A Better Future For Our Children: A Muslim American’s Reflections Post 9/11
Dr. Javeed Akhter
In the late 1960s and 1970s, immigration was actively encouraged by the US to fill the needs of LBJs “Great Society” programs like Medicare. “For in your time” said LBJ on May 22, 1964 “we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.” The immigrants included both Muslims and Hindus from South Asia, Christians and Muslims from Arab countries and Buddhists from the Far East. I came to the US in the mid-1970s at the end of this tidal wave of migrants. As a group, these immigrants were highly educated “upper enders.” Most were physicians and engineers and were quickly successful.
On arrival, the new country appeared to be a modern day miracle. Daily life functioned effortlessly. Class distinction was at a minimum. People were friendly and minded their own business. The work ethic was great and institutions like hospitals were run professionally. Patients were treated with dignity and compassion. Bribery in daily chores was virtually non-existent. Streets were clean and the toilets even cleaner. Power supply was uninterrupted and hot water was plentiful. Apartments and homes were well appointed with wall-to-wall carpeting and plush sofas. TV was in color, phones were everywhere and phone calls were easy and cheap. And then there were the cars. These boy toys were large, powerful, quiet and all had automatic transmissions. The interstates were silken smooth and heavenly.
Freedom of expression was the norm and was taken for granted. Standup comics, that were a novelty to most immigrants, routinely excoriated high officials, politicians and even the president of the country. There was a healthy irreverence toward authority. No subject was too sacrosanct. There were no sacred cows, both figurative and literal. The new immigrants loved the egalitarianism of the country even more than its luxuries. An Egyptian scholar, after a short trip to France in the 19th century, said “In France I saw few Muslims and a lot of Islam; in Egypt I see lots of Muslims and little Islam.” This sentiment resonated with most 21st century Muslim immigrants to the US. The ideals that Islam stood for like egalitarianism, compassion and honesty appeared to be more evident in US society than in most Muslim majority countries.
The most refreshing part of the US scene for me, as a Muslim from India, was the freedom not only to practice the religion of choice but also to promote its ideals. Growing up in India I had never personally witnessed a conversion to Islam. Here in the US it was a regular and nearly routine occurrence. Men and women, caucasians, African-Americans and Hispanic Americans were accepting Islam in large numbers. Most would do so after coming in contact with ordinary Muslims and studying Islam on their own. There were no attempts at organized proselytizing. This single phenomenon of conversion to Islam by so many validated my faith in my tradition more than all the studying I had done to understand it. Many of the new converts like Jeffery Lang, Sherman Jackson and Robert Crane, became well known scholars of Islam. Others like Siraj Wahaj and Hamza Yusuf became charismatic speakers. Women converts like Aminah McCloud and Amina Wadud contributed important books from a women’s perspective to the Islamic literature and Sheila Musaji started a journal for American Muslims twice. Michel Wolfe did a great piece on the Hajj pilgrimage for ABC network’s “Night Line” and went on to produce a docu-drama on the life of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Websites, like “Islamonline” and IslamiCity” that provided extensive information on Islam, were highly visited.
The Muslim scene was more fertile in the US than anywhere else in the Islamic world and the scholars most productive. A majority of the principal scholars of contemporary Islam like Fazlur Rahman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Cherif Bassiouni were in the US. Islamicists like John Esposito, John Voll and Fredrick Denny wrote about Islam and Muslims with empathy and sensitivity. Books written in the English language were quickly becoming the most important new additions to the Islamic literature. In fact, there was such strength and exuberance in the US Muslim scene that people talked about the much-awaited Islamic renaissance starting paradoxically in the US rather than in a core Muslim country. It was only in the US and the West that Muslim scholars could express their opinion freely without being ostracized or branded infidel (kafir).
Tolerance, pluralism and freedom of expression that are strong traits in the US society are greatly admired by Muslims. Many Muslims prayed in chapels at work and before mosques were built, used to pray in the basements of churches on weekends. However they soon discovered that this tolerance is not universal. There were instances where construction permits for new mosques were denied. There was relentless and often callous stereotyping of Muslims in the media. These facts served as a reminder of the “otherness” of Muslims in US society.
