Targeting Muslim Rights: Private Provocation and Public Action


“You are obligated to tell our story in a truthful way…” said John F. Kennedy. “…to tell it as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait…'paint us with all our blemishes and warts, all those things about us that may not be so immediately attractive'.”

Let us look at the story of Muslims in America and around the world today, to see if it is being told in a ‘truthful' way and if it isn't, let us examine who must bear the responsibility for generating the prevailing misconceptions. We all know the results of such misconceptions can be severe. The current attack on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans is a chilling reminder of the consequences of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Someone once asked Prophet Muhammad,

"Inform me about something that will cause me to go to heaven?”

The Prophet replied:
"Be a muhsin/ doer of good."
The man asked, "O Prophet, how will I know that I am a good person?" The Prophet replied, "Ask your neighbor. If your neighbor says you are good, then indeed you must be good."

Opinions of our neighbors are very significant indeed and yet we can take our neighbors for granted; often never realizing that the 'people next door' can become our greatest allies or our most vocal opposition. It is essential that we take stock of What Our Neighbors Think of Us.

Immediately after September 11, many of our neighbors held hands outside our mosques and told us that they would protect us while we said our prayers. Our neighbors and friends offered us their homes as refuges in the event that we suffered from persecution. We had the support and love of many individuals.

But not all reactions were positive. One perception of Muslims, common in America today, is that we are not capable of grappling with issues of modernity and that Islam plays a major role in holding us back. Many also believe that Islam compels Muslims to commit acts of violence. A recent poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News found that one in four Americans "admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims," and 46 percent had a negative view of Islam .  As a result, many Americans are ready to accept discriminatory policies towards all Muslims.

For example, a Cornell University survey found 44 percent of Americans believe that government authorities should direct special attention toward Muslims living in America , either by registering their whereabouts, profiling them, monitoring their mosques, or infiltrating their organizations. About 27 percent of the respondents said that all Muslim Americans should be required to register their location with the federal government, and

26 percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies…About 22 percent said the federal government should profile citizens as potential threats based on the fact that they are Muslim or have Middle Eastern heritage. In all, about 44 percent said they believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans simply on the basis of the religion they adhere to.

It is curious and infuriating that many Americans do not even consider ‘The Declaration of Independence' when making these statements. “The Declaration of Independence” states “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

How is it so many Americans are willing to abandon the fundamental principles on which this nation was built—to persecute an entire community on the basis of its religion alone? How does one justify curtailing the rights of innocent Americans simply due to the criminal actions of small splinter groups that happen to profess the same faith?

What security do a people hope to gain by removing civil and human rights from their society—by overturning their own constitution? If you start by denying Muslims their civil liberties on the basis of their beliefs, the obvious question that must be asked is – who will be next? Will it be you – because you believe war is unjustified or you do not see eye to eye with the government…, who will be next? It is a dangerous precedent to set and more likely to diminish security than to enhance it.

Another survey recently conducted by pollster Dr. James J. Zogby was equally alarming. When Americans were asked if they would be more or less likely and inclined to do business with an entity if they knew it was Muslim-owned, 40% said they would be less likely to patronize such a business . How do such actions differ in any way from the discrimination on the basis of race, color or religion that this great nation has worked for so long to eradicate?

After 9/11, demonizing Islam and Muslims has become not only acceptable, it is fashionable. Right after September 11, Ann Coulter who was on the cover of Time Magazine, offered a solution to September 11 terrorist attacks. She said, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” As recently as last month, the nationally syndicated radio host Michael Savage, told his listeners that “intelligent people, wealthy people… are very depressed by the weakness that America is showing to these psychotics in the Muslim world. They say, ‘Oh, there's a billion of them.' I said, ‘So kill 100 million of them, then there'd be 900 million of them'.” Who can forget the remark of Jerry Falwell who called our beloved Prophet a terrorist? Or the comment by Franklin Graham that “Islam is a very evil and wicked religion.” Rev. Pat Robertson claimed that “Muslims are worse than Nazis.”

