As the Smoke Began to Clear

Michael Wolfe

Posted Dec 25, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Reflections on Islam in America after September 11th

I am not a legal scholar, a culture critic, or any sort of authority on Islam. I am a writer and a film producer. I’m also the son of a Christian and a Jew, born and raised in Cincinnati. I only became a Muslim as an adult.

Like many American Muslims, I know just enough Arabic to say my daily prayers. My access to the Qur’an and Muhammad’s biography is limited to translations in my language. And while I have sometimes traveled in traditional Muslim countries, I don’t think life is somehow better there, nor would I seriously consider relocating. I see no contradiction between practicing Islam and living where I do. In all these matters, generally speaking, I am like a majority of the world’s Muslims from Indonesia to Indiana.

I wasn’t drawn to Islam by its vibrant culture, its sophisticated law, or its very practical metaphysics. Nor was I attracted by a book, a group, or a teacher. I came to respect Islam as I experienced it, in day-to-day interactions with urban and rural Muslims in the Maghrib an enormous plot of North and West Africa that links the modern nations of Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Niger. After finishing college, I lived and traveled there (by bus, train, and truck) for about three years in the early 1970s.

I didn’t become a Muslims then. (I never once set foot inside a mosque during that period.) I simply became pleasantly familiar with Islam, by living among its African practitioners. The way the religion connected and served people in their daily lives, without handicapping them, impressed me. Although in other parts of the world some groups of Muslims were already using religion to cut themselves off from others, that was certainly not the case in West Africa in those days. Muslims lived and worked with their neighbors, who were chiefly Christians and animists. Sometimes, in matters of hygiene or trade, Islam even seemed to improve things for nonMuslims. Beyond the ease of their social relations, I greatly esteemed the lightness with which everyday African Muslims carried their faith. I liked where they carried it, tooח not on their sleeves, but in their hearts and heads.

I include these personal details as a preface, for people who may want to set the following opinions in a context.

The following paragraphs try to give shape to my thoughts and feelings about American Islam in the wake of terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001.

Like any American with a TV set that day, the events I witnessed on September 11th were marked by pathos and confusion. Although I watched the destruction unfold from 3000 miles away, it did not feel like a remote event, nor did I experience it as an observer. Instead, it was as if all this were taking place in my living room at home. The historian Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr. once remarked that Americans often suffer from too much “pluribus” and not enough “unum,” and it is true that we are probably the world’s most disparate population, but for the rest of that September we were intimately joined by silent screens.

My initial thoughts that day are not so easy to separate from the tangle of disbelief and stunned reactions I shared with people who were experiencing things firsthand in New York and Washington. Like the landscape itself, thinking had to wait for the smoke to clear. When that began to happen, my mind started to move in several directions. The very idea of being an American Muslim, after Muslims had bombed American landmarks and killed civilians from over eighty countries, opened my thinking to several points of view.

As an American, I was horrified by the level of violence and by the coldness of its execution, too. Like many people, I felt angry. A handful of sociopaths, to make a point, had left in shreds the social contract by which an open society lives and breathes. Day by day, I also witnessed unparalleled heroics, performed without an ounce of rhetoric, in the service of other human beings. Although born suspicious of patriotism and of the easy pride that mars most groups, in the face of these heroics I felt proud to be living where I do.

As a Muslim, I had other, different feelings. The actions of the perpetrators appalled me, and especially their claim to be acting in Islam’s name. Well before their actual identities emerged, many Muslims knew who these people were: political desperadoes wrapped in the flag of a peaceful faith. It wasn’t difficult to disavow them. The principal Muslim advocacy groups, from Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to the American Muslim Council (AMC) to Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), all weighed in within hours against the perpetrators and on the side of the victims and democracy. New organizations sprang up over night, with names like Muslims Against Terrorism (

But other American Muslims refused to believe that people who call themselves Muslims could have done this. Why? Was it the classic reluctance of a persecuted group to accept the worst about any of its members? Or was the penchant for conspiracy theories and the distrust of American government so pronounced among some Muslims that the simplest claims of the FBI and FAA were considered lies? I’ve heard both these explanations many times. Here is a third: that if Muslims admitted that other Muslims had committed such atrocities, then all Muslims would be tarred with the brush of guilt by association. I tend to favor this third explanation, because nothing fuels denial quite like fear, and because in America these days guilt by association is as common as the Lincoln penny.

