American Muslims at the Crossroads
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
Who could have imagined that American Muslims would produce their own Bonnie and Clyde?
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed banks and killed 13 people between 1932 and 1934, during the height of the Great Depression,
in Central United States before dying in a hail of bullets by police in Louisiana.
Now we have Tashfeen and Rizwan, assailants at a potluck party at a county health department in San Bernardino,
killing 14 people in the span of a few minutes before dying few hours later in a shootout with the police in a quiet residential street nearby.
Tafsheen Malik, 29, born in Pakistan but raised in Saudi Arabia, came to the United States on a fiancé visa in 2014, the wife of Chicago-born Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, of Pakistani parents. Their victims ranged in age from 26 to 60. It was the deadliest mass-shooting in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.
Unlike Bonnie and Clyde who early showed psychopathic signs, there is as yet no consistent explanation for the depravity, the utter inhumanity that motivated a reclusive Muslim couple to consign their 6-month-old daughter to orphanhood and murder 14 innocent people enjoying a quintessential American holiday tradition. All we know is that the trajectory of their seemingly normal life hit a shocking singularity on December 2, raising a million questions and unleashing a tidal wave of rage and sorrow.
While details are emerging daily about the couple, Malik pledged fealty to ISIS on the day of the attack, for instance, the central fact is clear: Malik and Farook planned the terror attack based on their own malevolent ideas, the seeds of which may have been sown abroad, nurtured by social media and facilitated by the absurdly easy access to guns in America. The last-minute allegiance to ISIS was more likely a desperate attempt at notoriety by the wife desperate to hitch her wagon to an infamous organization.
So what now?
The average American is angry at, and suspicious of, his or her Muslim neighbor and co-worker. This does not include xenophobic bigots like Donald Trump and Ben Carson and their followers, whose numbers naturally spiked following the killing, as did the sale of guns and ammunitions.
No, I am talking about Americans who are not bigots and who are not hostile toward Muslims by instinct. But they are undoubtedly worried and rightly so. A Muslim friend, who has a college-going son, told me that his neighbor, whom he has known for years, asked him this troubling question a day after the San Bernardino shooting: “Does your son own a gun?”
We Muslims must have the self-assurance, the integrity and the honesty, to acknowledge that these Americans are not suffering from Islamophobia. They cannot be categorized as Islamophobes. They have raised an existential question and the least we can do, we must do, is to address it truthfully and practically.
The first step is to engage our neighbors and co-workers in heart-to-heart discussions, not just in the wake of a shooting, but on a regular basis, about our faith, our rejection of violence, and our loyalty to America. Too many Americans are beginning to think these aspects of our lives are mutually exclusive. We must dispel this notion. Inviting Americans to visit local mosques can help but that is too limiting. It is the open and personal interactions at the neighborhood and the office levels that we urgently need, and not just in liberal coastal cities but in America’s hinterland.
But talk can go only so far. We need to become a more integral part of what makes America, America. This can include opening small soup kitchens, Muslim doctors holding weekly or monthly medical open-houses, creating a shelter for abused women, promoting the gift of reading, tutoring neighborhood kids, organizing community evenings to look at stars and constellations, and so on. Many Muslims communities are already engaged in these activities but the number needs to increase.
The Quran reminds us that we must strive to be “a community of the middle (moderate) path” (2:143), that “we enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong” (3:110) (3:104), (9.7). These verses underscore our collective responsibility as Muslims. The tragedy of our times is that Muslim extremists have turned these verses on their head. As the Quran tells us, hypocrites, those with diseased hearts, enjoin what is bad and forbid what is good. (9:67)
The antidote to the extremists, who unfortunately end up defining our faith to Westerners with their savagery, is our good deeds. As a prominent Imam in the San Francisco Bay Area observed, the extremists read a Quran containing only 15 verses that include the word “fighting,” and that too, they read them out of context, while we read a Quran containing 6236 verses that exhort us to be a blessing for everyone around us through our words and deeds.
If we fail in our responsibility to change the current image of Islam, we will have failed our faith. It is as simple as that.
The second step is to be alert for signs of extremism in our midst. For an Imam to say that “I saw no signs of extremism in this or that Muslim” is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. If a Muslim suddenly stops coming to a mosque, the Imam and one or more of the congregants need to become proactive and try to determine what may be brewing. It could very well be that this particular Muslim had become fed up with mosque politics and decided to pray at home. But it could be something sinister as well. If a Muslim suddenly starts sprouting strident piety, that should raise a red flag. If someone begins to show an inordinate fondness for guns, that should ring an alarm bell too.
The point is, almost always, there are signs. We just have to become more vigilant. Consider the statistics. Published reports suggest that there are currently 900 American Muslims under investigation by the FBI for possible ties to ISIS. Given that there are about 3 million Muslims in America, it translates to 3 Muslims per 10,000. Let’s say that two of these Muslims are proven to have no ties to terrorism. That leaves 1 out of 10,000, which is still 1 too many! A single psychopath, or a couple for that matter, can create carnage in a community in the blink of an eye, as we saw in San Bernardino.
Finally, we need to increase the quality of engagement with the youth in our mosques. Many Imams in America, particularly those born abroad, cannot speak meaningfully with the youth. (For that matter, many have not even mastered English, even though they have lived in the U.S. for decades.) Many youth are alienated by the pedantic and irrelevant discourses they are forced to sit through in mosques and conferences. Inevitably, they turn to the Internet to figure out for themselves what Islam means and how to put their faith into practice. In such a vacuum, these vulnerable, impressionable youth fall prey to the seductive, ‘purpose-driven’ language of social-media savvy terrorist organizations like ISIS. The process of selecting an Imam for any mosque in America needs to become more rigorous, and preference should be given to U.S.-born Imams who can relate to young Muslims as a kind and friendly teacher, rather than as an authoritarian figure.
American Muslims are at a crossroads. We must decide whether we want to become a curse for Islam or a blessing for Islam. If we only pay lip service to our faith, not engaged in any meaningful way with the society at large, the terrorists will define our faith for us and we will lose. On the other hand, if we make it a priority that we will define our faith through action that will affect our society for the better, while remaining alert for any misguided Muslim capable of giving us a black eye, we will have lived up to the highest calling of our Creator, a state in which everyone is safe from our tongue and our hand, and our neighbors are secure with us around them.