I write to you, America, as a Muslim-American who is frustrated at seeing both sides of my identity spreading myths about each other. In part one of this two part article, I address America from a Muslim perspective. In part two, which will follow in the coming weeks, I shall write to the Muslim community, from an American perspective.
Our world today is assaulted with myriad headlines describing rising extremism and terrorism, and political instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Despite the plethora of bad news, most recently we have seen a day of hope marked by the end of Ramadan, where Muslims from all nations, social classes, and sects openly united in the spirit of humility, brotherhood, thankfulness, and peace.
As human beings, you and me have a tendency to let the negative marginalize the good and the true. But in this Ramadan the unity and the message of peace and humility that nearly a billion Muslims have exhibited should not go unnoticed, nor should it be underestimated.
America, even though you are part of us (Muslims) and we are a part of you, you often fear and misunderstand the one thing that unites the billion of us around the world is peace, love, and spiritual strength; you fear our religion, Islam. I write the following to not accuse anyone or apologize on behalf of any group. In part one of this article, I speak to you America, as one Muslim who is part of the majority of Muslims standing against the Ahmedinijads, Bin Ladens, and Taliban and Al Qaeda. These men have stolen my voice... our voice. The actions of a violent minority have for too long trumped the selfless and righteous actions of the moderate majority who do good in the name of Islam.
Firstly, Muslims are not a violent people and Islam is not a violent religion. I fear you overlook the fact that the faith of Muslims has been monopolized by the corrupt despots of Muslim countries and Muslim extremists. And it is the extremists whose power is bolstered by a media that has paralyzed the voice of the Muslim majority, who in fact abhor violence and terrorism.
It can be confusing even to me because on one side we only see Muslim extremists on the TV preaching hate in the name of Islam and we barely hear the majority. As I will touch on in part two of this article, Muslims have even marginalized themselves. But America, Muslims are a community of over a billion people, most of whom live in poverty within developing countries governed by oppressive, abusive, authoritarian regimes. These very regimes remain bunkered against an alienated group of extremists who are taking to the gun instead of a potentially rigged ballot. It is our mothers and daughters and sons who are being killed on a daily basis by either violent extremists or botched missile attacks by NATO. We are against violence and terrorism America, be it from Muslim extremists or NATO bombs. We are against violence because it is we who are the primary target of most terrorist attacks today. And while we may disagree with your military actions and policies, we look up to the principles that make up America... I speak of the freedom to be critical of yourself as a society and government; the opportunities awarded by the most comprehensive education system in the world; and your effortless ability to adapt in an ever transforming world.
(Girl in Kashmir/photo by Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din)
Secondly, we Muslims, especially the Muslim youth, are not limited to the identifications that many parts of you believe us Muslims to be. Many see us to be ignorant, introverted, backwards, fundamentalist people. This is far from the truth. We are artists, painters, poets, doctors, lawyers, musicians, intellectuals, gay, straight, punk or conservative, man and woman, and yes, we too are American.
Thirdly, Muslims abroad and Muslims in America are often confused by your (America) political and military actions, which sometimes contradict the pro-freedom, pro-democratic pro-human rights rhetoric. Yes, the fault is ours (the Muslims) in numerous respects, but America, historical facts show that failed foreign policies have contributed to the political and economic landscape in which many Muslim led authoritarian regimes currently thrive. As an American myself, I know it is not the American agenda to kill civilians. The brave men and women in the armed forces are fighting for international peace and security. I truly believe this. So, why do many other Muslims in my community distrust American policies and actions?
(View From Inside Mecca/ photo by Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din)
Every civilian death in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan leaves a cut in the collective Muslim conscious... be it for a Muslim in Iowa or a Muslim in Morocco. It is felt in every corner of the Muslim world. And the lasting effects of failed foreign polices cut just as deep. Take the example of Afghanistan, where the C.I.A armed, trained, and funded freedom fighters during the Cold War. These fighters later shed blood and defeated the Soviets. But after the smoke cleared, when Afghanis needed development and aid upon their victory for the West, the people were abandoned. Perhaps former U.S. Representative Charlie Wilson said it best, "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we [America] f*&ked up the endgame." The Muslim fighters trained by America, later regrouped as the Taliban whom we see resurfacing today.
