Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali speak before the "Today I am a Muslim Too" Rally at Time Square in 2011.
In the wake of the horrific attacks in Boston last week perpetrated by two ethnic Chechen brothers who appear to have been motivated by extreme Islamist ideology, we are already seeing a dangerous tendency to blame the overall American Muslim community for the heinous deeds of a very few.
Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.), who held congressional hearings in 2011 focused on spurious charges of the radicalization of a majority of U.S. mosques, has again made a sweeping generalization that stigmatizes all American Muslims. In comments on April 20, King asserted that political correctness is causing many in positions of authority to soft-peddle dangers emanating from the American Muslim community and remarked, "The terrorist threats are coming from the Muslim community ... just like the Mafia comes from Italian communities."
To be sure, it would be foolish to deny in the name of political correctness or for any other reason that there is an extremist Islamist movement afoot in the world whose adherents in al Qaeda and like-minded groups carried out the 9/11 attacks, and who still consider themselves to be at war with America. Yet, the vast majority of American Muslims are loyal and peaceful American citizens who completely reject that ideology. Therefore, it is no more accurate to assert that terrorism is coming from the American Muslim community than it is to claim that the Mafia comes from the Italian-American community.
Since Friday (April 19), when the news broke that the likely perpetrators of the bombings, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were Muslim, many of the top American Muslim spiritual and organizational leaders have unequivocally denounced the Boston Marathon bombings as morally repellent and antithetical to the basic values of Islam. Their passionate comments on this issue; following the hundreds of pronouncements by Muslim leaders in the years since Sept. 11, 2001 denouncing terrorism and violence need to be heard and acknowledged; especially by those who knowingly or unknowingly continue to peddle the canard that American Muslim leaders turn a blind eye to -- or even approve of -- terrorist acts committed by fellow Muslims.
Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the preeminent American Muslim umbrella body, commented:
"As American Muslims, we were shocked and saddened by the attacks ... People of all faiths know that the horrific acts committed by these perpetrators go against everything to which God calls us. It is rather the loving, selfless acts of those who immediately responded on the scene that best uphold His teachings. At times like this, I am reminded by a verse from the Holy Qur'an which is similar to one in the Old Testament: if anyone kills a person, it is as if he kills all humanity, while if any saves a life, it is as if he saves the lives of all humanity."
Another leading Islamic organization, the Islamic Circle of North America, avowed "We want to make it very clear to our fellow Americans that such acts of terrorism have no place in Islam. These acts are not just against Americans but against all mankind."
These statements by national Muslim leaders came as reports emerged from Boston that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been ejected from his mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Cambridge, for disrupting Friday prayer three months ago by shouting at the imam for praising Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a person worthy of emulation. "You cannot mention this guy because he wasn't a Muslim," Tsarnaev is said to have shouted.
On April 19, Yusufi Vali, executive director for the Islamic Society of Boston, the parent mosque of the congregation in Cambridge, said of the Tsarnaev brothers; "I don't care who or what these criminals claim to be, but I can never recognize these criminals as part of my city or my faith community. All of us Bostonians want these criminals to be brought to justice immediately. I am infuriated at the criminals of these bombings for trying to rip our city apart."
At this sensitive time when there is ample reason for concern that increase incitement and even violent hate crimes might be directed against Muslims across the country in supposed retaliation for the Boston bombings, Americans of all faiths and backgrounds should reach out to Muslim friends and neighbors to let them know we are with them. Expressions of support from larger and more diverse allies can mitigate the likelihood that Muslims will be targeted. We also need to caution our public officials and media personalities of the need to avoid making inflammatory statements that demonize the entire Muslim community and might incite bigots or unstable people to attack Muslims.
Let us not hand a victory to the perpetrators of the Boston attacks and those who inspired their actions by wrongfully targeting innocent Americans who happen to be Muslim. Rather, we must stand united to uphold, even in the face of mindless violence, the vision of a tolerant and pluralistic America where people of all backgrounds and faiths are equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is President of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He is co-authoring a book entitled 'Sons of Abraham' with Imam Shamsi Ali, the spiritual leader of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York, which will be published this September by Beacon Press.