American Muslims were justifiably pleased and heartened by President Obama's brotherly remarks in a Baltimore mosque two weeks ago. "You are right where you belong," he told them. He condemned the religious bigotry that conflated the vast majority of Muslim-Americans with radicalized Islamists. "You are not Muslim or American," he said. "You are Muslim and American."
He didn't fail, however, to remind the audience that he was a Christian and that he condemned the murder and persecution of Christians in several Muslim countries, especially Libya. This somber note was not the main theme of his speech, but it told his audience that they, and not just the West, had a responsibility to condemn and wage war against radicalized Islam, both at home and abroad.
This challenge, if met, will go a long way toward allaying America's fear and distrust of her Muslim-American neighbors. Meeting that challenge will include the following.
Muslim-Americans suffer hate crimes daily, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the official mouthpiece of Muslim-Americans, publicizes them and sometimes brings suit. This is necessary and proper, but it won't win American hearts. CAIR would do well to place more emphasis on condemning Muslim atrocities wherever they are found around the world--in effect educating its Muslim readership.
Innocent Muslim-Americans are as horrified by radicalized Islamic campaigns of terror as any of us, but most Americans, and especially Republicans, aren't so sure of this. Grass-root American Muslims in large numbers need to publicly condemn the terror campaigns of ISIS, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram in their local newspapers, in LinkedIn, and on Facebook.
In my hometown newspaper, which I read daily, I have never seen a letter about Islam written by a Muslim, not even in the wake of the San Bernardino disaster. CAIR condemned it impressively, but ordinary citizen Muslims too seldom join their voices to CAIR. They need to be heard from.
Muslim Americans need to know their own history. Most Christians today acknowledge and condemn the atrocities committed by earlier generations of Christians against Jews, Muslims, heretics of all kinds, "witches," and most of all against each other.
In general, Christians are comparatively tolerant these days. But Muslims, especially in the Middle East, too often resort to killing those who don't think like they do, a practice that's been followed off and on since the middle of the seventh century.
If Muslim Americans knew their own history, they wouldn't be seduced by the hate rhetoric that writes off Christians as "Crusaders," Hindus as "idolators," and ignores their own abuses. There are no persons alive on earth who wouldn't gain humility by a knowledge of their own history, and Muslims are no exception. Non-Muslim Americans would be won over by displays of objectivity and humility in their Muslim neighbors.
Muslims also need to keep abreast of contemporary world events as they unfold, especially those that give voice to reformist impulses in their own religion. Only last month hundreds of Muslim leaders from 120 countries gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, and hammered out a document of great historical importance. Known as the Marrakesh Declaration, it began with the admission that "conditions in various parts of the Muslim World have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one's point of view." It closed by affirming "that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries."
Of special interest to me as an educator was the call to "educational institutions and intellectuals" to identify and censure "any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies." The Marrakesh Declaration is little known among American Muslims, even less among the rest of us. It should be shouted from the housetops, for it addresses what non-Muslim Americans fear most about Islam.
Almost as much, non-Muslim Americans fear the imposition of shariah. Belgium is expected to be a Muslim-majority country by 2030, and many radicalized voices there are looking ahead to the day that shariah will become the law of the land--not just for Muslims, but for everybody. This will surprise no one who has kept abreast of attitudes in today's Muslim-majority countries. According to a 2013 poll conducted by the PEW Research Center, "at least four in ten Muslims in all countries except Iraq (38%) and Morocco (29%)" thought that shariah should be applied to Christians living in their country. Muslim Americans would be wise to publicly and vehemently renounce and deplore this principle if they are to be accepted by their fellow citizens.
Muslim Americans would be wise to adopt majority conventions and traditions as much as possible, even when they have the legal right to stand apart. As an example, no Muslim physician, even in the Middle East, is expected to drop his scalpel in the middle of an operation at the call to prayer. The various hadith (sayings of Muhammad) make exceptions for a number of occasions. In recent weeks Somali Muslims were fired from their jobs in Wisconsin for taking unscheduled prayer breaks that, according to the company they worked for, disrupted production. Regardless of the merits of the arguments on both sides, the fact remains that their non-Muslim coworkers took a dim view of the demand for special consideration. Both the company and CAIR agreed that the scheduling conflict "has triggered anti-Muslim sentiment, especially on social media." Most of the Somali workers stayed on, but those that didn't hardened anti-Muslim sentiment and made life a little more difficult for Muslim Americans everywhere.
Joining in with other Americans, being flexible, yielding a little here and there, sharing stories, taking classes on something other than the Quran, participating in interreligious dialogue--all this helps. My wife tells me that the all-women gym she attends has recently begun attracting Muslim women who take off their hijabs and sweat with the best of them. This is progress. So is hip hop artist A D. This 29-year-old Dallas musician engagingly challenges Islamophobia with a song that contrasts Islamic terrorism to the Islam he practices, which, as she says, "could not be more different."
Islam has its extremes, but so does America with its out-of-control consumerist culture and over-sexed way of life. Perhaps in time the two will approach each other and meet at the center. Intelligent, flexible deployment of Quranic values can help make that happen. If carried off successfully, life for Muslims in America will feel safer and happier. And all of us will be better off for it.