And that led to my third set of feelings, as an American who has become a Muslim. Within a few days I began to feel the old, familiar disgust that is my usual response to the antics of many white Americans when given half a chance to hate somebody. I use the word ‘white’ intentionally here, for most Muslims in America are colored. In my experience, American Islamaphobia is largely racial, partly political, and only at the margins theological.

In the first week after 9/11, thanks to the daily television news, I saw pigs’ blood thrown at the door of a mosque in San Francisco. I saw three hundred marchers waving flags and shouting “USA” as they tried to descend on a mosque in suburban Chicago. I saw a disturbed individual wearing what appeared to be a bomb in the parking lot of a Muslim school in Silicon Valley. I heard gunshots in Texas. I saw mosques vandalized in Washington D.C. I read electronic hate mail flooding the chat boards of ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. (Example: “It’s time to eradicate Islam.”)

I thought of Gandhi’s sage remark: “An eye for an eye and soon everyone will be blind.”

I thought of one of Muhammad’s many prayers: “May God grant us sudden good and protect us from sudden evil.”

My initial thoughts were complex and confused. My initial feelings were clearer, more singular. They were defined by sadness for the victims’ families, on the one hand, and on the other, by a deep resentment for the cheap theologizing that allows people with grievances to justify making others grieve. In the English language, you address a grievance. Or you redress it. You don’t drown it in jet fuel and call the act heroic. Suicide, killing civilians, the wanton destruction of property, assaulting the fabric of society are all crimes under Islamic Law. I’m not sure what to call people who fight that way. That they call themselves model Muslims is absurd.

To paraphrase a comment Ralph Waldo Emerson once made, which went “The word ‘liberty’ in the mouth of Daniel Webster is like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtezan.”  The word ‘Islam’ in the mouth of terrorist sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a hooker.

On Saturday September the 16th, an email reached me, forwarded by a stranger. It was written by an Afghan American named Tamim Ansary. At the height of the nation’s confusion, in a dozen paragraphs, Ansary, a San Francisco writer, had the courage and good sense to explain some simple facts to people who knew next to nothing about his birthplace. Well before public opinion gelled, Ansary described bin Laden as “a political criminal with a plan,” the Taliban as a ‘cult of ignorant psychotics,” and the people of Afghanistan as their first victims. In the process of recommending American military restraint, this American citizen born in Kabul pointed out that Afghanistan had already been bombed back into the Stone Age, by Russian soldiers twenty years before. And he supplied some chilling statistics. Recently, he wrote, the United Nations had “estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan—a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets.”

Ansary’s message reached several million people around the world. What kept it moving like lightning across the worldwide web was its toneח that of a living, feeling human being. In the next few months, Ansary wrote a worthwhile memoir too, both for its candor and for the window it provides on life in a traditional Afghan family. The book appeared quickly. I was able to find it in a bookstore six months after the September attacks[1].

Here and around the world today, rage remains the emotion-of-choice for people who find themselves victimized by forces beyond their control. In certain quarters, desperate spokesmen waving the flag of this or that Higher Cause have raised suicide-with- murderous-intent to the status of martyrdom. I’m not speaking here of dying in protest, of third century Christian zealots martyring themselves, or of Buddhist self-immolations in Viet Nam. I’m talking about dying by acts designed to take some of your opponents with you, often civilians who have no more control over where they live than you do. Lately, this group includes parties as diverse as Tamil freedom fighters, Timothy McVeigh, and the September 11th hijackers.

The practice is not peculiar to Islam. It may even be argued that thirty years ago there was no such practice in Muslim countries. Today, there is. In the last few years especially, economic oppression, personal humiliation, hypocritical leadership, and the promise of life-long support for surviving dependents has motivated a growing number of individual Muslims to become walking bombs. The religious reward can’t be discounted either. Abdullah Azzam, a Bin Laden mentor, for example, used up a lot of ink glorifying ‘martyrdom’ as an acceptable life-goal and promising virgins in Paradise to those who succeed. This is how propagandists of every stripe use traditional religious narratives to authorize modern, nonreligious goals.

Those who set out to destroy the Enemy and instead destroy themselves are on the increase everywhere these days. Slobadan Milosovic, who led the Serbian people into a moral ditch, is one example. The people behind the 9/11 attacks represent another.
Most of what I know about the machinations of Al-Qaeda comes from reading articles and essays.

