Me vs. We?

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This is not an apology or an attempt to speak for a community. This is just one voice of interpretation among many. All of us in America were united in our horror, fear and heartache for the victims of the terror attacks in Boston. Fear and frustration eventually set in as news spread from Boston of the suspects' 'worldview' being Islam. In the weeks after, congressmen continue to make the rounds on morning talk shows, recklessly marrying a word of peace and faith (Islam), with another word 'terrorism.' What would for some be considered characteristics of a stereotypical 'good' Muslim are at the same time being marketed as signs of a radical, violent Muslim: praying 5 times a day, fasting, the hijab (covering of the hair), and going to the mosque regularly.

For some Muslim communities, there is a feeling that Islam is being attacked and for others outside Islam, Islam is the threat. These dangerous threat perceptions feed into the normalization and acceptance of the 'us vs. them' mentality. In actuality of course, all sides are battling the same threat: extremism.

As this confusing narrative surfaces in the aftermath of the Boston attacks, some Muslims, like myself, once again grieve over the hijacking of our identity as both Muslims and Americans.

Threat Perceptions

Initial reports on the Boston bombing suspects suggest that one possible motive for the attack was to 'defend Islam.' The surviving suspect reportedly cited Iraq and Afghanistan as examples that Islam is under attack. The perception that Islam is under threat, however, cannot singularly be associated to terrorists and extremists. Among some communities of Muslims, especially those afflicted by war and political instability, it is not uncommon to feel Islam is under attack from both non-state actors, such as local Islamic extremists, and governments' security apparatuses. Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir are some country examples where it is easy to find the threat perception of attacks on Islam from multiple sides.

As an American Fulbright scholar traveling the Middle East and North Africa, I encountered young children who for the first time were engaging with an American and were perplexed when I told them I was American and Muslim. After passing a pop quiz on Islam from them, some were shocked to see me recite the opening prayer from the Quran. It was as if E.T. was reading Quran to them. "They let you practice in Islam in America?" some children asked excitedly. "But why you go hurt Muslims in Iraq and Palestine?" Even though we are both linked by one faith, my world view was quite different from the children I worked with in North Africa. This does not mean every Muslim feels Islam is under threat, but it is indicative of a divide in perception about threats and worldviews within Muslim communities and between non-Muslim and Muslims.

Violent extremists, such as the authors of al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine exploit threat perceptions and market a narrow view of the clash of civilizations as justification for crimes under the ridiculous guise of 'defending Islam.' Interestingly, what is often absent in public discourse is how the actions and reactions to terrorism successfully make some Muslims feel the need to perpetually be on the defensive for Islam.

The more our religion, Islam, is hijacked by extremists, the more some Muslim communities feel as though Islam is under attack from both the East and the West -- from both Muslim and non-Muslim. Right now for instance, the media and some politicians are again discussing engagement with Muslims and Islam purely from the lens of security instead of partnership. It is here where the extremists sometimes succeed by colonizing spaces for interaction and dialogue.

Trajectories in America

Recent years have been disheartening for many young Muslim Americans. In 2012, Reuters leaked a report about the NYPD's aggressive spying tactics on Muslim-Americans that went as far as tapping phone calls of Muslim citizens and recording how many times a day university students pray. Fifty-eight percent in a NYC poll approved how the NYPD was dealing with Muslims. Other reports leaked how an FBI training program was using an anti-Islam video to train law enforcement that Islam is the threat. Years prior, a pastor in Florida burned the Quran after putting it on trial. Last year, riots spread across the world over an Islamophobic film about the prophet of Islam.

The ripple effects of extremists' actions, both Muslim and non-Muslim, can sometimes weaken spaces for cultural dialogue. To overcome extremism, partnership needs to overpower the trust deficit. That may seem like common sense, but clearly, politics these days lacks any.

Evolving from 'Us v. Them'

As a Muslim in America, I am sometimes troubled by the anarchic state of our world today. But in addition of faith, I also take solace in what makes America endure. Our history has shown moments when we as a society exercise our freedom to continuously reinvent ourselves and look in the mirror -- through the medium of our free press, our open elections, or our dynamic educational institutions. For instance, the Fulbright, a flagship U.S. program for cultural exchange, directly combats the trust deficits with our world by funding people to people interaction and projects for cultural diplomacy. Such systems of reinvention and self-reflection can promote connecting with, as opposed to talk at, without listening.

After 9/11, the clash of civilizations unintentionally grew into a theory that some extremists adopted as a worldview to live by. The theory claims that after the Cold War, the world's conflicts will increasingly be fought along cultural and religious lines. For 'Western civilization', the theory identifies 'Islamic and Sino-civilizations' as the greatest threats. Often overlooked is how the very architect of the 'Clash of Civilizations' theory, Samuel Huntington also wrote in his book: "In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilization clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral and it is dangerous." Huntington's claim is just as applicable to some Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia, as it is to Western states. Non-Muslim and Muslim Actors' attempts to impose their interpretation of Islam on others suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral and it is dangerous.

What Islam and America share with one another is that neither are monolithic entities finite in their identities and processes. No one region, group or culture holds the key to Islam or politics. In fact, Muslim communities and American societies are tied together by evolutionary, progressive messages-- be it the political system of democracy or be it the religious teachings of Muhammad (P.B.U.H.), over 1000 years ago.

Whatever the messages, one undeniable truth remains: Today, one bomb, one drone attack bleeds across oceans and borders. This is true for our women and children harmed in Boston as well as women and children in Syria, or Iraq, where similar attacks occurred on April 15 killing scores of people. America is vulnerable with all communities across the world. Extremists and terrorists penetrate Muslim communities just as they do American society because both are diverse and open to the world.

On the Monday morning before the bombings took place, I happened to read a verse on partnership from the Quran that today seems to carry so much relevance, whether read in Boston, Baghdad or Jerusalem. "Say: 'We believe in that which is sent down to us and that which is sent down to you; our God and your God [Judaism and Christianity] is the same One God..." Quran, chapter 29: verses 45-51. Partnership will overcome fear. Partnership was codified over 1,000 years ago.

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