This otherness did not intrude in my daily life. The color of my skin, my facial features, dietary restrictions, religious rituals and my worldview all set me apart from my fellow Americans. I remember once how I annoyed my host by refusing to accept a perfectly good glass of red wine. My colleagues did not quite know what to make of my month long fast during Ramadan. Once a friend thought I was going on vacation to Jamaica when I told her about my upcoming Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah. Most of these annoyances were minor. I, like most of my Muslim immigrant friends, always felt welcome and warmly received by my colleagues, patients and other Americans. My children, like those of other Muslims, were thriving in schools and the universal rationale given for migrating to the US “for a better future for our children” appeared to be coming true.
The otherness of Muslim- Americans was most obvious and frustrating in the stark differences between their views, and that of American policy makers on US foreign policy. With the exception of Kosova and Bosnia where the US sided with the beleaguered Muslim populations, our foreign policy appeared at best indifferent and often hostile to causes important to Muslims. Muslims all over the world believe these causes to be just. We couldn’t understand why there was no moral outrage at the occupation of Palestine. Why were the victims of occupation, the Palestinians, being blamed for resisting? It was difficult to comprehend why the Russians were being allowed to oppress the miniscule nation of Chechnya with near impunity. The world seemed to forget that the Chechnyans are the children of Stalin’s concentration camp survivors. It was equally hard to understand how the US could continue its policy of total sanctions against Iraq, while UNICEF estimates that these have resulted in excess of one million deaths, mostly in children. Why was the dirty war India was waging in Kashmir lost to the outside world?
There was the added frustration of leaders of Muslim majority countries repressing dissent ruthlessly. Many appeared to be overtly supported by US. Surely the insurgents in all of these trouble spots had committed deplorable violent acts against non-combatant civilians. However the scale and nature of atrocities committed by the occupying armies far exceeded anything that the insurgents had done.
The Muslim-American’s lack of clout in influencing foreign policy was only partly its own fault. American public opinion on foreign policy issues was uninformed and naïve. This was at least partly because the media coverage of world issues was scanty and superficial. Most US foreign policy makers and politicians appeared to follow the Jacksonian model of a populist policy based on a culture of nationalism, honor and military pride. This approach catches public imagination, which is all-important for politicians whose primary interest is to retain popularity at the ballot box. There is precedence for other models of foreign policy in US history. The Jeffersonian model, for example, is based on idealism. Pursuance to the Jacksonian model and the presumption that Muslims are the new world threat, the green menace, was turning Harvard professor Huntington’s bizarre hypothesis of the clash of civilizations between the West and an Islamic-Confucian nexus into a prophecy.
Members of my community complained about it bitterly in private meetings but appeared to do little in the public square. Significant amounts of money were collected and spent on building and expanding mosques (masajids.) The masajids spent most of their time and energy in organizing rituals and religious schools. Institutions like think tanks, political action groups, service agencies and lobbying organizations languished from lack of support and interest. The US-Muslim community (ummah), it appeared, was busy creating for itself a golden cocoon.
Then came 9/11. The images of planes crashing into the twin towers that initially explode in fire and later collapse have bypassed the retina of the viewers and are an integral part of the brain. These TV images are more powerful and enduring than any rhetoric.
Islam is unfairly but inextricably linked with terror. Muslims are forced to examine how some of their own can misinterpret the Qur’an to justify violence and suicide missions.
Muslim civil rights in particular are under a severe strain. The homeland is no longer secure for Muslims. The secret evidence act of the year 2000 that was used to prosecute a handful of Muslim non-citizens has turned into the “no evidence needed” practice in 2001. Over a thousand nameless and faceless Muslims have been by swallowed up by the judicial system without as much as a burp. Scores of Muslims have been deported without trial. Major newspapers and important scholars known for their thoughtful approach have rationalized these flagrant breaches of civil liberties as necessary evils in a time of national crisis. Fear, paranoia and xenophobia clothed in patriotism have resulted in the near unanimous approval of the “Patriot Act,” the first victims of which are the Muslims. The 9/11 episodes have dramatically worsened the challenges of the Muslim community and taken away the luxury of allowing it to grow, evolve and mature at its natural pace.
What should the Muslim-Americans do? Most Muslims realize the golden cocoon that they so carefully created cannot protect them. They also realize that the need for reform, painful as it might be, is urgent.
There has always been a struggle within Islam between the rigid followers of tradition, taqlidis, and those that feel faith has to be flexible to meet the changes of time, the ijtehadis. In the past many years the taqlidis have had the upper hand in this struggle. Muslims realize they cannot allow obscurantist taqlidi scholars to define our agenda for us. One important reform would be that people of knowledge reason and moderate views should give the Friday sermons (khutbas).
