American Muslims Have a ‘Special Obligation’
By Ingrid Mattson
Vice President, Islamic Society of North America
The terrorist attack on Sept. 11th exacerbated a double-bind American Muslims have been feeling for some time. So often, it seems, we have to apologize for reprehensible actions committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. We tell other Americans, “People who do these things (oppression of women, persecution of religious minorities, terrorism) have distorted the ‘true’ Islam.”
And so often we have to tell other Muslims throughout the world that America is not as bad as it appears. We say, “These policies (support for oppressive governments, enforcement of sanctions responsible for the deaths almost 1 million Iraqi children, vetoing any criticism of Israel at the United Nations) contradict the ‘true’ values of America.”
But frankly, American Muslims have generally been more critical of injustices committed by the American government than of injustices committed by Muslims. This has to change.
For the last few years, I have been speaking publicly in Muslim forums against the injustice of the Taliban. This criticism of a self-styled Muslim regime has not always been well-received. Some Muslims have felt that public criticism of the Taliban harms Muslim solidarity. Others have questioned my motives, suggesting that I am more interested in serving a feminist agenda than an Islamic one. My answer to the apologists has always been—who has the greatest duty to stop the oppression of Muslims committed by other Muslims in the name of Islam? The answer, obviously, is Muslims.
I have not previously spoken about suicide attacks committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. I did not avoid the subject—it simply did not cross my mind as a priority among the many issues I felt needed to be addressed. This was a gross oversight. I should have asked myself, Who has the greatest duty to stop violence committed by Muslims against innocent non-Muslims in the name of Islam? The answer, obviously, is Muslims.
American Muslims, in particular, have a great responsibility to speak out. The freedom, stability, and strong moral foundation of the United States are great blessings for all Americans, particularly for Muslims.
Moreover, we do not have cultural restrictions that Muslims in some other countries have. In America, Muslim women have found the support and freedom to reclaim their proper place in the life of their religious community. And Muslims have pushed and been allowed to democratize their governing bodies. Important decisions, even relating to theological and legal matters, are increasingly made in mosques and Islamic organizations by elected boards or the collective membership.
But God has not blessed us with these things because we are better than the billions of humans who do not live in America. We do not deserve good health, stable families, safety and freedom more than the millions of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world who are suffering from disease, poverty, and oppression.
Muslims who live in America are being tested by God to see if we will be satisfied with a self-contained, self-serving Muslim community that resembles an Islamic town in the Epcot global village, or if we will use the many opportunities available to us to change the world for the better—beginning with an honest critical evaluation of our own flaws.
Because we have freedom and wealth, we have a special obligation to help those Muslims who do not—by speaking out against the abuses of Muslim “leaders” in other countries.
In his speech to the nation, President Bush argued that American Muslim leaders and other moderates represent the true voice of Islam. This is true, and we therefore need to raise our voices louder.
So let me state it clearly: I, as an American Muslim leader, denounce not only suicide bombers and the Taliban, but those leaders of other Muslim states who thwart democracy, repress women, use the Qur’an to justify un-Islamic behavior and encourage violence. Alas, these views are not only the province of a small group of terrorists or dictators. Too many rank-and-file Muslims, in their isolation and pessimism, have come to hold these self-destructive views as well.
The problem is that other Muslims may not listen to us, no matter how loud our voices. Surely President Bush wants the moderate voices not only to be raised, but to be heard. American Muslim leaders will be heard only if they are recognized as authentic interpreters of Islam among the global community. This will be very difficult to achieve, because our legitimacy in the Muslim world is intimately linked with American foreign policy. An understanding of some important developments in Islamic history and theology will clarify this apparently odd dependence.
According to Islamic doctrine, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, no Muslim has the right to claim infallibility in interpreting the faith. There is no ordination, no clergy, no unquestioned authority. This does not mean that all opinions are equal, nor that everyone has the ability to interpret religious and legal doctrine. Solid scholarship and a deep understanding of the tradition are essential. But not all scholars are considered authoritative. Most Muslims will accept the opinions only of scholars who demonstrate that they are truly concerned about the welfare of ordinary people. People simply will not listen to scholars who seem to be mostly interested in serving the interests of the government.
Throughout Muslim history, religious leaders who advocated aggression against the state were usually marginalized. After all, most Muslims did not want to be led into revolution—they simply wanted their lives to be better. The most successful religious leaders were those who, in addition to serving the spiritual needs of the community, acted as intermediaries between the people and state. There have been times, however, when hostile forces attacked or occupied Muslim lands—for example, the Mongol invasions, (Christian) Crusades, European colonialism, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At those times, people needed revolutionary leaders; those who were unable to unite the people against aggression were irrelevant.
The question we need to ask is, at this point in history, what do Muslims need to hear from their leaders? What voices will they listen to?
In the midst of a global crisis, it seems that American Muslims are being asked to choose between uncritical support for rebels acting in the name of Islam, and uncritical support for any actions taken by the American government. Osama bin Laden has divided the world into two camps: those who oppose the oppression of the Muslim people, and those who aid in that oppression. President Bush has divided the world into two camps: those who support terrorism, and those who fight terrorism.
Where does this leave American Muslim leaders who oppose the oppression of the Muslim people and who want to fight terrorism? In the increasingly strident rhetoric of this war, we may be considered traitors by both sides.
Nevertheless, we must continue to speak. We have to speak against oppressive interpretations of Islam and against emotional, superficial, and violent apocalyptic depictions of a world divided. And in our desire to show ourselves to be patriotic Americans, we cannot suppress our criticisms of the United States when we have them.
We have to do this, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because if we do not, the Muslim world will remain deaf to our arguments that peaceful change is possible, and that revolt and ensuing lawlessness almost always cause the greatest harm to the people.
It is in the best interest of the United States that we be permitted to continue to speak. In many parts of the world, those who speak out against corruption and unfair government policies are jailed, tortured, and killed. In such circumstances, very few people—only those who are willing to risk losing their property, their families, their security, and their lives—will continue to speak out. Only the radicals will remain.
Ingrid Mattson is vice president of the Islamic Society of North America and professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary.