As Muslims in America and abroad roundly condemned the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on London, the question in the minds of everyone in America was: can it happen here?
So far, no member of the Muslim community in the United States has been accused of killing civilians here. However, the allegations that four British Muslims were involved in the London blasts have definitely brought a chilling question: could there be some young Muslim in America who, like a few students of Columbine High School in the spring of 1999, raise arms against people around them? An estimated 39 percent of households in America own a gun. A number of Muslims probably own one as well. If there are 30,000 people who commit suicide in America every year, about 60 of them may be Muslims as per their population ratio. Since we have about 12,000 murders per year in America, 24 of them may be Muslims. Therefore, the statistical possibility does exist.
Muslims are indeed under tremendous pressure. According to several surveys, one in four Muslims have either personally experienced or known someone close to them who has faced discrimination. There is a constant bombardment of negative news damaging to their psyche, complemented by government policies that have given rise to an acute sense of injustice among American Muslims. Even by the US government's own statistics, about 212,638 Muslims have been affected directly by its policies.
No one will know for sure if another attack will happen or not. Many people get very angry but only a few become killers. The same is true for Muslims. It is possible that some angry and depressed individuals, instead of getting involved in general criminal behavior, combine this anger with their hate of the Iraq war, the plight of Palestinians, as well as their sense of victimization at the racism and/or discrimination Muslims continue to face in the US.
All of this makes it plausible that some Muslims faced with a high level of stress, anger and desperation may take the law into their own hands. At least twice in the past, two people with Muslim-sounding names in America have complained of consistent racial harassment before they unleashed their guns.
Government leaders predict it is only a matter of time that another terrorist attack happens in the US.
How can the Muslim community here help prevent such a possibility? Can we mediate anger into positive energy? Can the right Fatwas against killing innocent civilians come out before, rather than after the fact?
It is not an easy task for law enforcement or the community to clinically identify a potential killer, whether it's a Columbine high-style attack, an Oklahoma City-type killer or a potential suicide bomber. But there is much that can be done for the noble cause of saving human lives, which is like saving all of humanity in the eyes of our Creator.
A combination of efforts on the part of the Muslim Community and a change in the US government's policy towards Muslims in America can reduce the likelihood of someone losing their mind and committing terrorism.
Here are some things the Muslim Community and our government can do.
The role of Imams and community leaders
The Masjid is still the main communication vehicle and organizing forum for Muslims in America. Each large city has several mosques that have higher budgets than any national Muslim organization, more finances and a better capacity to communicate and mobilize the Muslim community. Imams and community leaders are also among the few individuals that virtually all Muslims turn to in times of distress. Here's how they can help:
1. Incorporate in Khutbas (sermons) the following facts and topics while using Quran and Hadith to provide an Islamic perspective:
- killing civilians by the military, groups or by individuals is wrong and sinful
- not speaking out against Zulm (oppression) is wrong
- we have rights as citizens and we should use them by empowering our communities
- the Iraq war is wrong
- we are not alone. A large number of churchgoing Christians are against the Iraq war, as are the majority of our neighbors
- the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors are the same in Islam
- harming a non-Muslim is as much of a sin as harming a Muslim in the eyes of Allah.
- The first Islamic society, Madinah, came into being with a contract between the Muslim minority, polytheists and People of the Book for a common cause. This is outlined in the wathiqa known as the first surviving written constitution of the world.
- peaceful coexistence with those of other faiths throughout Muslim history
- suicide is forbidden in Islam
- if Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, did not allow killing civilians for his cause, there is no higher cause than his which can allow taking lives.
- a killer loses his/her faith as soon as they kill someone unless they repent, reaffirm their faith, and commit to a life of virtue.
- a killer goes straight to hellfire if s/he does not repent and submit to legal remedy for his/her victims
- how to deal with anger
- how to deal with stress
- the state of the ummah and our responsibility, including the limits of what we can and are expected to do by God
- an explanation of the verses of the Quran that are often abused by anti-Islamic interpretations.
I know that many Imams are giving Khutbas on these and similar topics. It would be good if they shared their notes with others.
2. Be more accessible to the Muslims they serve. Are Imams listening to their audiences? Sermons can be more effective if you get feedback from your audience afterwards. With this two-way communication, if Imams and leaders notice anyone making comments that indicate an individual is showing signs of extremism or is in danger of committing a crime, or they notice extremist groups gaining influence on mosque attendees, they can address this effectively.
