Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

How 9/11 Changed America

Some of you who are reading this have no idea what America was like before 9/11. This post is a reflection on how I think America has changed since then.

I’ve heard people say that they think 9/11 brought us closer as Americans. They point to the way we responded to the crisis when the towers came down: all those who willingly risked (and sometimes lost) their lives in order to bring others to safety. I’ve heard about the bravery and courage of so many on that day, it’s hard to not be stirred by their stories.

But the way we respond to something bad in our lives doesn’t just mean how we respond at the moment the bad thing happens. It also means how we respond afterward, when the sky has cleared and the dead have been buried (those who could be found, that is). I’m proud of the Americans who reached out to help after 9/11. But I’m not proud of what we have become since then.

Before 9/11 we thought we were invincible. We thought nothing could touch us. I understand that 9/11 changed that belief and made us paranoid about it happening again. I’m not saying that those fears are unfounded. But instead of making us more empathetic about all the world’s people who experience similar (or worse) tragedies, we adopted a “Poor me!” attitude. 9/11 was horrible and shocking, but it pales in comparison to things that happen daily in other parts of the globe (or even our own nation).

It’s normal when you’re anxious to try to find a target for your fears. If you can identify the enemy, it gives you something to focus on. We were anxious after 9/11 and we needed to know how to protect ourselves from it happening again. I understand that. But I don’t think that excuses the distrust and hatred of not just Muslims, but of anyone who is “different.” Do you think it’s an accident that people are more emotional about immigration than they used to be? We think we’ll be safe if we keep all foreigners out of America (except for, of course, the acceptable ones).

Ten years ago, conservatives were critical of liberals, but they weren’t as outspoken as they are today. And they were more civil, even during political campaigns. Now conservative talk-show hosts say the most outrageous and hateful things they can think of, and no one blinks an eye. (That’s not entirely true: there are plenty of people who don’t like it, but we don’t have the voice conservatives do.) And it’s not just the pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham, it’s also the politicians. Judging by the last presidential campaign, I shudder just thinking about how uncivil the conversation will be this time around.

I’m also appalled at how willing people are to give up their individual freedoms. Homeland Security is our country’s “secret police force.” They have powers we don’t even know about. We have no idea to what extent they can snoop around in our lives and it’s all legal. We can be detained without reason or with no representation. All it takes is the suspicion that we might have something to do with terrorism.

And to make matters worse, we’re just supposed to sit and take it. Protesting is compared to committing treason. Right after 9/11, even comedians toned down their political satire; they were that afraid of being branded as unpatriotic. I remember a hush over the country, as if everyone was tip-toeing around the elephant in the room: the reactionary policies of a paranoid President and government.

Has America learned anything in the past ten years about courage? Courage to stand up for our convictions, to speak our minds, to fight for what we believe is right? Have we learned anything about charity, about helping others, even at great cost to ourselves?  And most of all, have we learned anything about tolerance? Are we more aware that we are all interconnected? Has the world become smaller for us, or is America still the center of our universe?

When the towers came down on 9/11/01, it was like a nuclear bomb went off. And ten years later, we’re still dealing with the fall-out.

[Cross-posted on my other blog, Femagination.]

Targeting Muslims in the “Fight” Against Terror

The congressional hearings about radical Islam which were initiated by Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, started yesterday. It’s too soon to tell what effect the hearings will have on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America, but I fear it won’t be a good one. King is on record as saying that there are too many mosques in America and that “80-85% of them are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists.” Yet he insists that he is not out to “get” Muslims in general.

He may believe that his motives are pure, that he is only interested in making the U.S. safe from terrorist attacks, but he has been criticized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike for targeting a whole community for the actions of a minuscule fraction of it. King has also charged the Muslim community with negligence for not adequately policing its own members. Many Muslims feel that this charge is unfair and that expecting them to be watchdogs for terrorists is unrealistic.

King seems to think that Muslims should be able to recognize terrorists in their midst. He bases this on his assumption that terrorists all act alike and come from similar backgrounds (Islamic ones). Nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, and converts as well as born Muslims. (They’ve also been male and female.) It’s not that easy to tell what’s in a person’s heart, especially when he’s trying to hide his true intentions from the world.

The fact is, not all terrorists are Muslim. Now, that’s a shocker. An article on Think Progress.org tells us that:

A January 2011 terrorism statistics report — compiled using publicly available data from the FBI and other crime agencies — from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) shows that terrorism by Muslim Americans has only accounted for a minority of terror plots since 9/11. Since the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, Muslims have been involved in 45 domestic terrorist plots. Meanwhile, non-Muslims have been involved in 80 terrorist plots.

So why is King targeting Muslims? Could it be, as John Esposito says in the “On Faith” department of The Washington Post, that the hearings are really “Islamophobia draped in the American flag“?