President Clinton summed up the current inflammatory rhetoric in the nation very aptly. "So now, what are we going to do?” he asked “Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?”

It is inevitable that such irresponsible rhetoric should cause us to live in a state of constant and irrational fear -- a fear that leads to indefensible private and public actions. I remember when a Muslim colleague of mine was questioned by the police in St. Louis. She was visiting the Butterfly House with her Pakistani husband and little children. Someone reported ‘suspicious looking' people to the police. When a young man of Iranian descent at the Town and Country post office answered a phone call in his native language, the police were called in again.

The actions of private citizens in an atmosphere of fear, though disheartening, are perhaps understandable. Conversely, the actions of public officials in creating such fear in the name of national security are terrifying! “Racial profiling is one way that we can cut down on security risks,” said Republican Paul Nelson in an interview with WIXK Radio in New Richmond. When asked how to tell what a Muslim male looks like, Nelson replied “Well, you know, if he comes in wearing a turban and his name is Mohammed, that's a good start.”

The use of the phrase ‘Islamo-fascist' by our president contributes to this climate of fear. This same fear is then used as the basis for public action to undermine the rights of many who live in this country.

After the September 11 th attacks, more than 5000 Arab or Muslim immigrants were taken into custody by the U.S Justice Department and held indefinitely on the grounds of national security. The detainees were subject to arbitrary arrest, secret detention, solitary confinement and deportation. Most were held on minor immigration charges and were frequently denied legal representation and communication with their families.

The current atmosphere makes it incumbent on Muslims to think about the ways we can challenge the common misperceptions of our beliefs and the way we live. To do that we have to understand what an average American might find if he or she wanted to learn more about Islam. When, I googled the word Islam, I found approximately 200,000 images. I studied about 600 and discovered three dominating themes.

The first is that of a young, innocent-looking female child reading the Qur'an. It is common for Muslims to use this beautiful icon to depict the beauty, simplicity and peaceful nature of our faith. But I have to ask my Muslim brothers and sisters and myself -- Does this image portray reality or is it a Disney version of our religion? Does this image signify to non-Muslims what we think it does or are we unwittingly contributing to a misunderstanding of our faith?

While it is important to convey that our children learn invaluable lessons from the Qur'an, it is equally important to underscore that Muslim children are full participants in the modern world and contribute to the society they live in –that like all other children, our children go to school, play sports, musical instruments...etc.

A second theme that emerges from these images is of groups of Muslim men performing their congregational prayer. Again, it is important to share our religious practices with the rest of the world. However, have you noticed that reports on Islam, whether positive or negative, are often accompanied by pictures of men at prayer? This image is commonly used when describing a terrorist attack or suicide bombing. I find this idea offensive. It directly contributes to the coupling of the two acts in the minds of the observer; that in our religion, prayers go hand in hand with violence.

The third theme I found was that of the beauty of Islamic art and architecture to be found around the world. It gives me great pleasure to think about the outstanding artists and builders whose work these images celebrate. But I am also concerned that the predominance of these images place Islam in a world of long ago. The contribution of Islamic Civilizations is enormous, in science and in mathematics, in astronomy and in medicine, in art and in architecture. Our collective heritage is a great treasure gifted to us by our predecessors. However, I can't help but ask myself, what gifts are we going to leave for our children? Will we rely on our ancestral contributions from several hundred years ago and be content to rest on their achievements. Or will we make our own mark in history?

What will our children be proud of when they look back? If our children google the word “Islam” in the 22 nd century, will they find the same images I did – images created centuries ago that proclaim that once upon a time Islam produced a great civilization? Or will they see images from the 21 st century – images that portray ours and successive generations' contributions to the heritage of Islam.

This is a crucial time to reflect upon what we are building for ourselves and what bequest we will make to future generations. It is also important to remember that in the past, the greatest legacies were left by communities that lived an ethically, morally, and religiously balanced life or, in more secular terms, an equitable humane life.