3. Deal with fringe groups abusing the freedom of Masjids. Masjids are more open places than churches. Anyone can access a Masjid, whether they are a member or not. Most Masjids don't have membership or donation requirements. Most don't even have a resident Imam or a full-time caretaker. With this openness towards all comes a problem. Some people start conducting their own study circles. While I love this historic Islamic openness of the Masjid, we must provide counter- arguments to those who further Muslim isolation from society in our Masjids. The mosque leadership should have a transparent process whereby they deny these fringe groups free access to Masjid facilities, especially in cases where a young or a new Muslim may be vulnerable to their missionary zeal without an Imam on staff to guide him or her. The process of dealing with these ideologies should be open, democratic, and subject to critical scrutiny. An unfair process always creates more problems than it resolves. The groups that preach the following ideas are harmful to community life from my perspective, although they may not necessarily preach violence:
- It is Haram to vote.
- You cannot make friends with people of other faiths
- Politics is Haram
- It is Haram to become a citizen of the US
- America is Darul harb (abode of war)
- It is not Haram to cheat on taxes, commit fraud and other crimes in America since it is Darul Harb
- Working with other faith groups on a common cause is wrong
There should be open, critical discussions about the problem posed by these thoughts/groups within the Board of Directors, as well as through sermons to the general public. Imams and the boards of Masjids should be particularly vigilant about groups that preach against any type of diversity, whether it is of differing opinions within the Muslim Ummah or of various faiths. We must not, however, assume that anyone who holds these views is automatically prone to harming others. Freedom of religion and thought are God-given rights which must be extended to those among Muslims who do not agree with our interpretation.
4. Address extremism head on. If Imams notice an individual becoming increasingly angry or adopting extreme views, the Imam and the Masjid leadership need to immediately speak with the individual, advise them, correct their erroneous views and help them divert their energies in the right direction. This will require rethinking about how our Masjids work.
5. More opportunities for younger people. Are our young Muslims fully connected with the community? Are we listening to them? Are there positive leadership opportunities for them in the community? Why do so many of them want to change their names? What goes on with them in the public school system where 99 percent of Muslims are educated in terms of social, racial and religious pressures? Have we done scientific surveys of our youth's opinions? None of the Muslim schools, Maddrassas or weekend Islamic schools I know teach anything negative towards American society. But do Muslim children have supplemental education and enhanced support to compete in a society that is increasingly hostile towards Muslims? Are they becoming confident Muslims and winning citizens or are they trying to hide from the pressures? How much of our budget goes towards supporting our youth through youth camps, encouraging their interaction with children of other faiths, scouting, drug abuse rehabilitation and mental health?
6. Confront those who condone terrorism. This means that if someone is overheard approving of terrorism, they must be spoken to privately or addressed immediately in a careful manner. It should be pointed out to them that their view contradicts Islam, which not only calls for justice, but also insists on following due process and preserving the sanctity of human life.
7. In the extreme and rare possibility that you know someone is about to commit a crime, it is of utmost importance to contact law enforcement. We should remember that it is our duty to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. This is similar to a case of an abusive husband threatening to kill his wife. He must immediately be reported to the police before he commits a horrific crime. The duty of saving human life transcends all bonds and it is the most Islamic thing to do.
Channel Anger into Positive Energy for Justice
Many Muslims are frustrated when Imams don't speak on topics of relevance.
Almost all Muslims are against the Iraq war, prison abuse, discrimination and racial profiling, but not many Imams speak against this in their sermons. The state of fear is dictating silence. But the silence will not help.
When Imams don't speak about issues that matter to Muslims, like those listed above or on topics like domestic violence, gender and ethnic diversity and transparency within Muslim institutions, they start losing the audience.
Imams must speak on issues that concern the community. This will strengthen their communication channels. Muslims will feel that their leaders are speaking out on things that matter to them. Many churches speak out about these issues and a number of mosques have been doing so as well. Now it's time for more Imams to add their voices.
If Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, the National Council of Churches and some liberal Rabbis can speak about the plight of Palestinians, so can Muslims. By completely depoliticizing mosques and sermons, Imams are alienating their young audience further. The sermons are becoming irrelevant. You cannot guide the community if you are so far away from what the community is feeling.