In one recent piece published in England,[2] Navid Kermani remarks that, “The terrorists’ appropriation of a religious tradition is fundamentally no different from the way in which the Fascists made use of the obvious construct of an Aryan-German primeval history. It has scarcely more to do with the real history of the Sunni Arab world than has the Valhalla mythology of the Nazis with real remembered German history. The images may be old, traditional or archaic, but the use of them is decidedly modern.

“Comparisons come to mind such as the Una-bomber, the Aum sect and, above all, Timothy McVeigh. (who), in particular, seemed positively obsessed with destroying himself in the framework of a huge media event.”

Kermani goes on to note that Osama bin Laden employed a “prophetic setting and antiquated rhetoric” in his post September 11th video appearances, conjuring up the linguistic impression of a tradition. This, despite the fact that “the real heirs of the theological tradition speak quite differentlyŅ.” In remarking on Bin Laden’s interpretation of Islam, Kermani reminds us, “The unity of state and religion that he probably has in mind is alleged to be a sine qua non of Islam, although the idea only took shape with the development of the nation-state in the nineteenth century.”

This seems a clear gloss on how modern extremists of all kinds dress their eccentric objectives in the trappings of tradition and authority. Like Milosevic’s self-serving version of the 14th century Battle of Kosovo, Bin Laden tries to validate his bid for power by expressing it in the style and terms of the Prophet Muhammad’s life.

The success of these strained attempts to gull their target populations (Serbs, for Milosovic, disenfranchised Muslims around the world, for Bin Laden) is perhaps the most tragic aspect of our time.

One example should suffice to show how Bin Laden and his propagandists wrap their bid for power in the story of Muhammad. The centerpiece of their (false) analogy goes like this:  Since within a few decades of Muhammad’s demise in the 7th century, Islam, a faith and a social system developed in the remote deserts of Arabia, “replaced” the two dominant world powers of the period, the warring Byzantine and Persian empires, and since fourteen hundred years later the Afghan mujahadin (with crucial help from that true son of Arabia, Mr. Bin Laden) expelled one of the 20th century’s two dominant world powers, the Soviet Union, from their borders, therefore (the theory goes), Al-Qaeda and their constituents around the world have a theological fiat to attack and destroy the other world power, America, by any means available, while reminding us in the process that their assault is in keeping with the ethical teachings of Muhammad the Prophet.

I had been working on a documentary film about Muhammad for two years, when the hijacked airplanes slammed into their targets, and I had read numerous biographies of him by then. Consequently, I felt sickened to hear Bin Laden and his propagandists alluding to the Prophet out of context, drawing cheap historical analogies to bolster their ideology, and lacing their comments with fragments from the Qur’an.

Here are two quotations, one from the Prophet Muhammad and one from the Qur’an, that Bin Laden and his lieutenants seem never to have heard:

The greatest enemies of God are those who are entered into Islam and yet commit unfaithful deeds and shed the blood of people without cause.
- Muhammad

For each one of you (several religious communities) We have appointed a Law and a Way of Life. If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but He has not done so, in order that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness. To God shall you all return and He will tell you (the Truth) about the things over which you have been disputing.  The Holy Qur’an, 5:48

In the weeks and months after September 11th, when people asked me what I “thought of Islam now,” I tried to remind them that Al-Qaeda’s agenda was not religious, that its goal was not to liberate people or alleviate suffering but rather to divide and sow confusion, to overthrow regimes and acquire resources for example, the Saudi monarchy and its oil. Where Bin Laden’s personal motives were concerned, I argued that his real drive was Oedipal.

Now and then in his videotaped addresses, Bin Laden laid the plight of Islam at the door of ‘the Jews.’ This sort of tripe on the lips of a Muslim should incense any Muslim who hears it. Here we have Islam, the equity-based religion par excellence, being publicly deployed by a privileged outcast to scapegoat a people whose faith Muhammad honored. If he means to blame the Israeli government, then he should say so.

I wish Bin Laden had only been speaking for himself. Rather, he was out to play on a nerve that runs close to the surface throughout the Middle East.

