Saturday, September 11, 2010

Islam in America

A few months ago I bought a copy of the Qur'an, bound in a handsome green cover and gold leaf pages.  One of my softer ambitions is to read the holy books of every world religion, a task which is going fairly well even at the slow pace I'm taking.  Every couple of weeks I'll open the book and read a few sections, not just the primary text but also the annotations on interpretation, history, and etymology.  This translation was made in 1917, with a "major" revision published in 1951; the author, Maulana Muhammad Ali, presents an Islam that is earnest, benevolent, and universally welcoming.  Ali's Islam is not a rival to Christianity or any other religion, but the final perfection of them all; an audacious claim, but one made by so many other religions as to become unremarkable. 

I mention this because today is September the Eleventh, and nine years ago a series of terrorist attacks were carried out by members of Al-Qaeda, a Muslim organization dedicated to the destruction of Western (and in particular, American and Israeli) power, and the resurgence of Islam and Islamic law as the dominant force in the world.

These are all facts, rendered as objectively as an American conscience will allow: the attacks of September Eleventh were utterly traumatic, and inspired boundless sorrow, anger, and foreboding in a great many hearts.  Because of that day, the United States has committed itself to the destruction of Al-Qaeda, as well as any other organization with similar intentions.  It is a noble goal, because the havoc unleashed that day was beyond comprehension, and it should never be allowed to repeat.

September Eleventh should have been an ennobling experience, one that reminded America of its better nature; its overwhelming desire to see peace, justice, and humanity in the world.  But nine years on, we have seen too little of any of these.  The United States remains a country of divided impulses: eager to do good, it acts imperiously, and regards an indictment of its methods as an indictment of its motives.  It remains a country of arrogant militarism, self-assured in the capability of its armed forces to accomplish any mission, regardless of the utility of guns.  It remains a country of ignorance: in nine years it has failed to capture the one man it swore to find above all others, and has turned its wrath on others with only the barest regard to their affiliation with him.

The United States remains ignorant, because it still has not figured out what it means to have been attacked by Al-Qaeda.  It still hasn't figured out what Al-Qaeda means to Muslims.  America has failed to relate in a meaningful way to either the Muslims abroad or the Muslims at home.  It has yet to determine what, exactly, a Muslim is.

There are over a billion Muslims in this world.  They speak languages that Americans do not understand: they live in countries that Americans cannot find on maps.  They hold a staggering variety of political and religious opinions.  They live in a multitude of classes and conditions, are concerned primarily with the living of their own lives.  In the United States, there are few Muslims.  There are probably fewer Muslims in America than there are Jews, though the demographics are unclear.  Most Americans probably do not know any Muslims; very few even see them on a regular basis. 

For most Americans, a Muslim is either a member of a tiny minority, or a foreigner.  Neither category is liable to draw the attention of an American, unless that attention comes in the form of suspicion.  They are a perfect example of an invisible them, a perpetual class of aliens.  Nine years after September Eleventh, Americans all over this country have banded together to protest the free exercise of their religion.

Every where the story is the same: us versus them.  American protesters will defend freedom of religion, but not for them.  Americans will extol the virtues of tolerance, but not for them.  Not after what they did.

But who are we, and who are theyWe; well that's too obvious to go into.  As for they, they are the minority, the foreigner.  Though they may not be terrorists themselves, they belong to the same they, and they shall not have their way in this country again.

The chief problem is that it never occurs to most Americans that Muslims are as diverse a group as Christians.  Most Americans are familiar with at least ten Christian denominations, such as Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mormons, Methodists, Evangelicals, Orthodox, Quakers, and, Pentecostals; not to mention all of their countless splinter-sects.  

Muslims are not seen in the same way.  Those who actually follow the news may have heard that there exist such things as Sunni and Shi'a, but have little appreciation for their distinction.  As to the distinctions between all the various schools and sects appended to these branches, they are clueless.  To an American a Christian may be one of many things, but a Muslim is a Muslim.  Most Americans would not judge Christianity by the tenets of a minor denomination or the actions of its adherents.  In addition, most Americans would never hold a member of most Christian denominations as responsible for the actions of his coreligionists.  But they will judge the Muslims, because they are foreigners, because they are a minority.

A so-called pastor in Florida has been running rings around the media this week by threatening to hold a public burning of the Qur'an today.  The last I'd heard, his event has been canceled (or put on hold), but in a country as large as this it is certain that paper and ink will burn somewhere today.  The Qur'an will be desecrated to "honor" the memory of thousands of innocent people who died nine years ago; among them, Muslims.  The men and women who burn these books will feel satisfied, patriotic, and justified in their intentions.  They will be too busy with these feelings to appreciate the offense they have caused to innocent people, and too immature to see why that should matter. 

September Eleventh no longer belongs to Americans who wish for a better, more peaceful world.  It has been appropriated by those who seek moral validation through opposition and strife.  It is being reforged into a weapon of intolerance.  This is a great moral tragedy, and must be reversed.  If it is a hallowed day, then it must be a day reserved for good deeds and kind hearts.  It is not a day for talk of us and them.  

In Chapter 60, verse 8, the Qur'an says "Allah forbids you not respecting those who fight you not for religion, nor drive you from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly.  Surely, Allah loves the doers of justice."  Surely, God does not love injustice, or religious persecution.  Surely, God does not love to see people made unwelcome in the cities in which they reside.  Surely, God does not love to see people dissemble from their principles because of baseless fear.

I encourage those of you who wish to honor those who died and suffered on September Eleventh to transcend petty nationalism and bigotry, reach out to their fellow human beings, and encourage the closer integration of Islam into the greater American community of religions.  Your neighbors are not your enemies, and your enemies are powerless in the face of such cooperation.  Fundamentalism is strong because it draws its strength from division and dissatisfaction.  In a world where Islam is practiced freely in America, and where America regards the people of Muslim countries as friends, fundamentalism can have no strength. 

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