I came to the United States in August 2000, to do graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I have been living together with my family just off the Notre Dame campus, which is located in Indiana, two hours outside of the city of Chicago. During our stay in the United States, we have not once experienced any form of religious discrimination from our American neighbors. On the contrary, we have been welcomed and have felt a deep sense of respect for our religious beliefs.
The terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11 have changed the lives of all who live in the United States. In the hours and days after the attacks, I went to bed each night praying that the misguided individuals who were responsible for the killing and maiming of thousands of innocent men, women and children were not Muslims. In the mornings when I read and watched the daily news, I desperately tried to convince myself that the growing evidence against the so-called “prime suspect” - Osama bin Laden - was being contrived with the active support of a complicit media. This is the anguish and distress that many Muslims have been suffering since that fateful September morning.
I recall some years ago, when I was active in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, some of my Christian compatriots suffered a similar kind of anguish. The white supremacist policy of apartheid was created in the name of Christianity. Many of the key leaders of the oppressive apartheid regime were also devout adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church. The discriminatory apartheid education policy was labeled “Christian National Education.” No matter how much we tried to reassure Christian friends that the world knew that this was a cruel abuse of the true teachings of Jesus Christ, it did nothing to reduce their anguish. Their only solace was to commit themselves fully to ridding South Africa from the scourge of racism. Their participation in the struggle for a just South Africa was a kind of cathartic healing and a form of witness to the true teachings of Christianity.
The lesson from the apartheid crime against humanity is simple and yet profound. Firstly, if Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network are indeed responsible for the horrific slaughter of innocent men, women, and children on September 11, then he has as much or as little claim to Islam as the architects of apartheid or the Ku Klux Klan has to Christianity. Secondly, analogous to the example of anti-apartheid Christian activists, Muslims will only be liberated from their current anguish by working hard to counteract the disproportionate influence of a tiny minority of religious extremists within their ranks.
Muslim organizations and leaders worldwide have firmly condemned the massacre of September 11 and have unequivocally stated that acts of terrorism are contrary to the teachings of Islam. In Islamic ethics, the end does not justify the means. Whatever their motivations, those responsible for the mass murders of September 11 have demeaned their cause. Most people are not aware that approximately six million Americans are Muslim. In fact, several hundred Muslims were working in the two World Trade Center Towers at the time of the attack. The ill-fated buildings were also a venue for regular Friday prayers, and attracted a large number of worshippers. Most of these Muslims, along with their coworkers, are still missing, buried beneath tons of steel and rubble.
Islam, like Christianity or any other religion, is not a monolithic entity. The global Muslim community comprises a number of diverse articulations or understandings of Islam, frequently locked in fierce rivalry in their claim to be the privileged, orthodox, and authentic voice of Islam. All religious communities struggle with their lunatic fringes. Islam, like any other religious community, is not free from extremists who consciously and skillfully manipulate its symbols in order to obtain acquiescence and submission to their profane and expedient political objectives.
The genius of Islam lies in its strict monotheism-the belief in the Oneness of God. Islam also teaches that the more we embrace diversity in God’s creation, the closer we are to acknowledging the unity of God. It is essentially this creative paradox that escapes Muslim extremists. The latter seek to homogenize Islam and the world and eliminate diversity and pluralism. Their worldview is not that of Unity in Diversity, but rather that of Uniformity and Regimentation. They espouse a Manichean dualistic view of the world, in which they alone possess the monopoly on goodness and “the other” is demonized as the epitome of evil. They are predisposed to both civil and violent intolerance of non-Muslims in general, as well as fellow Muslims who espouse a different understanding of Islam. The latter are accused of working against the interest of Islam and are consequently branded as hypocrites (munafiqun).
In contradistinction to the extremist perspective, the primary source of Islamic guidance, the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur’an, regards differences in religious beliefs, perspectives, and viewpoints, as being a natural and essential part of the human condition. “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an 2:256) A denial of the right of others to hold beliefs and views that are different and incompatible with one’s own is tantamount to a denial of God himself. “If your Lord had so desired, all the people on the earth would surely have come to believe, all of them; do you then think, that you could compel people to believe? (Qur’an 10: 99) “Had your Lord so willed, He could surely have made all human beings into one single community: but (He willed it otherwise, and so) they continue to hold divergent views.” (Qur’an, 11:118) These aforementioned Qur’anic verses establish the principle of freedom of belief and thought in Islam.
In the Islamic perspective of religious pluralism, human beings are called upon to excel and celebrate in the contestation of ideas, known as al-jihad al-afkar. This generates intellectual and social vitality. The process of contestation spawns a rich variety of competing solutions for dealing with any particular problem, each of them valid in its own right. There is no moral judgment and vilification of partners/opponents in the contest. The challenge, which Muslim extremists presents for progressive Muslims, is to amplify the Qur’anic teachings on religious pluralism and work hard to make it an integral part of the fabric of contemporary Muslim culture.
