November 9, 2009
This week’s column was going to be about how the Obama Administration’s vigilance against domestic terror plots has further bruised Islam’s battered image among Americans, and what Muslims can do about it – when along came Fort Hood, where a Muslim-American army major reportedly gunned down 13 people on Thursday.
American Muslim leaders were swift to distance Islam from the tragedy.
“We make it [clear] that the American Muslim community condemns the attack in the strongest possible words,” Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American Muslim Relations (CAIR), was quoted as saying. “No political or religious ideology could ever justify or excuse such wanton and indiscriminate violence.”
The message is vital. Most Muslims are not terrorists.
The problem is it’s expressed without fail every time a Muslim-American is linked to terrorist acts or plots: assurances; recurrences. It has taken on a hollow ring with a good number of Americans.
In just the last two months, Americans learned that a Detroit imam was “advocating and encouraging his followers to commit violent acts against the United States,” according to an FBI affidavit; that multiple Muslim Americans were linked to the Zazi plot to bomb commuter trains in New York, the biggest domestic terror plan since 9/11; a 19-year-old Jordanian living in Texas was allegedly planning to blow up a Dallas skyscraper; a Muslim American in Illinois reportedly attempted to blow up a federal courthouse.
All of these incidents occurred after a Washington Post-ABC News poll this year showed 48 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, the highest figure since 2001.
It’s going to take a lot to reverse the damage.
A dearth in terrorist activity is likely to have a limited effect, because in the acute post-9/11 historical moment, Americans have simply been confronted with too many instances where Islam is serving as an impediment to progress and equality, where acts of violence have been justified through verses in the Koran (with Muslim rage, filtered through 24-hour news cycle, not helping matters). It’s reached a point that many Americans have gone from contemplating the oft-repeated claim that Islam has been “hijacked” by extremists to concluding that the problem is rooted in the nature of the religion. In other words, Americans could see fewer threats emanating from the Muslim world, but mistrust of what’s not being expressed will fester.
Continuing to let Muslim leaders bid for the silent majority won’t work either – no matter how moderate, intelligent, and American they come across, no matter how valid their points, like in urging politicians and media outlets to help set the right tone in a time of crisis. It’s a bit like a murder suspect continually hiding behind a dashing lawyer.
The silent majority of roughly six million American Muslims urgently needs to speak up. Against violence and oppression committed in the name of Islam. Against “brothers and sisters” who harbor beliefs that America is a rightful target of jihad. Against Muslim immigrants around the world who don’t mix with the larger whole. Against distortions of America presented through Muslim media. They need to show they are one with America, not only one under the banner of their One God (Allah).
To be sure, leaders’ pat, made-for-TV sound bites insisting that outbursts of violence are un-Islamic have done nothing to reverse negative perceptions of Islam, while the failure of the majority to stridently oppose threats to the American way of life has fueled suspicion and resentment.
On the rare occasions the majority breaks its silence, it’s often to say its being unfairly targeted and misunderstood. Maybe true, but in a pro-active society like America, playing the victim card is not going to rouse much pity.
A letter writer, responding to a website opinion piece on Friday arguing that the Fort Hood episode unfairly put Muslims on the spot, captured the sentiment of a growing number of Americans when he bristled, “Who put Muslims on the spot? Oh, that’s right, another Muslim! So if Muslims feel bad about this, and don’t like being put on the spot, they should make some changes in the message that a disturbingly high percentage of Muslims seem to get from their religion.”
We need to hear from Muslim-Americans – en masse. And frequently. To combat the voices that inevitably drown out the moderate ones. Consider a top news story Tuesday morning, days after a host of American Muslim organizations took pains to distance Islam from the Fort Hood tragedy. An American imam, Anwar al Awlaki, praised the alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan as a hero.
The point is that no matter how small the overall numbers, Muslim-Americans appear to have a crisis of extremism on their hands. They also have a crisis of handling perceptions of that extremism. Their future in America depends on humbly and thoroughly addressing both counts.