Immediately after the terrorist acts of one year ago, Muslims leaders and activists worked very hard to distance themselves from the violence on the East Coast, trying desperately to explain what “true Islam” is and to emphasize that Islam condemns acts of terrorism. In the face of smearing by pundits, all-terrorism-all-the-time newscasts, and very real (although thankfully sparse) hate crimes, Muslims committed their energy to two goals: distancing American Muslims from terrorists, and combatting hate and discrimination. One year later, it can be argued that we have made little or no progress towards these goals.
We live in an environment that is increasingly hostile to Islam; perhaps not physically, but certainly socially and politically. And with the calls for tolerance and respect towards Muslims long gone, the Muslim-haters are out tarring us with the brush of terrorism more than ever before. In retrospect, if we wanted to neutralize hate towards and misconceptions about Muslims in America, we should have conveyed to our fellow Americans that we were as angry at terrorists and extremists as they were - even more, perhaps, since it is our religion that they hijacked. We needed to be a part of the solution to terrorism, not just simply brushing it off as if it weren’t our problem. We missed an opportunity to own 9/11, seeing that over 100 of the victims in New York were Muslim - more than our proportion of the general population. We allowed ourselves to be put into the camp of the terrorists by not sharing or even understanding the righteous anger that all Americans feel over 9/11. By all accounts, we failed miserably.
So where did we go wrong? Well, one of the problems is that Muslims are very reluctant to criticize other Muslims. It’s easy to condemn the 19 hijackers, or even al-Qaida, but Muslims need to address and condemn the infrastructure that lies underneath it all - the active supporters of terrorism, the ideology that breeds it, and the unholy hero-worship that surrounds jihadis. We are so afraid of creating fitnah among ourselves that we allow people with extremist ideas and beliefs to identify with us. This fact has not been lost on close observers of Muslims, and is the reason that accusations of association with terrorists are so persistent. We need to get over our fear of fitnah, draw a line defining Islamic values, and not be afraid to tell the Muslims who are on the wrong side of the line that they are, in fact, wrong.
Muslims have resorted to simplistic “Islam means peace” platitudes and tying American foreign policy to condemnations of the 9/11 attacks, only to be puzzled by the negative reaction of other Americans. These things may seem nitpicky to many Muslims, but to those of us steeped in American culture, those attitudes convey a very different message than the one intended. It is a message of indifference, of excuses, of lack of compassion. Worse, they convey the message that although extremist Muslims were at the root of last year’s terrorism, peace-loving Muslims don’t want to have anything to do with combatting it. Nobody likes people who are self-serving and who don’t want to pitch in to solve a societal problem, and Muslims have, perhaps unintentionally, promoted an image of being self-serving. This doesn’t fit our stated goal of wanting to be included in the larger American community, and it breeds resentment by Americans who feel that they are stuck cleaning up the messes Muslims create.
The reluctance that Muslims feel to actively fight extremism is partly due to the humiliation of being associated with terrorism. A lot of Muslims feel that it is like saying, “I am not a child molester” every time someone looks at you. That’s understandable - Muslims feel like they have nothing to do with the violence of 9/11, and do not want to suffer the indignity of having to deny a connection to it. But it is part of the unfortunate reality of the post-9/11 landscape. American Muslims need to decide what is more important to them: preserving their dignity or insuring the future of Islam in America. Every day that we don’t connect with other Americans on this level, we make it much harder for our children and grandchildren to be Muslim in America. And while it is true that many Muslims don’t understand American culture enough to connect, those who don’t should at least not get in the way of those who do.
It is unfortunate that this article must talk about our failures as a community rather than celebrating our leadership in fighting terrorism and extremism. We could have been louder and firmer in our condemnations. We could have avoided “explaining” the attacks by bringing up U.S. foreign policy—as if anyone could forget where we stand on Palestine or Iraq sanctions! We could have offered effective anti-terrorism policies that are acceptable for Muslims rather than simply opposing those of the U.S. Many Muslims are indeed doing this on an individual level, and they need to be acknowledged and supported. But we haven’t done this as a community.
If we want the American Muslim community to be healthy and flourishing three generations from now, we need to stem the tide of misunderstanding and hate now before it snowballs into something worse. (If you’re having trouble imagining what “worse” means, just think about how Americans will react if - God forbid - a second or third attack the scale of 9/11 happens.) We need to - as our religion commands us - seek justice in the wake of 9/11 in such a clear way that the beauty of Islam and Muslims is evident to all. We need to show more empathy towards those whose lives have been forever changed by the attacks of a year ago. We need to not just say “Islam means peace” to non-Muslims—we have to take that message to those Muslims here and abroad that consider random violence an acceptable means of doing God’s will. Yes, the cards are stacked against us, and it will be a difficult struggle, but that’s no excuse for complacency.
Shahed Amanullah is editor of altmuslim.com.