Please Do Not Call Me!: Being an American Muslim when tragedy strikes
by Aref Assaf, PhD
I woke up last Friday morning, the day after an army doctor killed and wounded over forty people in Texas, to seven urgent messages on my voice mail. All were from news organizations anxious to quote the Muslim community’s reaction to the recent heinous killings of Army Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan. They all wanted my reasons for what drove a 39-year-old Muslim to go on a killing spree. “Isn’t he native born,” someone pointed out, “didn’t he take an army oath to obey his command and serve his country”, “he’s an educated man, he’s a doctor.” “What triggered him to do it?”
It took but a few moments to figure their reasoning for calling me. I have been called before to reflect on acts of terror committed by fellow Muslims here and around the word. Truthfully, I was expected to again disassociate myself from the killings and secondly to explain what Islam is. I guess I fit their criteria of a person who has the qualities required to explain: I am a Muslim American of Palestinian descent. Consequently, I know what each one out of the 1.5 billion Muslims around the globe is thinking or doing at any given moment.
“Hey, Dr. Assaf, pardon the annoyance so early in the morning. Another one of your people killed innocent Americans. This will be a big story again as you have come to expect. As a leader in your community, as a practicing Muslim, can you share your response to the recent carnage? I was wondering if you’re feeling less of a Muslim when you learn about crimes committed by a fellow Muslim. Can we send our television crew to record your response?”
I almost wanted pull out whatever grey hair is left on my head; I wanted to scream so loud that a deaf man could hear me. Why is my opinion so important or even newsworthy? How many times do I need to so publicly and unconditionally condemn violence and terrorism against innocent civilians? How many times do I need to state that more Muslims have been the victims of terrorism than members of other faiths. How forcefully do I need to say that my religion does not condone violence, by reminding myself and the reporters of the Qur’anic verse that says: “If you kill one innocent life, God will punish you as if you have killed all of humanity; if you save one life, the Lord will reward you as if you have saved all of humanity.”
Why do I have to atone or account for the despicable acts of fellow Muslims with whom I have no contacts or relations? Why conversely, am I not rewarded or at least acknowledged for the thousand and one acts of kindness performed by fellow Muslims everyday? I am not a lesser Muslim because of the acts of a few extremists who may profess my faith. Does it make a person less of Christian because Timothy McVeigh and Adolf Hitler were Christians? Does it make a person less of a Jew because Dr. Baruch Goldstein - an educated man, a doctor, a practicing Jew - massacred thirty Muslems in a mosque.
I’m utterly hurt and profoundly burdened by the implications and the frequency of these questions from media outlets whenever some lunatic Muslim decides to commit a random act of violence. Or in this case when a soldier psychiatrist goes berserk.
Similarly, I am disillusioned by many in my community, claiming to be appointed experts on Islam who need to explain it so frequently as a religion of peace - as if other religions are instruments of war and violence. How often have we reminded ourselves and the world that OUR faith is that of peace? Are we implying that other faiths are not advocates of peace as well? When are we, American Muslims, truly ready to declare that followers of Islam as with Christianity and Judaism have, can and will so desecrate their faith’s commandments, so misinterpret them that they will kill in the name of their faith? Won’t this admission lead to less killing, less distrust and more understanding?
It appears this GI was a psycho himself who was deeply troubled by the dichotomy of serving his country in a war he could not justify. The motivation for this confusion could have come from a discontented conscience, a misreading of his faith or some other factors. Thousands of soldiers encounter this dilemma and they opt to leave the Army. But only a few so violently express their anger and disorientation by wreaking havoc upon others. It is a cowardly act deserving immeasurable condemnation but also much of medical care. Hassan is a coward because he could have chosen to face his superiors and asked to be discharged from the Army. I despise all the Hassans of the world because their actions give excuses to reporters to harass me, to others to question my loyalty, and to doubt my patriotism.
I recall while talking to an editor of a large NJ paper, I wondered if my name was on their reporters’ hot list of people to call only whenever Muslim kill or bomb something around the world. I pleadingly asked if he would ever consider calling me to comment on such trivial issues as my views on school choice, or my ever rising property taxes, on traffic hurdles. He almost innocently admitted that he has been so conditioned to think of me only as an Arab and a Muslim, not as a concerned and a taxpaying citizen who also worries about the environment, white collar crime, and political corruption. I have thus been stripped of my physical existence and reduced to something “other”, foregin, and un-American. Just as in post 911 America, I was not allowed to mourn the death of fellow Americans some of whom were Arab and Muslim.
All of us, citizens of this great land, are forever left with the tormenting question of explaining or justifying actions of a soldier who refuses to be shipped to a war he so detests. We should honestly worry about what makes any citizen hate his country so intensely that he is ready to sacrifice his life to express his anger? Till then, please do not call me. For, like you, I have not the answer.
Aref Assaf, PhD
American Arab Forum