The importation of European anti-Semitism into the Middle East is tragic and ironic. It entered Muslim intellectual circles in the 19th Century with the German-Turkish and French-Syrian alliances. Since the advent of Israel fifty years ago, it has leaked unchecked through the popular press into the Middle Eastern streets.  Today, the obviously contrived “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” (a Russian import from 19th century France), are easy to download in the Persian Gulf, and government-sanctioned newspapers routinely team with racist vitriol.  Like anyone who listens, I have heard horrible things said by Arabs and Israelis about each other for decades. Each person will have to find his moment to draw the line.

For me, the time came a few years ago, during Friday prayers in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. A traveling companion, the filmmaker Omar Al-Qattan, and I were sitting through a particularly energetic sermon in Arabic, of which I understood just a few words. Later, walking the streets of a town where Islam’s first community was born, Omar alluded to the imam’s sermon. I said, “What was he saying?” “Oh, the usual,” Omar replied. “He said: ‘The Jews are ruining the region. All good Muslims must attack the Jews.’ ”

This was not only personally distressing. The imam of the Madinah mosque was forcibly dragging Islam outside its own history. For over the centuries, Islam’s inherent respect for other faiths has been the main institutional influence that prevented Muslim regimes from Istanbul to Delhi to Jakarta from scapegoating their minority populations. Laws derived from the Qur’an, elaborated by the early Caliphs, developed and refined in Spain, and applied for centuries throughout the Ottoman Empire gave Jews in Muslim lands under Muslim law the kinds of rights and legal autonomy that Jews in Europe rarely dreamed of. These laws protected Jews individually and as a people, making it possible for them to teach at universities and serve in the highest levels of government, to the benefit of all.

Today, some Muslims seem to believe that their group is a vast moral improvement on the rest of humanity. If acceptance of others is any measure, I’d have to disagree. Although Islamic law and ingrained Muslim manners (adab) kept prejudices more or less in check for centuries, a hard look at the world today should tell you that Muslims without their traditional restraints are in danger of behaving as badly as anyone. What distinguishes Islam, in theory, is its inherent quest for justice and a pluralistic vision. These strengths seem designed to thrive in America, where almost everyone comes from somewhere else. But abroad, in the dictatorships of the Middle East for example, what hope do minority populations have of a prosperous future? Jews, Copts, Zoroastrians, gypsies, even Muslim Kurds and Shiites on the wrong sides of various borders are in increasingly desperate circumstances, thanks to Muslim regimes.

It is tragic to see Islam’s respectful restraints being loosened. Muslims say, “But Israel! But India! But the Russians!” Muhammad taught us to win over opponents, not revile them. To encounter rage and drivel in Madinah’s premier mosque, where Muhammad and his companions walked, should irritate any Muslim with a brain. But to find the same thing in our own books at home is more galling.

For years, Muslims in America have been handing out copies of their favorite book, the Qur’an, to Americans of other faiths, hoping to be better understood. Unfortunately, the most widespread English translation of the book Muslims live by is also the most misleading and full of errors.

Popularly known as the Khan translation[3], this edition has been distributed free by its publishers and devotees for years, so that by now it is virtually installed in American mosques across the country. This is the usual translation from which pundits often read on television when they want to prove that Islam is violent, anti-Semitic, and oppressive.

No need here to cite chapter and verse. Just run down to your local mosque and pick up a copy.

The Khan translation of the Qur’an is not the only version that contains egregious errors. What should Muslims like myself, who can’t read Arabic, do? Some years ago, I put this question to a Saudi citizen. His reply surprised me. “I grew up in Arab schools,” he said. “But I never knew what the Qur’an was all about until I read an English translation. That’s what brought me back to Islam,” he said. The translation he read was Muhammad Asad’s, The Message of the Qur’an.

Asad’s footnotes will probably not be surpassed any time soon; the text, though sometimes cast in antique, King James Bible English, seems completely in keeping with the spirit of Islam. But the size of the book, due to the footnotes, makes it unwieldy. One hopes a more portable edition will soon come along. Meanwhile, the closest I’ve come to discerning the Qur’an’s content is through Asad. (The purely sonoral splendor of the Arabic is accessible via numerous CDs.)

Only a few months after September 11th, the Los Angeles Unified School District removed 300 copies of an English Qur’an from its school libraries for containing anti-Semitic statements in the appended commentary. The books were donated by a local mosque, in a well meant effort to increase understanding of Islam among mainstream Americans. Alas.

