To the Editor,
With over a billion and a half nonviolent Muslims around the world, the Muslim community of Philadelphia was shocked and saddened by the recent murders in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish supermarket. We do not pretend that these extremists were not Muslims, however distorted their understanding of Islam. But the distance between the marginal Islam of these murderers and our Islam is akin to the distance between the Christianity of the Klu Klux Klan and the Christianity of Rev. Martin Luther King.
Thousands of Muslims joined with over a million of their French fellow citizens yesterday in proclaiming “Je suis Charlie.” We might also add “Je suis Muhammad,” for our Islam, following in the footsteps our Prophet, is one of justice and the sanctity of all life. As we read in Holy Quran, “You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives.” And, “If anyone kills a person unjustly it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.”
NOT MY ISLAM
January 14, 2015
My Dear Fellow Americans:
I write to you today out of a sense of great sadness. Something very dear to me has been stolen and publicly damaged. You can help return it to me.
What has been stolen is my faith—Islam—the religion of my family and my ancestors. So now you know; I am a Muslim. I am also a proud and loyal American citizen with American-born children. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims emigrated to these shores in the 19th and 20th centuries precisely because they valued the personal, social, and economic freedoms guaranteed to all Americans, regardless of their race or religion. These freedoms were often absent in our birth-lands, and continue to be absent in many Muslim-majority countries around the world, as they were denied for over a century to African Americans. And while we Americans Muslims take as a given the compatibility of democracy with our faith (as do millions of synagogue- and church-going Americans), much of the Muslim and Arab world is caught in a complex web of poverty, persecution, and patriarchy.
We thus watched the unfolding tragic events in Paris with a heavy heart. And so, just for a moment, I ask you to imagine yourself in our shoes. Imagine that the religion that you were born into—the one that nurtured you, that taught you to be compassionate and just, and respectful of other faiths, with a responsibility for caring for the poor, and stewards of the environment—this wonderful, awesome faith of yours has become the rallying cry for gangs of deranged killers.
This is the situation we Muslim Americans now find ourselves daily confronting, continually barraged in the media with commentary about the violent heart of darkness at the core of Islam, and demands that we apologize for every act of extremist violence committed in our faith’s name.
The reasons for the apparent proliferation of violence by Muslim extremists are complex, beginning with a literalist, anti-modernist expression of Islam. Although this “fundamentalism” is rejected by the majority of mainstream Muslim scholars, it undoubtedly contributed to the misguided attempts by the Algerian brothers “to avenge Mohammad.” You must also look, if you are honest, for the underlying causes of Muslim violence in the legacy of colonialism, Western support for autocratic and dictatorial regimes throughout the Muslim world, and specifically, the American underwriting and training of Muslim militants at war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. But while both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars engage in the “Who’s to Blame?” game, it is clear to me and my community that the murders in Paris did far more damage to the legacy of the Prophet than a few derogatory cartoons.
In all transparency, you should know that there is an ongoing, vibrant, and respectful debate unfolding in the American Muslim community, predating even 9/11, about how Muslims in the West should respond to terrorist acts committed by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and related extremists. Some argue that, following the words of the Quran, we should denounce all injustice, even when committed by “our own parents and relatives.” Others rail against the hypocrisy of the West, which hardly ever has dealt with its own abundant crimes. The history of Western Christianity, from the Caribbean to South America, from sub-Saharan Africa to Indonesia and China, drips with the blood of indigenous peoples.
However, none of this history, nor the wide-spread discrimination that Muslims still face in employment, nor the profiling or extra-legal surveillance by law enforcement, will derail our attempts to create an authentic expression of Islam in America that supports freedom, human rights, and democracy, both in the US and around the world. This is, we believe, our duty as Muslims, and CAIR, the organization I am proud to serve, daily seeks to turn these values into practical projects that benefit both the Muslim and general community.
You can help us in this effort by rejecting the false and simplistic interpretations of Islam by Muslim extremists on the one hand, and anti-Muslim activists on the other. Simply put, there is no “clash of civilization” between the West and Islam. There is only a clash of ignorance. Let us remember, however, especially in these days of recalling the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that ignorance can be overcome by compassion, and a commitment to treat others as you yourself would want to be treated.
Iftekhar Hussain is Vice President of the Philadelphia Chapter of CAIR – Council on American Islamic Relations.