The events of September 11 and their aftermath have put the American Muslim community face to face with new and difficult realities. We increasingly confront tough questions: How should we respond to recent events? How should we react to the efforts of some people in the country who are bent on equating Islam with terrorism? How do we reconcile our American and Islamic identities?
I do not pretend to have complete answers to the above questions. Perhaps even if I do, my answers may not be that significant to many American Muslims as they would be informed by my own experience and by the specific angle from which I view these very complicated questions. I would rather suggest an approach to address these and similar questions as American Muslims try to sort things out and identify a solid ground on which they can stand firmly.
Scholarly Persuasions and Muslim Authenticity
I should stress at the beginning that Muslims should find answers to the above questions individually, and should base their positions on conviction, and not on the authority of others. The views of scholars and leaders are useful and important, and can help immensely in arriving at enlightened conclusions. But Muslims must accept the views of others only when they make sense to them; only when they are persuaded and are confident that the answers they accept are informed by their deeply held beliefs and values. The views of Muslim scholars and leaders represent their own understanding and interpretation in a given socio-political situation, and must not be confused with the overall position of American Muslims. It is about time that we do not allow any individuals or groups to speak on behalf the entire Muslim community. A position representing all American Muslims must receive the consent of the various Muslim communities throughout America.
We cannot afford, and we must not in principle, waver in our response, and follow our emotions and sentiments. The worst thing American Muslims can do is to apply double standards in addressing the questions relating to the American part and the Muslim part of their identity. If we agree that targeting noncombatant civilians is wrong we should apply this rule across the board. It should not matter whether the perpetrators of crimes against humanity share with us our religious background or national background. We must always judge others on the basis of their actions not their affiliations.
The Essence of Being American and Muslim
Let me return to the questions of what it means to be both American and Muslim today? And how should we reconcile the American and Muslim identities? To put the question more sharply: Is being American contradicts being Muslim?
The answer differs pursuant to whether we are comparing principles or practices. On the level of principles there is no contradiction. On the level of practice, contradictions may occur, based on the instance and the time frame we focus on.
Being Muslim means that one should stand for the principles and values of Islam, including the values of goodness, peace, justice, compassion, and charity. Being Muslim does not merely mean having social or religious identity, but also means having moral commitment to the universal principles of Islam.
Being Muslim means that one should cooperate with all those committed to improving the human condition. (Qur’an 5:2) It further means that one should stand against injustice, even if this means that one must stand against his or her beloved ones if these were the source of injustice. (4: 135) It also means that one must stand against aggression, regardless of the political or religious identity of its source. (2:190)
Being American, on the other hand, essentially means committing oneself to the high principles upon which this country was founded: freedom, equality, accountability of leaders, and the rule of law. To be American means to pledge to defend the constitution against its enemies, foreign and domestic. This is the allegiance of all Americans, including American Muslims. The American Constitution recognizes the equal freedom of all peoples. It recognizes individual rights to freedom of religion, speech, and association. And it provides for due process of the law. These principles and values are both American and Muslim, and hence no American Muslim should ever feel that he or she has to reconcile his or her Muslim and American identities.
Agreeing with the Principles, Working Out the Details
However, as we move from the level of principles to that of practice, the picture becomes immediately fuzzier. For here we find that American practices have not always risen to the moral principles enshrined in the constitution, as we are bound to find that Muslims have frequently fallen below the ideals of Islam, sometimes by inches and sometimes by stretches.
The founding fathers fought for equality and rejected British rule because the British monarch failed to recognize the equal freedom of all peoples. But the founding fathers did not live up to their words, when they kept slaves. Ultimately the principles of freedom and equality won through the long and protracted struggle of back Americans, supported by many American whites, particularly those who recognized the importance of reconciling American political practices to the constitutional requirements.
Similarly, The Johnson Administration unleashed, during its war against Vietnam, America’s military might against Vietnamese civilians, prompting protests by the American public, and ultimately leading to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and the collapse of the South Vietnamese puppet regime. The moral principle of self-determination eventually won.
Most recently, successive American administrations have supported autocratic and aggressive governments, in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Clinton and Bush Administrations turned a blind eye to Russian atrocity in Chechnya, and ignored China’s repressive policies in Tibet and the Muslim region of Xinjiang. And for four decades, the United States government failed to pressure India to give Kashmir the right of self-determination, as it failed to pressure Israel to leave the Palestinian territories it occupies, despite standing United Nations resolutions, and in defiance of international law.
Moral Values over Religious and National Solidarity
American Muslims have the right, indeed the duty, to speak out against corruption and injustice regardless of its source. Neither should their American, nor Islamic, identity prevent them from being true to their values and beliefs.
American Muslims, it seems, are destined to play a decisive role in keeping America true to its constitutional principles, which some shortsighted leaders seem to be willing to compromise under the pressure of the moment. But American Muslims should always remember that to fulfill their historical role, they must base their positions on the high moral principles they embrace, and must be consistent and fair in their application.
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