Some American Muslims believe Jews are their great opponents, and vice versa. This conclusion is mostly based on Palestine and the battle for land and human rights that has been on the boil there for decades. The landslide of anti-Muslim materials pushed upon an uninformed public from pro-Israeli organizations and pundits inside the U.S.A. is so much a part of the landscape by now that it would take a concerted effort to remove it. Organizations like the Council on Islamic Education, based in Fountain Valley, California, have done a good job on the educational front, by forcing textbook publishers to confront the negative versions of Islamic history and culture once put forward as fact in public schools.

Yet the main responsibility to set one’s house in order must fall to the efforts of each group. It takes enormous humility to be part of any group these days. It is harder to be a Muslim after September 11th, and it is harder to be Jewish after Jenin, as it is harder to be Roman Catholic after widespread airing of sexual abuse among the priests. It is as though the world’s three major monotheist religions are all being charged with dragging themselves kicking and screaming out of a nightmare and into the twenty-first century.

American Judaism’s beef with Islam is political, not religious.  If American Muslims have theological opponents, they more likely reside in evangelical Christian organizations such as World Team and Frontiers, both of which focus on converting Muslims to Christ, (Frontiers has 800 operatives in 50 Muslim countries). Then there is Columbia International University (C.I.U.), in South Carolina, one of three U.S.-based Christian schools that offer degrees in converting Muslims.[4]

Many C.I.U. graduates are sent abroad by organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention, Christar, and the Arab World Ministries. These groups embrace a view that history is coming to an end and, consequently, Christ will soon reappear on Earth, though not before the last human being has accepted him as the savior and son of God. In their view, Islam is the main barrier to Christ’s return. Hoping to hurry this Last Event along, they stalk the Muslim world in search of converts.

Is it possible that rather than respond to the concept of Jesus’ Second Coming as an imminent challenge in their lives, the C.I.U. instructors with their diplomas in Muslim conversion have ironically assigned the labor of personal transformation to Muslims, and to born-again Christians like Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, Evangelism’s much publicized poster duo, who were ejected from Afghanistan just before the Taliban fell from power? These young pawns were sent to Kabul at the tail end of a three-year famine, disguised as “aid workers” and assigned to hawk their brand of salvation to Afghans, who never sought their teaching in the first place. As Bin Laden has forgotten his Qur’an, so these people seem to have mislaid their Gospel, as for instance where Peter reminds Christians, yes, to “give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet. 3:15) Mark Twain, hoping to deflate the proselytizers of his own day, once remarked that, “Being noble is good. But telling other people to be noble is better. And no trouble at all.”

It is easy enough to expose the excesses in Christian missionary work. But what about the doctrine, affirmed in some Muslim quarters, that Islam alone leads to salvation and that anyone who fails to accept it is bound for Hell?  (See, for example, the Khan translation, where the sentence, “Whoever seeks a religion other than submission to God, it will never be accepted of him and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers,” (3:85) becomes “Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will be never be accepted,” which, the Khan translation goes on to say, “abrogates” or trumps an “earlier verse” that reads, “Surely, those who believe, and those who are Jews and Christians ז whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and acts righteously, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (5:69)

In the year since September 11th , mosques and Islamic Centers across the country have engaged in more exchanges with people and institutions of other faiths than over the entire preceding decade. Every Sunday for months after the attacks, mosque parking lots in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and Atlanta were jammed with cars belonging to visitors from neighboring churches and synagogues. The interfaith open-house became almost as regular an affair as the jumma prayer. Everywhere one went, and in every mosque one heard about, Muslims were reaching out to soothe their shock, share their solidarity, and convey Islam’s common ground with other faiths. Of all the ways that the attacks on New York and Washington changed American Islam, this may be the most profound. The tragic events of September 11th ended years of Muslim isolation in America, as long pent-up desires to break the average Muslim’s sense of otherness found expression in a natural urge to share communal grief and draw together in a tragedy. Had the 9/11 perpetrators foreseen this outcome, they would probably have stayed at home that Tuesday.