In 1953, President Mossadeq, the once popular, pro-democratic leader of Iran, was driven out of office in a coup d'etat funded and supported by the CIA. He was replaced by a dictator whose ineptness spawned the Islamic Revolution that transformed a once democratic, secular society into a theocracy led by brutes such as Ahmedinijad. In the area of women's rights and political transparency, America is an outspoken leader for reform, and yet, America is also an uncritical ally of Saudi Arabia, a country where women's empowerment or political pluralism has remained stagnant for hundreds of years. You speak of human rights, and yet you are a staunch ally to India who commits mass atrocities in Kashmir, where 70,000 have been killed since 1989. But the main conflict on every Muslim's psyche is Palestine and it is here where your rhetoric and your actions on human rights has most frustrated both Muslims and Arabs. I support Israel's right to exist and defend itself and I support Palestine's right to exist and defend itself. International law has been violated on both sides, but one side operates with impunity while the other remains in rubble. This affects the Muslim's collective-psyche as it promotes the sentiment that the world sees Muslims as sub-human and that laws related to human rights don't apply to Muslims. Yes, that is untrue, I know, but the ridiculousness of such a myth is not so obvious to the millions of Muslims who live in war-torn and oppressive countries lacking justice and accountability.
Despite all of these examples, if you simply talk to Muslim youth, you will still find that the overwhelming majority of young Muslims make a distinction between American politics and American innovation and culture. Listen to how many Muslim youth pray for greater democracy in Iran, for example. See how many Muslim youth watch MTV and Gossip Girl in Morocco, or, eat KFC in Saudi. See how many Kashmiris would beg to walk in one of your universities. Just look at the hundreds of millions of Muslims in Africa and Asia who watched the 2008 elections as if it were their own. Witness the joy that was felt when popular democracy prevailed with Obama's victory. America, you are not just a country. You are an idea that is looked up to by the world.
The final myth I would like to challenge is the concept of Islam being THE threat. This sentiment is becoming far too entrenched in America. As a Muslim-American this deeply concerns me. For example, when President Obama was pictured wearing Kenyan garb, the press were in uproar over him dressing as a 'Muslim'. Indeed, there are warlords, despots, and extremists who have hijacked my religion, and lead the world on. But to allow Islamophobia to be the status quo in you, America, is no different from the Muslim world allowing its own to think that America is THE evil.
(Inside the Dome of the Rock, mosque in Jerusalem/photo by Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din)
Islam and the Quran are not the threat America. Instead, Islam is the source of inspiration for many to be better human beings. What inspiration has Islam given to the West? Under the Islamic Golden Age, for example, Islam inspired scientists, poets, activists, and philosophers. Many of their innovations have come to be adopted into the very fabric of Europe and America. Even most Muslims forget that as far back as the 8th Century, it was Islamic and Jewish philosophers who promoted freedom of speech, religious freedom, secularism, and peace. In the realm of agriculture it was Muslim farmers who introduced crop rotation. Doctors developed the world's first public hospitals. Muslim academics opened the world's first universities awarding diplomas in a diverse array of subjects. Arab musicians introduced the bass drum, the violin, and the guitar to Europe. Averroes, an Andalusian Muslim polymath and Islamic philosopher, developed and explored the concept of secularism and he is described as the father of secularism for Western Europe. (for an outline of Islam's contributions to modern Western society visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Golden_Age) If Islam is such a threat then how could such positive advancements adopted into West tradition, made hundreds upon hundreds of years ago by Islamic artists and scientists, be inspired by Islam?
I look at the Muslim world today and I see a community in disarray, affected by poverty, war, political oppression, extremism. (I speak to this in part two, following this article). But in this past month of fasting, (Ramadan), I felt my community coming closer to its core. During Ramadan I witnessed families together, praying for peace, fasting in solidarity with non-Muslims and Muslims. On Eid this past Sunday, hundreds of millions of Muslim families from Africa, America, Europe, Asia, were not standing against the world, but were spreading the message of charity, peace, and patience. Men, women and children were hugging the stranger sitting next to them. For the first time in my spiritual life, I heard the leader of Friday prayers at a mosque in Maryland ask us to be more active in social service and community development. In fact, the cleric promoted the American value of "citizenship." I see these things and I do not see Islam as a threat. I see a solution...I see hope. I write this to you America, not to accuse you of the rift that exists today with the Muslim world, because America is not solely responsible. Muslims carry the prime responsibility of political-economic problems affecting them. I write this letter to you America so that you may in some way be more aware of the Muslim majority and have hope in it as well.
You will find contradictions in us, America, and Muslims will find contradictions in you. Like all values and great ideals, it is we humans who taint them and pervert them. Islam is not an exception. In fact, it is time for us in the Muslim community to look in the mirror and reform, as I will talk about in more detail in part two. Muslims and external players continue to taint the ideal of Islam. But America, the longer you hold on to the status-quo of Islam as the threat, the larger the rift will grow between you and the Muslim world; thus leaving a world divided. Muslims and non-Muslims in the West and in the East: faith must triumph over fear.