The last time I went to Jummah, I had to keep shifting positions so I wouldn't fall asleep during the Khutbah. The Khateeb was as usual tying in his discussion of the Quran and Sunnah with the state of the Muslims in the world today. He reminded the congregation that if one part of the Muslim Ummah is in pain, the whole body should hurt and react. Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Gujrat, are suffering, and the Muslim world is sitting still. Predictably, the lecture ended with a plea for money for Palestine, and when I donated a few dollars on my way out a few minutes later, I was handed a calendar. This calendar contained pictures of dead, bleeding, crying Palestinians, and my heart jerked so hard when I saw the first picture that I ripped the page.
Why, I wondered, can't I ever go to the Masjid and hear something that is not meant to make me feel guilty for being happy, healthy, well-fed, and an American? We, as American Muslims, are admittedly very blessed to live here and enjoy the benefits of America. But, this is not something to be ashamed of. Rather, we should realize that we are in an incredible position to build bridges between the East and West. These bridges, these channels of communication, will never be created unless we pull ourselves out of our rut. This means we cannot continue blasting ourselves, our community, and more importantly, the "West", for the problems of the world. The first step towards finding a solution to the problems between the east and west is to acknowledge that there is a problem, but constant Khutbas about the west‚s desire to annihilate the Muslim world is not acknowledgement. It is simply blaming, fingers often pointed away from the source of the problem, so that even the actions taken (i.e. collecting donations for Palestinians) are not actually targeting the real problem: lack of communication, understanding, and respect between Muslims and the Western world.
Since the Muslims lost the last port in Spain, we have been bitterly resentful of the Christian world's treatment of our religion, our cultures, our people. The western world has similarly dehumanized and demonized the Muslims, and centuries of reinforcement of these ideas have polarized our societies to the extent that 9/11 happened in the name of Islam. We must all realize, however, that all this is ancient history, and that we, as American Muslims, must stride past these misconceptions and resentments to create understanding and reconciliation.
I believe the first step of this process will begin at a micro level. It will begin when all of the Muslims in this country evaluate the privileges, rights, and dignities conferred upon them by the Constitution of the United States. It will begin when we begin remembering that after a group of maniacs killed thousands of innocent Americans, the leader of the free world took off his shoes and walked into the Masjid in Washington DC. In front of billions, he stood with naked feet in our place of worship and proclaimed that Muslim Americans were not to be harassed, not to be blamed for the actions of a tiny group of maniacs. It will begin when we realize that no Muslim leader, today or in the past thousand years, would have done the same thing had Christian or Jewish or Hindu terrorists crashed planes into a Muslim city. It will begin when we remember that it was the Christians, the Jews, and the Hindus who formed human chains around our Masjids after 9/11.
Instead of blaming Americans for not caring about the suffering of Muslims, we should ask ourselves how much we care about the suffering of Americans. How many of us can honestly say that we help the poor and the homeless, the orphaned and the handicapped of our American communities? How many of us ever go to town hall meetings when they are discussing the state of our schools, the drug problems on the streets, the needs of the elderly? Compare that with how many of us hiss angrily at CNN when news of Iraq and Chechnya hits the screens. We happily contribute to help the orphans of Kashmir, yet hesitate in dropping a dollar into Salvation Army buckets during Christmas. Why should the Americans care about "our" suffering, when we never rush in to alleviate theirs?
And how long will it take before we realize that there is no "our" and "theirs"? We, the Americans, are all one people. We have the same rights and the same obligations. Until we begin seeing and caring about the suffering of our own American neighbors as well as the suffering of people across the world, we will not be fulfilling those obligations.
It is time now for Muslim Americans to seize the day, to actively knock down the biases and misconceptions blocking communication between the east and west. There are many ways this can be done, but I will name only a few. We must begin channeling the talents of our students in new directions, into fields where Muslims are severely underrepresented. We need talented Muslims to stop beating down the doors of medical schools and start becoming lawyers, journalists, philosophers, teachers, actors, and politicians. We need to reach out to the American community from all directions, and to become a vital part of American life and thinking. We must be involved in more than just discussions about foreign policy. We must attend school meetings, town hall debates, neighborhood parties, and show Americans that we are also concerned members of this community.
We must stop our parents from rejecting involvement in American society by clinging to their false belief that they will return to "their" countries after they have raised us.
We must cease treating our Masjids as our reprieve from a foreign culture, and instead open the doors of every mosque and invite in America, displaying the beauty of our religion and sharing it with this society. Also, we should remember that in the short time that Muslims have been present in America, we have accomplished marvelous things and helped both Muslims and non-Muslims through our contribution to this society. Never acknowledging these accomplishments forces us to adopt defeatist views.
I am often struck with the conviction that God has given me a life in this country, in this tumultuous time, for a reason. There is some task He wants me to accomplish. I am convinced that this task has something to do with living up to the challenge of being a responsible, active, and thoughtful Muslim American.
(Many of the thoughts expressed here have been inspired by the ideas of Samiha Husain and from the Nawawi Foundation's conference entitled "Three Decades of Islam in America 1970-2000").