One measure of Islam’s maturity in the years ahead will be the degree to which we continue to partner with other religions to work together for the common good. In that sense, September 11th was a beginning we can’t afford to end. There is really no choice in this matter. America is a pluralist society. If Muslims remain true to their watch words, eschewing compulsion in religion, making relations with others easy rather than difficult, then Islam’s long term prospects here are good. Just as one value of religion is its capacity to draw good out of evil, so the events of September 11th should lead America’s Muslims to put into practice the social ethics of their faith, not in some future Utopia or dreamland Caliphate, but here and now in New Jersey, in Birmingham, in Dearborn, in Denver, in L.A.

About two hundred years ago, America experienced a forty-year period of religious and spiritual florescence that must have astonished people living then. It is certainly astonishing to read about, today.[5] A populist evangelical revival, the Awakening took place in New England and upstate New York between 1800 and 1840. It was a mass movement, anti-institutional in tenor, often sparked by the enthusiasm of an individual or a small group. For example, with the appointment of Henry Ware as Harvard’s Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805, “the whole college converted to Unitarianism, a creed based on a belief in the innate moral goodness of the individual (in reaction to Calvinism, which was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral depravity of the individual.)” [6] As the Awakening moved west, it gave life to a host of new denominations:  the Methodist Church became the largest in the nation during this period. The Disciples of Christ, Universalism, Adventism, many Baptist churches, and the African-American church all emerged then, too. The Abolitionist movement grew out of the Awakening, and so did the temperance movement and women’s right, along with a host of utopian and religious sects, including the Mormons.

This movement accomplished what Louis Menand calls the “democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption into American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, stripped of most of its traditional hierarchies and formalities.”[7]

A second interesting piece of history for today’s American Muslims to consider is the development of Conservative and Reform Judaism, accomplished in New York and Cincinnati in the previous century. The more extreme modification, Reform Judaism, occurred first. It originated in Germany and spread to the U.S. in the 1840s, under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise. Today, most American Jews follow these modifications of the Orthodox approach. Reform Judaism permits men and women to sit together in group prayer, incorporates music into religious services, rejects strict dietary laws, and permits normal activities on the Sabbath. It also supports traditional customs and the liturgical use of Hebrew, although the standard prayer book is bilingual.[8]

Conservative Judaism, a later reaction, mediates between the Reform and Orthodox approaches, accepting the Reform interest in critical scholarship but maintaining stricter observance of Jewish Law, including dietary strictures. It became an institutionalized movement in the United States in 1886, after decades of regional development.

I doubt there are many Muslims today who would view any of these developments as applicable to the future of Islam. Still, it is worth knowing what time and culture have brought about for other major monotheistic traditions here in the New World.

Immigrants come to America in search of better lives, but it is difficult to imagine, starting out, how different a life American society imposes on your body and your soul and, even more so, on your children. No need to rehearse Franz Boas’s century-old ideas on the great plasticity of human types. By now, most people understand that, like the finch and the cockroach, mankind is naturally adaptable, and not only physically. The capacity of any large group with internal differences to develop new cultural forms is all but inevitable. If you think that jumping between continents can’t transform you, think again.

Although some Muslims reject the term “American Islam,” the fact remains that without a faith shaped to ground one in this country, the risk of being swamped, emotionally, socially, spiritually, is very high. A person doesn’t anchor that sort of faith by eating with the right hand and never with the left, or adhering to cultural norms from other centuries. You gain that ground by putting core values into practiceח of compassion, sacrifice, and gratitude, for instance. Islam is more than a set of values; it is a practice, one that has survived through balanced adaptation in hundreds of cultural contexts worldwide.  Now, it is searching for ways to practice itself through American Muslims. How that will look in a hundred years is anybody’s guess. One thing seems certain: Its ways will not be exactly the ways of Baghdad, Islamabad, or Riyadh.

To develop your practice enough to serve you, any “new” Muslim needs mentors. Before September 11th, the most usual form of mentorship among American Muslims was emulation of the “imported” model, as practiced chiefly by Arab and South Asian Muslim arrivals. In post-9/11 America, we may see this arrangement become a two way street.

Faced with stepped up national security concerns at the Justice Department, FBI and INS, immigrant Muslims have some critical lessons to learn from the indigenous American Muslim community, especially those Americans traditionally engaged in the fight for civil rights. For after all, African Americans (40% of America’s Muslim population) possess a lot of hard won expertise in exactly the kinds of legalistic indignities now being endured by immigrant Muslims all over the country, including racial profiling, unlawful arrest, and prolonged detention without evidence.