I think that’s pretty obvious. Part of the problem is that when people hear the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” they automatically think of Muslims and Islam. But there are many kinds of terrorism from “eco-terrorism” to “anti-tax terrorism.” (Not to mention the terrorist actions of some anti-abortionists, which include murder.)

This may not be a popular view, but I think another part of the problem is that Americans are paranoid and hysterical when it comes to terrorism. We have turned the term into anything that threatens the American people. The truth is, not all the threats that we face in the U.S. can be considered terrorism. If another country invaded the U.S., that wouldn’t be terrorism, it would be war. (Think of the attack on Pearl Harbor—was that called an act of terrorism? Would it be called that today?)

What about the threat from our own nuclear reactors, or corporately-dumped chemicals that poison our water supplies? Or what we’ve done to various segments of the population? (Blacks: slavery; Native Americans: annihilation.) Oh, that’s right, those actions didn’t threaten all Americans, so they must not have been terrorist. Because as we all know, terrorism comes from outside. If it’s home-grown, it’s not terrorism. No, let me amend that: if it’s not Muslim, it’s not terrorism.

The FBI doesn’t agree. They keep statistics on and investigate any “unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The defacement of a synagogue is terrorism. So is burning a cross in the yard of “unwanted” neighbors. What we did to Native Americans was most certainly terrorism. So was the murder of Dr. George Tiller at the hands of an anti-abortionist (but did you hear his killer being called a terrorist?).

The truth is, there are a lot of different definitions of terrorism. But not one of them says that a terrorist is always a Muslim.

Should Muslims Have to Explain Terrorism?

Congressman Keith Ellison wrote an interesting article for the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post.  He raises the question, “Is it fair to expect Muslims to explain or condemn the actions of Islamic terrorists just because they’re Muslim?” He makes his point by comparing media depictions of black people with that of Muslims:

No serious journalist would ask a random black guy with a briefcase on the street to explain the pathology of an African American criminal because of the coincidence of shared skin color. But serious journalists [call] on ordinary Muslim Americans to explain the behavior of homicidal maniacs and extremists, thereby making [a] link between the crazies and the mainstream community.

To add insult to injury, too often journalists ask people who are critical of Islam to explain Islam.  For an example of what I mean, watch this video:

In all fairness, Christiane Amanpour was trying to present both sides of the argument. But the ones that were critical of Islam are so off the charts that they cannot be considered to be credible critics. There is such a thing as constructive criticism and then there is unfair or even hurtful criticism. Too often the people that the media use to present the negative side of Islam have an agenda: they dislike (or even hate) Islam and want to present it in the worst possible light. Ellison writes:

The non-Muslim experts – Robert Spencer (leading anti-Muslim advocate in the Park51 Project controversy), Ayaan Hirsi Ali (prolific anti-Muslim writer), and Franklin Graham (said Islam “is a very evil and wicked religion”) – are well known, even famous, for spewing anti-Muslim hate.

I have often heard it said that Muslims don’t do enough to explain or condemn terrorism. But I resent the implication that I would have any idea what motivates terrorists simply because they call themselves Muslims. In fact, I don’t consider them to be true Muslims. They have nothing to do with me or my religion as I understand it. So why should I have to explain them?

Of course I condemn their actions, but there’s a difference between condemnation and apology, and I think the latter is what people really want. But that would be like expecting blacks to apologize for criminals who just happen to share their race. I share national origin with Timothy McVeigh but should I have to apologize for, let alone explain, his actions simply because we might have had a common ancestor?

Muslims should be prepared to explain their faith, but that’s not the same thing as explaining aberrations of the faith. I don’t know why Iran uses stoning as a method of execution or even why they execute adulterers. Or why some Muslims (but not only Muslims) perpetrate “honor killings” and female genital mutilation.

There is only one reason I can see why Muslims should be able to explain terrorism and that is to help people understand why it is incompatible with Islam. So, my answer to the title question is, Muslims should not have to explain terrorism because they themselves are terrorists, but because they want to educate people about what true Islam is.

Here is a good article about one source of Islamic extremism (found, of all places, in About.com’s topic of Agnosticism/Atheism). I particularly like the opening paragraph:

Too many critics of Islam, including atheists, fail to appreciate just how diverse and varied Islam can be. There are things you can say that apply to all or most Muslims, as is the case with Christianity, but there are many more things which only apply to some or a few Muslims. This is especially true when it comes to Muslim extremism because Wahhabi Islam, the primary religious movement behind extremist Islam, includes beliefs and doctrines not found elsewhere.

I believe it is important for Muslims to be well-versed in religious and political matters so that they can have intelligent conversations about Islam with those who are truly interested. But we shouldn’t have to answer those who are belligerent in their opposition to Islam. They aren’t seeking truth; they are only interested in broadcasting their version of it.