Muslims Must Develop an Intolerance for Intolerance

Muslims Must Develop an Intolerance for Intolerance

We made you a nation of moderation and justice (Quran; 2:143)
To advocate what is right and forbid what is wrong (Quran, 3:110).

In the aftermath of Sept. 11th, ordinary Americans displayed an extraordinary resolve to preempt any backlash against American Muslims. President Bush described those who commit acts of bigotry as those who are from among the worst of people. American leaders at all levels took special measures to ensure that the lives, the mosques and the properties of Muslims were safe. Under extremely testing circumstances, the American people displayed a remarkable commitment to tolerance and intolerance for bigotry. In this display of respect for diversity, Muslims need to catch up with the Americans.

As moderate Muslims struggle with extremists like bin Laden and the Taliban to interpret and represent Islam, they must adopt a policy of containment towards anyone and everyone who seeks to advocate hatred towards any community. Moderate Muslims must not hesitate to confront those who make bigoted comments.

One of the biggest challenges that American Muslims face is the demonization of Islam. American Muslims often accuse American media and Hollywood of taking isolated cases of Muslim extremism as a pretext to label all Muslims as extremists. We demand that American media and policy makers stop painting with a wide brush and treat individual Muslims, each Muslim group, and every Muslim country on its merit. In the past few weeks, Americans have demonstrated that they have become sensitive to this and one can clearly discern a new sensitivity in the way Islam is treated and how Muslims are portrayed.

Muslims too must reciprocate. While many Muslims acknowledge the support and sensitivity of most Americans, some Muslims continue to embarrass everyone with the narrowness of their vision and the crudeness of their sentiments.

Sheik Muhammad Al-Gamei’a, the former Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, in one sentence called all Muslims stupid and all Jews as best equipped for terror. He said, “Muslims just aren’t smart enough to carry something like that off [Sept. 11 attacks], only the Jews are capable of planning such an incident.”

Another Imam is said to have made disparaging remarks about Jews a few years ago; a videotape of which was recently played on local TV. He has since apologized and expressed horror at his own words. And for that he deserves to be applauded.

But statements such as these make Muslims look irrational, hateful and purveyors of conspiracy theories. When such statements are made by Islamic scholars, who hold or have held important religious positions, it not only gives Islam a bad name but also raises the question, what have these scholars been teaching their congregations?

In pluralist societies, where different ethnic, racial and religious communities live in close embrace, such bigots must not be allowed to hold influential positions.

Bigotry is a sign of ignorance and lack of ethical sensitivity. It is extremely disturbing that some Muslim scholars and Imams are displaying this anti-social trait. It is time moderate Muslims rebelled against the tyranny of intolerance in some Muslim pockets. Wasn’t there anybody in the congregations of these two mosques who would dare to stand up and tell these Imams that such sentiments have no place in the Muslim as well as the American milieu?

Sept. 11 will have a devastating impact on the future of the Islamic community. While most Americans are being extremely tolerant towards Muslims, they are also becoming more vigilant. There will be closer scrutiny of individual Muslim leaders, Muslim organizations and Muslim activities in America. The near future will be a very testing period for the American Muslim community. They will not only have to prove their loyalty to America but also their innocence.

American Muslims are in a unique position today. They know and understand the Muslim world and they know and understand the US as well. They can constitute a bridge of understanding, dialogue and peace between America and the Muslim world. The Muslim world is their origin and America is their destiny. If they do not serve as harbingers of harmony and the promoters of peace between the two, they will be betraying their past as well as their future.

To play this central role, American Muslims must not allow themselves to be marginalized either in American politics or in the Muslim world’s public sphere. If American Muslims wish their voices to be heard in America, and their advice respected and followed, the first thing they have to develop ASAP, is an extreme intolerance for intolerance and extremists.

We cannot ask the nuts to bolt their traps; censorship is neither Islamic nor the American way. But when bigots speak up, moderate and responsible voices in the American Muslim community must immediately condemn them. Let them know that those who espouse intolerance will never be our heroes.

American Muslims must avoid the impulse to blame the US (or Jews or Hindus) for all Muslim miseries. We must develop a balanced attitude towards the US. We must be critical of the US but also self-critical. We must be always willing to express our disagreements with US policies but we must also not be stingy in expressing our solidarity with the US. We must condemn all efforts, in the media or by the government that seek to profile Muslims. But simultaneously we must also be ready to condemn those who defile the old glory.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) spent the first 40 years of his life speaking the truth and became famous as Al-Amin (the truthful) before he started preaching the Truth. Muslims must follow in his path and start condemning intolerance within, even as we demand tolerance from without.


Muqtedar Khan, Ph.D.
Director of International Studies, Adrian College, MI
Association of Muslim Social Scientists
Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.