Last Thursday, I attended an event hosted by the Muslim Student Association as part of their peace and coexistence week. The event was about raising awareness and appreciation for the various cultures within the Muslim community. Muslims read their poems, played music, sang, and gave presentations on Sufism/Islamic spirituality. There were many non-Muslims in attendance and it was great to hear how previous events during the week had excellent turnouts as well. As I drove home, I felt like all of us made a huge difference.
When I checked my e-mail that night, a news report about a man opening fire at a military base appeared on the Yahoo homepage. I prayed, as many Muslim-Americans did, that the shooter wasn’t a Muslim. The last thing we needed the media to get hyped up about was a Muslim-American murdering fellow Americans in the armed forces. When the man’s Muslim affiliation was revealed, I was devastated.
My thoughts and prayers went out to the victims and their friends and families. Simultaneously, as details slowly unfolded and as CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) released immediate condemnations of the incident, I felt like we took one step forward, but then two steps backward. I am still worried about a backlash on the Muslim community. Muslim-Americans have been suffering from hate crimes, discriminatory acts, prejudice, and media stereotyping/propaganda since the atrocity on 9/11, and although many Muslim-Americans have been speaking out, polls and surveys have found that negative attitudes and perceptions of Islam and Muslims have been on the increase.
I am not surprised by the Islamophobia that has resulted from this. It has been going on since September of 2001; what else is new? In typical Islamophobic fashion, Senator Joe Lieberman called the incident an “act of Islamist extremism.” Despite warnings not to jump to conclusions from Army officials and the President himself, Lieberman concluded: “There are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act,” Lieberman.
In other words, “terrorism” is a term reserved only for Muslims. Yeah, we’ve been through this lesson before (see my post, “‘Terrorist’ Means ‘Muslim'”).
Conservative author, David Gaubatz, who has labeled President Obama a “Muslim” among other things, explicitly called for “a professional and legal backlash against the Muslim community and their leaders.” If that is not advocating hate and violence against an entire group of people, then I don’t know what is! Oh, and televangelist Pat Robertson threw in some Lovely words, too: “You’re dealing with not a religion, you’re dealing with a political system, and I think we should treat it as such, and treat its adherents [Muslims] as such as we would members of the communist party, members of some fascist group.”
Raising suspicion about Muslims, vilifying Islam, and then expecting Muslims to answer or “explain” what happened (as if we have some kind of special “insight” into these things) is reflective of our society’s Islamophobia and inability to use its common sense. When a White “Christian” man blows up a building in Oklahoma, his religion or race is not put on trial. As Brian Ross writes:
When a couple of white kids shoot up a school, it is a tragedy, and a search for mental defect. Bring on a shooting at a military base that involves an Arab-American though, and the media does everything that it can to shout “TERRORISM” without really saying it.
Jerry Campbell, the president of the Claremont School of Theology, adds:
As a “Methodist-American,” I do not fear for my safety after a fellow Methodist commits a heinous crime… And the churches of my tradition have no need to renounce the deeds of an outlier when one of our own goes astray. As a Methodist-American, these are not my realities. But for Muslim communities, this is their America.
It is a relief to see General George Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, expressing concerns for Muslim-Americans, especially Muslims serving in the military. I have a relative serving in the military and I know these concerns resonate with Muslim-American soldiers deeply. One of his statements bothered me though (emphases added):
To those members of the United States military who are Muslims, thank you for protecting our nation, thank you for standing up against the people who are trying to hijack your religion.”
It’s clear to me that General Casey Jr.’s concerns are genuine, but I think it’s important to break away from this false notion that Islam has been “hijacked.” Islam has not been hijacked — not by Nidal Malik Hasan, not by Saddam Hussein, not by Osama bin Laden, and not even by corrupt and wealthy Muslim “leaders” in Muslim majority countries. Sure, much of the violence committed by those who self-identify as Muslim contain religious symbolism or slogans, but there are many other complex factors that contribute to their violence. It is not simply religion.
Anyone who has studied Edward Said or postcolonial theory would argue that most of the violence in places like Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan are a result of post-colonialist liberation ideologies. Palestine is occupied by the oppressive Israeli military, and Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded, bombed, and occupied by US forces. It is impossible to imagine such war and chaos without resistance. The military superpowers cannot stomp the boot of oppression upon the oppressed and expect them to submit without retaliation. As we have seen, resistance from those parts of the world express themselves in religious manners — shouting “Allahu akbar,” citing the Qur’an and Hadith, and even interpreting the conflict as some sort of “cosmic battle.” Similarly, there are complex factors to be taken into account when one questions the motives of Nidal Malik Hasan. They do not justify or excuse his actions, but they make us see a larger picture instead of making ridiculous accusations that the religion of Islam had something to do with it. Hasan acted upon himself, not because a religion “told him” to do so. His opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are clear, but murdering fellow Americans is not the Islamic way of dealing with this situation. His decision to murder was his own as an individual and his case should be treated as such.
No one has changed the Qur’anic text. No one has replaced the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, with another religious figure in our Islamic tradition. Islam, like any religion, can be manipulated and used by extremists for their own radical ideologies, but the actual message of the religion is not closed off to interpretation. It is open for interpretation, and it has been for centuries. And perhaps the most important point of all, the overwhelming majority of Muslims — an estimated 1.5 billion people — are non-violent and interpret Islam as a peaceful religion. How can Islam be “hijacked” when the majority of its followers do not resort to violence?
Muslims have never stopped defining themselves. Islam is our way of life and no one “hijacks” that from us. No one bars us from Islam or forces us to change the way we believe about our faith. Furthermore, our identities are not limited to the stereotypes and Islamophobic nonsense spewed out by bigots and media personalities alike. I am a Muslim, and I am also an American. We have multiple identities just like everyone else. Only now are we hearing about the 20,000+ Muslims serving in the military, but why did we need a horrible act of violence to occur in order for us to see this fact? Why do we only need to ease fear and “suspicion” about Muslim-Americans when murders are committed by members of all ethnic and religious groups?
Muslims around the world continue to speak out, as they always have been. Acclaimed Muslim-American author, Kamran Pasha, has written a brilliant piece called, “The Big Lie About Muslim Silence on Terrorism.” His post includes an extensive list of Muslim leaders and organizations that have condemned violence all over the world. If we were to accuse the non-Muslim White population of being inherently violent against other races or religious groups over the centuries, media and society would be demanding for their organizations to speak out and condemn the actions of those who share the same religious or racial background. If we looked at the religious affiliations of those who committed murders, robberies, and other horrible crimes, we would be saying, “Christianity has been hijacked,” or “Judaism has been hijacked,” or “Hinduism has been hijacked,” and so on.
No one “hijacked” Islam. If anything has been hijacked, it is our own common sense, otherwise we wouldn’t be so quick to generalize about a religion or an entire group of people before a sensible fellow comes along and helps us come to the realization that, “oh yeah, we don’t expect non-Muslim White people to answer for crimes and murders committed by other non-Muslim White people!”
Gee, why didn’t we think of that before? How’s White privilege, for starters?