FIVE years ago yesterday, as we watched with horror, the first of the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the world started to change. Five years later we are living in a world that is unsafe, unpredictable, and full of strife. The outstanding geopolitical problems that had spawned the terrorist culture are no closer to resolution than they were five summers ago. And amidst all this turmoil Muslims are caught between the hard rock of terrorism and the deep blue sea of suspicion.
Life for American Muslims has not been easy of late. Each foiled terrorist plot makes them more vulnerable to stereotyping and bigotry. Retaliations abound: a Muslim commercial pilot is taken off the flight schedule, a Muslim passenger is removed from a plane because other passengers are fearful of his presence, and a young Arab-American man at an airport is forced to change a T-shirt that had Arabic inscription on it. There is widespread racial profiling of Muslims at the airport and at customs. This not only erodes their confidence in the system, it makes them very angry.
Against the backdrop of this angst one cannot ignore the fear that non-Muslim Americans have of Muslims. Unfortunately, the two groups have been talking past each other instead of understanding their mutual concerns. We all appear to be living in an echo chamber where we only hear the reverberations of our own concerns.
I am a champion of civil liberties and worship at the altar of the Bill of Rights. But what good are civil rights when there is a growing distrust and suspicion between the non-Muslim majority and the Muslim minority? How do you convince the majority that out of 1.4 billion Muslims only a small fraction is responsible for the suicide bombings, beheadings, and other atrocities committed in the name of religion? We will not be able to convince them unless the majority of Muslims living in this country refuse to be linked with the self-righteous murderers masquerading as pious believers.
Some Muslims find it difficult to take that step not because they sympathize with the terrorists, but because of a deep- rooted, but utterly unworkable, utopian concept of a worldwide community of believers, or Ummah, which deters them from speaking ill of other Muslims. After all, the terrorists portray themselves as true believers and use the language of religion to justify their despicable acts. But by remaining quiet, American Muslims invite distrust and misunderstanding by the community at large.
A great majority of Muslims are indeed peaceful and they get their inspiration from the same sacred texts that the terrorists flaunt and quote. The problem, common to other faiths as well, is that two people may read the same passage and draw diametrically opposed conclusions. If a majority of Muslims finds the terrorists' interpretations at odds with their own, then they have to take a visible stand. This might further erode the concept of a unified Ummah, but it has to be done.
By remaining quiet on one hand and complaining loudly about racial and religious profiling on the other, American Muslims are isolating themselves from the majority in this country. They must come out of their self-created virtual cocoons and condemn all those who use their religion to further a hateful agenda. This discussion should happen not only in public (which has been happening with increasing frequency) but also in private. There should be no disparity between private utterances and public posture.
It is also necessary because there are many non-Muslim bigots who do not miss an opportunity to malign all Muslims with a broad brush. The incoherence or silence of American Muslims gives credence to their arguments.
The Muslim majority should make it clear that they have nothing in common with the bloodthirsty jihadists and declare them beyond the pale of Islam. This message has to be repeated loudly and frequently. This will make some Muslims on the extreme right very uncomfortable but they are the ones who have always been quick to label Muslims who do not agree with their interpretation as heretics and infidels.
A parting thought for my Muslim readers: When was the last time you invited a non-Muslim friend to your home for a chat over a meal or a cup of coffee?