liberty and human rights. These Muslims, like many before them, considered the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as the foundation of a government system most in tune with their own faith and aspirations.

So, to paraphrase Colin Powell … We are Muslims. So what?

American Muslims are bricklayers and doctors, lawyers and accountants, engineers and nurses, carpenters and artists, writers and soldiers.

Their stories are American stories. They have been here as long as any other immigrants from the Old World. Their contributions to our society are every bit as valuable as those of any other Americans. They deserve better than to be defined by 9/11.

Safdar Khwaja, a board member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is an engineer who lives in Murrysville.