Muslims should confront stereotypes and dispel myths
Can we trust Muslims?
This question has been asked before, especially after the horrific events of Sept. 11.
But it has taken on a new urgency in the wake of a grenade attack on the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade in Kuwait last weekend. The soldier held for questioning in the incident is an African-American Muslim soldier. Sgt. Asan Akbar is suspected of rolling three or four grenades into tents at the Army camp, killing two fellow soldiers and wounding more than a dozen others.
Talk shows, articles, and Internet discussion boards are buzzing with the politically incorrect question: Can we trust Muslims?
After Sept. 11, this incident is the last thing Muslims in the United States need.
Muslims already live in a context in which they are viewed with suspicion. They are detained on minor immigration infractions that non-Muslims in the United States are not questioned for. They go through a daily regimen of humiliation through the practice of profiling. Working Muslims report being the last hired and the first fired.
This incident will only exacerbate current stereotypes and suspicions of American-Muslims as a fifth column, those who aid the enemy from within.
How should Muslims handle this? Bury our heads in the proverbial sand? Or should we try to confront it properly and use it as an opportunity to dispel myths? I support the latter option.
What we need to do first is condemn the act. This act was unjustifiable. Period.
Secondly, we need to note that there are tens of thousands of Muslim-American soldiers who have served in the U.S. military with distinction. There are also now 14 Muslim military chaplains — eight in the Army, three in the Navy, and three in the Air Force.
Then, we also need to remember that the act of American soldiers attacking their own is not new. According to some historians, at least 600 American soldiers were killed by other angry fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War. This phenomenon was known as "fragging" because fragmentation grenades were often used. The attacks were often sparked by confrontations involving racism.
News reports note that Sgt. Akbar had been disciplined for insubordination. In addition, some reports have suggested that he and other Muslim soldiers had been the target of derogatory remarks at the camp.
So, racism and stress, as well as possible psychological problems, may have a role to play in this first incident of fragging during the war with Iraq. Only a full investigation of the tragedy will reveal the details.
Then there is the question: Can we generalize based on the behavior of one individual?
Can we trust Irish-Americans after what Timothy McVeigh did? Can we trust Catholic-Americans after Robert Hanssen? Can we trust Jewish-Americans after Jonathan Pollard? Each of these ethnic and religious groups is trusted and considered part of American society, despite incidents involving members of their community committing crimes. Today, nobody would even ask these questions, which generalize about whole communities.
Are more incidents of fragging possible in this war? Yes. There is tremendous pressure on all American soldiers, not just from the stress of war, but also because they face a world largely opposed to this war. Anger, helplessness, and fatalism have the potential to lead people to take the law into their own hands and to react in disturbing ways.
Dehumanization of the enemy is spilling over into the dehumanization of Muslims in the United States. Muslims perceive themselves under tremendous psychological attack. Some may end up hurting themselves or the others if they don't dig deep into their faith in God to deal with the frustration and depression.
We must also remember that soldiers are not robots without feelings, frustrations, or reservations about war. They, too, have the right to question policies in a democracy. They are given the option of being conscientious objectors, to follow their consciences, instead of participating in wars in which their ethics are compromised. With this option they do not compromise their ethics and avoid actions such as fragging.
Quran asks believers to "repel evil with something better." That is what Muhammad Ali did, the heavyweight boxing champion, also an African-American Muslim. He refused to serve in Vietnam, becoming a conscientious objector. Although he lost his title, eventually he gained respect in the eyes of the world. His option was an honorable nonviolent option that did not hurt anyone. This behavior is based on the Quranic concept of Sabr where a person acts honorably with patience in the face of extreme odds.
Abdul Malik Mujahid is an imam in Chicago and is president of SoundVision.com. He is on the board of trustees for the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions.
This article was originally published in the Dallas Morning News. It has been reproduced with permission.