The anomaly of the current debate on Islam and the media is that there exists a strange collusion between the agendas of some of the media and that of extremist Muslims. The terrorists who engineered the attacks of September 11 clearly had the media in mind. Through their outrageous acts of suicide, the hijackers of those four ill-fated planes wanted to accomplish a number of objectives. Firstly, they wanted to strike a blow against the United States. Secondly, and equally important, they wanted to achieve a “demonstration effect” - vivid evidence of the extent to which they are willing to go, and the attention they are capable of attracting. Extremists know that the international communications media will inadvertently become their ally. Paradoxically, the current media coverage fits in well with the homogenizing agenda of extremists, who are fundamentally opposed to diversity within Islam and want to project themselves as the only authentic and privileged voice of Islam.
The horror of the recent terrorist attacks demands a serious introspective pause. The established Muslim leadership in Muslim majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere have abandoned their prophetic roles of being the moral conscience of their societies and speaking out on the human rights violations and injustices which permeate their societies. They are providing religious legitimacy in many cases to despotic and oppressive regimes. Non-violent civil resistance campaigns are not tolerated in most Muslim countries and progressive religious leaders are either incarcerated or exiled.
I have been encouraged by the fact that a number of analysts have called upon the world community to examine the underlying roots that give rise to desperation, in conditions of dictatorship, impoverishment, and powerlessness. They have highlighted the dire need for a public debate concerning the controversial role of the United States in abetting and supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and in particular, in its uncritical support for the “discriminatory” policies of the state of Israel. They have proposed that the public debate in the United States must also include the most effective strategies to use in the struggle against terrorism. Many analysts have also questioned the wisdom of the U.S. decision to make the bombing of Afghanistan the most important part of its response to the attacks of September 11. A more credible alternative would have been for the United States to hand over its evidence against Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network to the United Nations.
I contend that the most important component of a comprehensive strategy against terrorism is that of ameliorating the root causes that provide a fertile ground on which religious and other forms of extremism can thrive. I remain unshaken in my conviction that a just world order and interdependency remains the only way for sustainable peace. I pray that wisdom will guide world leadership at this time. I pray for courage, solace, and healing for the grieving families of the innocent victims of September 11 as well as for the so-called “collateral damage” of the daily bombing in Afghanistan. May God grant us the strength as a world community to live through this tragic moment in history with dignity and compassion.
Turning our Anguish into Solidarity
The past year has indeed been an eventful and a stressful one for all Americans, but particularly for its Muslim citizens. Muslims have been and continue to experience both negative as well as positive repercussions to the events of September 11.
Since the abominable attacks of Tuesday, September 11, Islam has been placed under suspicion. Some Islamic institutions have experienced sporadic incidents of violence and federal investigation. Many Muslims are in detention for visa violations and in inordinate number have been experiencing racial profiling. Moreover, the world has witnessed a war in Afghanistan, the ongoing cycle of violence in Palestine, and a growing threat of war against Iraq. All of these unsavory episodes have further exacerbated the anguish and distress that many Muslims have been suffering since that fateful September morning.
Notwithstanding the anxiety that abounds within the American Muslim community, it is the responsibility and duty of conscientious Muslims to keep alive the lamp of hope. We need to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit against all odds. There are many Qur’anic passages that exhort us in this regard. In surah al-Zumar, chapter 39, verse 53, Allah, the Sublime declares:
Do not ever despair of Allah’s Mercy.
In surah al-Inshirah, chapter 94, verses 5–8, we can derive great spiritual comfort and solace, from Allah, the Sublime:
“ After hardship comes ease;
Truly after hardship comes ease”
The dramatic turn of world events triggered by the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 has ironically led to an unprecedented solidarity from ordinary Americans toward their Muslim neighbors. On September 14, three days after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a group of around two hundred inter-religious activists encircled the Bridgeview Mosque in the southwest suburb of Chicago, and stood vigil with candles vowing to protect the mosque against any kind of revenge attacks. In the subsequent days and weeks, in response to reports of anti-Muslim reprisal attacks, the local Michiana Islamic Center received bouquets of flowers and a number of Christian delegations attended the Friday congregational services. This remarkable display of inter-religious solidarity in the face of sporadic incidents of mindless attacks on mosques and Muslims in various parts of the United States served to underscore the widespread solidarity that many Muslims received from their non-Muslim compatriots in the aftermath of September 11.
For those inter-religious activists who have long campaigned that inter-religious solidarity should be accorded a more prominent place in the programs of religious institutions, the irony of post September 11 reality is painful. Inter-religious activities have indeed ascended near the top of the agenda of a number of religious institutions all over the United States, but it was triggered by an abominable terrorist attack that has only served to reinforce the widespread public perception that Islam is linked to violence in some special way. This confounding curiosity presents a renewed opportunity to counteract negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and to foster and deepen inter-religious solidarity in the United States.
The critical challenge however, facing inter-religious advocates is how to sustain and transform this renewed inter-religious solidarity and energy into a powerful grassroots inter-religious movement for peace.
A. Rashied Omar is Administrative Coordinator, Institute on the Resolution of Ethnic Conflict, Kroc Institute for Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
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