So where we do go from here? The fact that there is an overwhelming number of negative images portraying our faith, could leave us feeling helpless and victimized. However, it is very important that we take the responsibility of defining ourselves and correcting the wrongs we observe. There are several examples of how powerful and reflective individuals helped their communities against daunting odds.

One such example is that of the American Catholics during the time of the War of Independence against Britain. Only 1 percent of colonists were Catholics. They were a despised minority thought to be in league with the Antichrist, ruled by a tyrannical pope, and opposed to freedom and democracy. Who would have dreamed then, that a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would become the President of the United States? And that he, to this day, would remain a much loved and respected figure.

It was the bishops of the United States, through their faith in American ideals of freedom, equality and justice, who were instrumental in pushing forward the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, who were prominent in changing their religion from within.

Another example we can look to is that of the American Jews. After facing incredible persecution and anti-Semitism in the past, there is no facet of this nation today, whether it be art, architecture, medicine or science, that has not benefited immensely by the contributions of members of this community.

One particular challenge Muslims face today is convincing society that not only is there no inherent conflict between the ideals of the Qur'an and the foundational principles of this country, but that democratic ideals are not new to Islam or its practice. It is imperative that we, through our thoughts and actions, convince people that it is possible to practice Islam and still be a firm believer in democratic ideals.

Many people have the misconception that diversity, tolerance and plurality are 20 th century Western developments. However, in reality, far from being the pioneer in diversity, tolerance and human dignity, the West was actually a thousand-years-late newcomer to this movement. These notions were adopted by the founder of Islam right at its inception. Islam changed local society almost overnight through the belief that human equality is a divinely ordained principle, a God-given right that none can take away-- inalienable . With such a call, Islam initiated a social and intellectual revolution. It is ironic how we Muslims forget these very principles.

Prophet Muhammad created an environment where both Muslims and non Muslims had equal rights. After conquering Mecca, the Prophet could have taken revenge on all the people who had been unjust to him, and to his community, who had contributed to their being uprooted from their ancestral lands. Instead, he granted complete amnesty of life and property. He placed peace, harmony, and forgiveness on a plane above the momentary gratification of revenge.

The spirit of the Islamic message hearkens us towards “balance” “inclusion” and acceptance of “plurality and diversity”. This notion of respect and inclusion was evident in Medina which was home to a large Jewish community. In order to ensure the religious and social rights of everyone, irrespective of belief, Prophet Muhammad drafted the so-called “constitution of Medina,” which guaranteed the fundamental right to life, liberty, and religion to all citizens.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel to find solutions to the problems we face today. We have only to look to our Prophet who went from being a simple Arab of Mecca, to one of the most influential people in the whole world with a legacy that has survived and thrived through the centuries. Not only did he transform the lives of Muslims overnight, he transformed existing social norms to create a diverse, pluralistic community in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and others lived in peace and harmony.

This is what the Prophet said about ‘iman', faith -- “Faith is a knowledge in the heart, a voicing with the tongue and an activity with the limbs.” Thus, faith involves knowing, speaking, and doing. It is my suggestion, that we leave our children the legacy that, when confronted with the challenges we face today, we acted with faith, we chose to be heard, and we contributed to the betterment of our society by battling discrimination of every form.

Pastor Martin Niemoeller's story carries a powerful moral message. 

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
    because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
    because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
    because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
    because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If we speak, our children will have voices. If we act our children will build on our contributions. We each have a responsibility to correct negative images and to fight civil rights violations. Let us not confine our efforts to crimes committed against us, but let us instead defend the civil rights of everyone, Muslim, Black, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Mexican, Russian, Japanese, Jewish -- every color, creed, and race.

Elie Wiesel eloquently reminds us that:

“Unless we safeguard the liberties of all our citizens, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of Independence mean about as much as a plastic flag bumper sticker.”

Let us, as Muslims, fulfill our moral obligations to our community and to humanity by raising our voices against all injustice. Then will we be heard and respected -- then will we make a difference and leave our children a legacy they can be proud of. For, let us not forget the words of Margaret Mead --

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.”



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