American Muslim Community:  More Introspection Needed

American Muslim Community:  More Introspection Needed

by Junaid M. Afeef


Adel Daoud’s alleged act of terror hits home for me as an American Muslim. Daoud, facing charges that he plotted to bomb a popular Chicago bar, is a product of our local mosques and Islamic schools. He and his family are members of our community. In so many ways, Daoud, 19, of Hillside, is just like thousands of other teenagers in our community. And yet, clearly, there is something very different about him.

This is a wake-up call for us in the American-Muslim community to be more introspective. Whether Daoud was entrapped by the FBI is far less important for us as a community than the questions of how we could have produced a young man with such a warped sense of religious values, and what we can do to ensure that more of our young people do not succumb to a similar fate.

Why did this young man — the product of a community that is so engaged in interfaith dialogue, in civic and political action, and which regularly denounces acts of terrorism at home and abroad — allegedly develop a religious ideology that espoused mass murder as a viable tool for seeking justice?

There may be many reasons that Daoud may have done what he’s charged with doing, including struggling with possible mental health problems.

And let’s not forget that among the estimated 400,000 American Muslims in Illinois, the FBI identified just one young person with alleged terrorist ambitions. It reportedly took an undercover agent’s active engagement to help Daoud set up his failed plot, despite attempts by his father and two local imams to dissuade the teenager from acting on any violent ideas.

All of that said, however, American Muslims as a responsible community still need to consider whether there is something in the religious environment that allows a deviant belief system — where mass murder is a justifiable course of action to seek justice for the deaths of innocent Muslims abroad.

I believe that we as a community can do more to prevent young people from going down this deadly and patently un-Islamic path. There is a very potent strain of anti-Americanism within our community. It is ugly, and its proponents are very aggressive in pushing their ideologies within our mosques and in our Islamic schools. So, while it is true that there are no calls for suicide bombings or mass murder in our Friday sermons and in the curriculum of our Islamic schools, to say that our community is free of all forms of extreme thinking is simply wrong.

I’ve heard imams exhort Muslims to disassociate from American public life, to disengage from all political involvement, including voting, and claim that it is un-Islamic to befriend non-Muslims, that it is a sin to wish a Christian neighbor a “Merry Christmas” or a Jewish one a “Happy Hanukkah,” and that America is a decadent and godless society. Do people have the right to believe these things? Absolutely. Does it make them criminals? No. But these beliefs do have consequences.

And even among the general American Muslim masses, people treat America and Americans as the “they” and “them” and never as the “us” and “we.” When our troops commit an atrocity, it is not at all uncommon to hear people talk of “their troops” and “their soldiers.” This is absurd. We choose to live here, we pay taxes and we have the right to vote, and as such, this country is ours and the troops, for all the good and for any of the bad they do, are our troops. This disassociation with America is wrong and it, too, has its consequences.

Early intervention

I don’t think these views, by themselves, are lethal, and they are definitely not unlawful. But they are a problem. They have a negative impact on young, impressionable minds in the American Muslim community and it behooves us as a community to address the deleterious effects of the ideologies and to intervene early on before things get totally out of hand, as they allegedly did with Daoud.

I know some reading this commentary are thinking: “How do these views, extreme or not, lead to violence?” First, I do believe the sampling of views I’ve described are extreme, unreasonable and totally inappropriate for a religious minority seeking to live in harmony with the broader society. As to the causal connection, it isn’t direct, but it is there.

Young American Muslims are taught that justice is very important and that each Muslim has a duty to work for justice. We teach our kids that we need to be very mindful of the suffering of all people at home and abroad. We talk about the suffering of Muslims in particular given that so many in our community are immigrants with families struggling abroad. When the anti-American and isolationist views are thrust upon our youth — views calling for a total disengagement with American society, vilifying America and Americans as the “other” and closing off all legitimate forms of redress — the resulting angst and confusion isn’t hard to imagine.

And then, to exacerbate the situation, these young people see all of the Islamophobic events in the public square and they see, hear and even experience hate crimes, and they hear the statistics about how nearly 50 percent of Americans view Muslims with suspicion, and it all certainly makes things that much more difficult for young American Muslims to process. And then, on top of it all, there is the impact of extremism via the Internet and the tacit approval of those messages by some within our community under the guise of “learned, classical and religious scholarship.” It becomes easier to connect the dots and see the pattern that emerges.

Part of the family

The fact that the vast majority of our youth do not succumb to this poisonous ideology is a testament to the countervailing values advanced by our community every day: that harming innocent people is a grave sin, that our duty to do justice must be strictly through lawful and peaceful means, that the greater struggle is to quell the anger and angst and to patiently struggle to achieve noble goals like ending unjust wars, changing our foreign policy so that it supports Muslims’ aspirations for freedom abroad, and to view ourselves as a full and integral part of the American family.

We have civil rights organizations working to combat Islamophobia and to halt the incorrect reporting of terrorism as a part of Islam. We have civic organizations teaching our community how to mobilize for issues that address the common good. We are reaching out to other faith communities to promote dialogue. So why wouldn’t we also look inward and see what we should be doing to take care of our own community as well?

Part of taking care of our own community is clearing out the anti-American, isolationist dogma. Yes, its proponents have a right to believe it and to say it. Our community, however, has a right and a duty not to have it featured in our mosques and in our Islamic schools.

At the risk of invoking a sort of “exceptionalism,” I will say that American Muslims have a unique role and responsibility in America today. Despite the Islamophobia and bigotry, we are still blessed to be free and to enjoy so much opportunity. At the same time, Muslims abroad are largely poor and illiterate. Muslims make up one of the largest populations of refugees and internally displaced persons, if not the largest, in the world. And most Muslims abroad live under despotic regimes. And here we are, making our home in the one nation that has the power to help or harm the lives of our fellow Muslims abroad. Could we be a force for positive change through our efforts at home? I think so. Will we be able to do that while we continue to be viewed with suspicion at home? No, we will not.

Embracing America

So, how do we fulfill the responsibilities that we are uniquely poised to tackle? We do it by embracing our place in America. We do it by unequivocally saying no to the demagogues who try to separate us from the American family. We integrate the symbols of America into our mosques, our Islamic schools and our homes. We teach our children a brand of patriotism that moves beyond mere flag waving and elevates patriotism to an active, wholehearted embrace of the Bill of Rights and to an active commitment to seek liberty and justice for all. We also craft a faith community that weaves together our religious identity with the many unique, secular traditions of America. We create a new, genuine and broadly accepted vernacular in which American Muslims and America are always referred to as “us” and “we.”

We need to be self-critical. We need to take care of our own community issues. We need to deny any quarter to the anti-American and isolationist ideologies that plague our community today. We will do our part and our fellow Americans will do theirs and together we’ll have a better chance at creating a more peaceful and more just community at home and abroad.

Junaid M. Afeef, a criminal defense attorney, is a former executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune - This article was originally published as an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune

TAM Editors note:  I believe that this is an important article for all members of the American Muslim community to read, and I would hope that the article might become the topic for jumah khutbahs across the country.


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