Muslims should vigorously oppose the notion held by some in the community that all non-Muslims are kafirs and are doomed. This notion is the ultimate in the concept of the non-Muslim other and echoes similar notions in orthodox Judaism and some denominations in Christianity. It has supplanted, in some minds, the initial universal view of Islam with a mutant exclusive version that assigns salvation to Muslims only. It is inherently and fundamentally un-Islamic.
There needs to be a paradigm shift in Muslim priorities. There should be a moratorium on the building and expansion of masajids. This moratorium should last at least as long as the existence of the Patriot Act with its draconian provisions. Instead there should be a strong effort made to build and support institutions like civil rights groups, think tanks and PACS as well as to strengthen human right groups like the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The masajids themselves can take up the role in promoting human rights and protecting civil rights. The masajids in the past, like the renowned al-Azhar of Egypt, served a holistic function in the community and were the focal point of intellectual activity.
Muslims need to take a lead both as intellectual leaders and active participants in helping the dispossessed and the disenfranchised and in electoral, educational and immigration reform. They have significant contributions to make on many issues of national relevance like race relations, immigration, justice and tolerance. Muslim trade associations like the medical group should set up free clinics for the indigent; the lawyers group should do pro bono service for all of the needy. The compulsory charity (zakat) and voluntary giving (sadaqa) money should be spent on the destitute non-Muslim as well as the Muslim. Muslim parochial schools should reserve spots for the impoverished children from other faiths and traditions.
A Qur’anic verse reminds us that it does not matter in what direction we pray but only what we believe in and how our actions benefit humanity. I have faith that this approach, with a greater emphasis on righteous action than ritualistic prayer is not only correct, but is quintessentially Islamic and prudent and will be productive. I believe that this approach fits the concept of the noble struggle or “jihad” best.
There are many important challenges for all Americans. One is to look at a group, recognize the diversity in it and not to taint a community with guilt by association. Another challenge, difficult as it might be, is to find a balance between the need for security and the requirement for preserving a civil society for all. A liberal democracy is about the protection of minorities not merely the rule of the majority. Civil rights cannot be applied piecemeal. Stereotyping and faith and race based profiling is pernicious and destructive for all of society and not just a small fraction of it. Nothing however, is more dangerous than the hate speech that has become part of the national discourse. There are severe and even potentially fatal consequences of hate speech.
On important foreign policy issues there should be informed and not manufactured consent. However, there is no challenge more difficult and painful than that of critical self-examination. Is it possible that the violence against the US is at least partly a backlash against the behavior of the US and its close allies against Muslims and others? To try and understand the reasons for violence is neither to condone nor to justify it. However, refusal to look at the “root causes” and blame it stereotypically on an “evil religion” and its “evil followers” may condemn the US to forever flail away at a phantom enemy that it has made little attempt to understand. For a brief time after 9/11 there was talk of reevaluating foreign policy. This introspection, if it had generated a vigorous national dialogue, may have resulted in reform. However this has not happened. The daisy cutter appears to have landed on foreign policy reform.
Above all, there is a need to form a network of the just. A verse in the Qur’an advises “Stand firm for God as witnesses for fairness, and let not the hatred of others make you deviate from justice. Be Just, that is closest to piety.” Uncompromising fair play, unflinching justice and a single standard for all is the goal we should aspire for. A network of the just is indeed the paramount need of the post 9/11 era.
The present and the foreseeable future look grim for Muslim-Americans. The limited clout of Muslim nations because of oil or as a geographic foil to China or Russia has all but evaporated. However, I see no reason for despair. I have hope in the inherent goodness of the American people, for I have seen it abundantly displayed. The outreach of churches toward Muslims, the many individuals who placed a protective hand around the shoulders of their friends, the women who wore headscarves in solidarity with the scarf wearing Muslim woman who was being harassed, the law enforcement officers that stood guard to protect targeted communities like the one in Bridgeview, Illinois are all a testimonial to the uncommon goodness of the common man.
Nevertheless times are tough and may get tougher. No one knows what the future holds for us. In a way, we are all prisoners of actions of others, actions that are not of our making. We can only hope that it is our actions and not those of others that may influence our destiny. We can only pray that we will have “a better future for our children.”