As American Muslims, we are civically challenged - challenged by some of our fellow Muslims, by the media, and by our limited success in having our voices (and those of the mainstream of our community) heard. Our e-mail boxes are replete with Muslim condemnations of the violent protests in reaction to the video, “Innocence of Muslims,” yet the perception remains that Muslims are silent to extremism.
Thousands around the world, an extremist fringe, are invoking our religion while engaging in destructive and violent protests against America and demonstrating in ways that go against the very essence of the teachings of Islam as understood by the overwhelming majority. Yet, any nuanced socio-political analysis is lost in the simplistic narrative that pits Islam against the West.
As it was a member of the Egyptian Coptic Christian community in Los Angeles whose video sparked these latest protests, we decided to hold a press conference together with the Coptic Orthodox Christian Diocese of Los Angeles, condemning both the hate instigated by one who claims to be Coptic and the violent reaction by those who claim to be Muslim. The joint statement declared:
“We cannot allow the actions of a few deceived fanatical individuals to define our communities. Those individuals are responsible for their debased actions which cannot be reflective of the respectable communities which they claim to be members of.”
The stark reality is that the violent behavior of a few will wash away any good work of American Muslims who are providing free medical services to poor communities, excelling in scientific achievement, and building America’s economy. American Muslims are not measured by the exemplary work of its mainstream, but by the destructive actions of its fringe. No other religion is measured in such a way. No other group in America has its patriotism challenged like American Muslims today.
Today, the American Muslim community is flourishing. We are above average in education and economic success, with our children graduating from the best universities and our collective financial net worth reaching over $150 billion¬–more than any oil-producing country’s annual gross domestic income. We are doctors, teachers, and first-responders. We work in public policy, homeland security, and in the defense of our country. We are part of the pluralism that defines America. In fact, many Muslims came here seeking religious freedom and the American dream.
Why is it important to correct this image and to bring it closer to reality? Because, although the reality is that American Muslims are well integrated into society–both economically and socially, the al-Qaeda narrative is that America is at war with Islam. When anti-Muslim bigotry is unchecked by our political leaders and leads to hate crimes, then negative views of Muslim life in America emanate. Hence, the negative image of Islam in America is interdependent with the negative image of America in Muslim-majority countries. We cannot avoid anti-Muslim bigotry. Hate speech is constitutionally protected. But responsible speech by our political leadership, making it clear where America stands when any form of bigotry rears its ugly head, is imperative.
What is at stake is the development of new generations of Americans who witness only negative stories about Islam in America or America in Muslim-majority countries. Such a medium is a breeding ground for mutual animosity and suspicion between Muslims and non-Muslims. Young Muslims in America will either leave their faith or believe that being faithful is synonymous with being anti-American.
What needs to be done?
First, Muslims in America need to break out of their cocoons in mosques and practice what the Koran preaches and the values that prophet Muhammad exemplified even in the face of discrimination and animosity—patience and good civic engagement. The prophet never reacted to any insults with military action. Islam calls us to work for mercy, compassion, and justice. The role of religion is to elevate the character of the individual and of the society beyond base emotional and tribal reactions.
Second, the U.S. political establishment, civil society, and other faith communities must respond to bigotry, like they respond to any reprehensible behavior that is legally protected. We need to expose those who promote hate speech and hide behind free speech. Yes bigots have the right to speak with recklessness. When it is met with indifference or political paralysis, then America’s image is one that sanctions anti-Muslim bigotry but counters other forms of bigotry, a double-standard.
Finally, young Muslims can be leaders for America who can help both their country and their religious community from dissonance to harmony. They are graduating in the top of their classes and excelling in their careers. What is left is to provide them with the opportunity to lead, to be seen for what Muslims are. That is our hope.
Imam Jihad Turk is dean of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate seminary and the religious advisor of the Islamic Center of Southern California and Salam Al-Marayati is the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.