Since Sept. 11, people occasionally ask me, “Do Muslims still feel they have a place at the table?” By this, I believe they mean do we still feel welcomed by our fellow Americans and do we still have a voice in civic matters?
Such questions invariably give rise to mixed emotions. On the one hand, I know that the U.S. Constitution guarantees such a place for citizens who follow Islam, right along with every other citizen who has not abrogated those rights under the law. Most people I encounter have no issue with this. On the other hand, I ask myself, “Why is our government ignoring constitutional guarantees in the pursuit of justice? And where are the checks and balances that are supposed to restrain the breaching of civil liberties?”
In the aftermath of the tragic events of last September, our law enforcement agencies have a legitimate mission to prevent their repetition. No one argues with this. Nevertheless, many people, both American Muslims and others, are concerned that these agencies have been violating civil liberties in the pursuit of that mission, creating the impression that we are moving toward the police-state atmosphere we have condemned in other countries.
For example, the arrest and detention of Muslims, immigrants and citizens alike, held without charges, without legal representation, and without formal hearings, certainly brings current law enforcement methods into question.
More frightening were the raids on March 20 against the families and organizations of prominent Muslim intellectuals in Virginia. Scores of federal agents representing the FBI, ATF and INS descended upon the homes and offices of law-abiding Muslims—all of whom are ardent supporters of the United States—destroying property and handcuffing women and children.
Unfortunately, actions such as these by our own government, including our top elected and appointed officials, are nothing new. Muslim Americans are just the latest in a history of such cases. It is a history in which government has not lived up to American ideals and where certain citizens have systematically, and sometimes violently, been denied their place at our common table.
Closer to home in Orange County, the Southern California Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has found it necessary to increase its efforts defending the rights of Muslims and the image of Islam in the region.
Orange County residents have been barraged with negative information about Muslims and Islam. This, along with ongoing examples of overzealous federal law enforcement officials, likely is responsible for the reported increase in hate crimes and acts of discrimination against Muslims in our area—and across the nation—since Sept. 11.
Nevertheless, there also has been an unprecedented interest in learning more about Muslims and Islam. I think this can be best understood by looking at what Muslim Americans bring to the table—and what an increasing number of non-Muslim Americans are discovering.
The first thing to understand is that Islam is an American religion. Islam has been on this soil since before the nation was founded, having come over with African slaves. Depending upon whose figures you accept, there are 6 million to 9 million Muslims in the United States. Tracing their origins to nearly 80 countries, the vast majority claim U.S. citizenship and participate in civic affairs. Despite the frequent portrayal of Islam as exotic or alien in the media, the religion is an everyday part of American life.
Furthermore, the universal paradigm of Islam enables—indeed requires—Muslims to contribute to American society in the broadest manner. Islamic values compel Muslims to work for justice and mutual understanding among peoples, as well as to support charities providing for the less fortunate and less able.
Islam has a proud history of scholarship and scientific achievement based upon a deep respect for education and learning. The faith also honors those who earn their living through the trade and commerce that are the bedrock of the American economy.
So, I ask myself again, “Do Muslims have a place at the table?” I must answer, “Yes, we do.” In which case, it is time we stepped up to the table—not out of a sense of victimization but, rather, to constructively engage the system.
The American constitutional system is not perfect, but it has a record of self-correction. By taking our place at the table, Muslim Americans have an opportunity to help the system continue working not just for ourselves but for all.
Shabbir Mansuri is founding director of the Fountain Valley-based Council on Islamic Education.
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