Immigrant Muslim residents who find their rights unduly compromised in the rush toward increased National Security are wisely seeking the support of homegrown American Muslims, who have battled for their civil rights before. It’s about time.


September, 2001
“This is my brother. We know he’s here somewhere. We just don’t know where.”
—A woman holding a photo in the streets of Manhattan.

“This is my mother. She left us a voice mail. We’re waiting for her to call us back.”
—A man holding a photo in the streets of Manhattan.


After the explosions and cries of mourning died away, the most sickening noise, to my ears, has been the whine of interest groups and politicians, both Muslim and other, restarting the machinery of their agendas. I had thought the period after September 11th might be an opportune time for people on all sides of the power struggle, from immigrant Muslims to empire-builders in Washington, Moscow, New Delhi, and Beijing to step away from their territorial doctrines and strategic policies long enough to establish thoughtful goals.

Instead, within a couple months, we returned to ingrained behavior, to Us vs. Them and Business As Usual. What particularly repulsed me was seeing the same old rhetorical machinery of the Higher Cause being rolled out yet again before the cameras and the microphones. In the wake of Bin Laden’s hollow claims on behalf of the Palestinian cause, for example, how could anyone ignore the irony as various governments around the world began to sharpen their knives on the stone of America’s vaunted War on Terrorism? How could people believe the empty claims of leaders like Vladimir Putin or the even more predictable Ariel Sharon as they rushed to re-christen long standing, regional wars of hegemony as up-dated chapters in the War on Terrorism? This outmoded, antediluvian need to bolster nationalist claims and increase one’s side of the foreign-aid ledger has by now all but swamped the complex reality we continue to inhabit. For all the talk of a new world order we are being dragged by main force back into a phantom version of the old Cold War.

My own allegiance is not with either side of Bin Laden’s false dichotomy between secular Western Capitalism and some cock-eyed moral high ground he calls Islam, nor is it with George Bush’s War on Terrorism as expressed in the statement that one is either with him or against him. In terms of September 11th, my allegiance is with the Dead.  Months after I wrote a short poem.  In the first four lines, I tried to fix a September image that still haunts me: of lines of people walking Lower Manhattan in search of loved ones they wouldn’t find. They moved through the streets like bearers without palls. I suppose I was trying to enunciate an allegiance based, not on religion or culture, but on shared human loss. Since there is no proper way to end an essay on this subject (because reflections upon tragedy go on and on), perhaps the best I can do is switch formats from paragraphs to stanzas. Here, as a makeshift ending, is what I wrote:


Now they are standing in the road,
And now they step down through a gash
That was a door once, ash under foot
And glass about their heads in dusty halos.

I’m going to walk with them a while.
The wife who heard the phone call fade
And told her kids, He’ll be home soon
Goes beside me, echoing inside.

An oak felled out of earshot shakes
The forest. When buildings fall, a tunnel
Forms, and voices merge with snapshots
Pinned to people’s chests. We are onlookers
No longer. A pinched candle coils
In my forehead. We are bearers
In a country joined by silent screens,
Thinking as they go there, We are with you.

Michael Wolfe
May-June, 2002

[1] Tamim Ansary, West of New York, East of Kabul. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.

[2] Navid Kermani, “A Dynamite of the Spirit: Why Nietzsche, not the Koran, is the key to understanding the suicide bombers,” in The Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 2002, pp. 13-15.

[3] For a further discussion of the Khan Translation, see the article, “Playing into the Hands of the Extremists?” by Dr. Robert D. Crane, in The American Muslim Network, Issue #9, January, 2002. Available online at

[4] For a fuller treatment of this subject, see “False Prophets: Inside the Evangelical Christian Movement that aims to Eliminate Islam,” by Barry Yeoman with additional reporting by Vanessa Gezari in India, in Mother Jones, May/June 2002, pp. 43-49.

[5] The following brief description depends on Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001), pp. 12, 79-81. For a fuller treatment of the subject, see:  Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), and Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), among others.

[6] Menand, p. 12.

[7] Menand, p. 81

[8] One aspect of Wise’s platform was not to be incorporated: his staunch opposition to establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, which he considered wrong-headed and incongruent with Judaism’s universal mission.

Originally published in The Journal of Islamic Law & Culture and reprinted in The American Muslim with the permission of the author.