A majority of Americans are now against war in Iraq. There are many faith groups who actively preach and mobilize against it. An interfaith partnership with peace and justice groups can channel anger into positive energy towards a better policy on the part of America, which will save lives.
We must preach using the power of persuasion with patience and endurance. I firmly believe in the sense of fairness of our neighbors. Conversation is the key. There are more requests for Muslim speakers from people of other faiths than Muslims can provide. The voices of citizens, protests and votes are the only legitimate vehicles available for change. Have Muslims mastered the art of using our rights to influence America? Have we devoted enough time and money to develop alliances for peace and justice? Do we only speak when it is a Muslim cause or are we full partners in the civic life of our society? Are we empowering our communities so they don't feel powerless and voiceless?
If anger and frustration is not channeled into positive energy, the mainstream Muslim community may lose the young and the restless to some known or secret preacher whose rhetoric may directly or indirectly facilitate or incite criminal behavior. Sometimes that secret preacher may be an FBI agent as has happened in several cases in the last few years, when some Muslims inclined to extremism were entrapped by FBI.
I have never heard an Imam in America preaching violence and crime. However, one well-known Imam did tell me that he heard Egyptian Shaikh Omar Abdul Rahman suggesting in response to a question that Muslims can rob banks in America to fund a fight against the Egyptian government. Now serving time in a US prison, essentially for his speech, the visiting Egyptian Shaikh was not only physically blind but completely unaware of how he was being set up by these type of questions. While torture in Egypt and the cause of freedom and democracy there is legitimate, the use criminal means to support it will not be justified by any Imam I know of. However, those Imams who knew about his rhetoric should have collectively clarified that his ruling is Islamically wrong.
Silence is not the solution.
But Muslims as citizens can only do so much. A lot can be done by our government to facilitate Muslim participation in society.
What the American Government can do: use the Best Assets to Protect America
The American government is spending billions of dollars to "win the hearts and minds of Muslims" abroad. However, it has refused to consider a strategy that will assure victory on this front: treat your Muslims as you treat your Christians. Muslims are not suspects, but assets for civil society. A first-class Muslim citizen can be a first-class partner.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, wrote a day after the July 7, 2005 London bombings that, "if it's a Muslim Problem, it Needs a Muslim Solution." While I do not agree with everything in Friedman's column, I do agree with the title. Muslims in America, as individuals committed to their faith and their country, are in a unique position to do this.
Put Muslims on the Policy Tables
Although it is primarily a responsibility of Muslims that they empower themselves through their civic participation, government policies can, nevertheless, facilitate this process. Stop listening to those sworn enemies of Islam who make our government stop the likes of Yusuf Islam and Tariq Ramadan from entering America. You cannot just collect a bunch of Islamophobic "experts" to dictate US policies towards the Muslim world. They will lead you straight into creating another terrorist factory like Iraq.
And don't look for an alliance of "willing" Muslims. America must talk to the established Muslim leadership as it exists, not a manufactured one. Allow your Muslims to talk and be ready for a lot of critical feedback on issues ranging from foreign policy to civil liberties to double standards in terms of freedom and democracy in the world.
Once on the table at think tanks, in the State Department, and in the Homeland Security Department, Muslims are likely to discuss what policies may help America.
Give Your Muslims Due Process of Law
Muslims in America are living in a virtual internment camp that has been built around the community. From a Muslim perspective, it is almost impossible to trust law enforcement in this country. After all, why should you report anyone to law enforcement if you know:
- they will be abused in custody
- they will not get a fair trial
- you will be forced to become an FBI agent or
- you yourself may possibly be implicated
In order for Muslims to become helpful partners in our efforts for saving lives, America must not fudge on its principles. That means absolutely fair and open trials for Muslims and other minorities charged with any crimes. This is a major crisis in the US justice system today, one that a Muslim comedian pointed out in his act. "African-Americans complain they can't get a fair trial. Muslims can't get any (emphasis mine) trial," he said.
Twenty-eight American Muslim charities have been banned by the US government. Millions of dollars in donations have been eaten up by the US Treasury Department but not one of the charities has been tried since the crackdown on these organizations began almost four years ago.
Muslims becoming first-class citizens at this moment is the duty of Muslims as well as that of our government. Not only will both benefit but it may also help prevent further loss of lives at home and abroad.
If we are expected to brace for another 50 years of war, let's spend some time now to study what the last four years have brought us and how we can do better.
Photo Attribution: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plaque_in_Russel_Square.JPG