As 2011 begins, perhaps it is time to reflect on the events of the past year, specifically events that exposed a festering tension between two segments of the American population: Muslims and the rest of the U.S. citizenship.
The year 2010 witnessed the hotly debated issue of Lower Manhattan’s Park51 community center, also known as the “ground zero mosque.” The year 2010 also witnessed Juan Williams’ infamous, “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, ‘you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims,’ I get worried. I get nervous.”
Of course, over the past year, the mantras that “Muslims killed us on 9-11” and “all terrorists are Muslims” was repeated countless times as well.
This same tension was not restricted to the United States, but was apparent in the French “burqa ban.” A ban on all face coverings for the purpose of security and identification is understandable; however, the word “burqa,” the head covering some Muslim women choose to wear, was cited specifically. This followed at the heels of the popular Swiss referendum on the ban against mosque minarets in 2009, despite the Swiss government’s opposition.
Here in the United States, these same tensions motivated some talk show hosts to speculate that the top of the proposed Park51 center mosque would overlook ground zero, “where the faithful can look out and gloat over their victory.” Whether or not Park51 should be built at this location certainly is one question, but the more interesting question that begs for an answer is the motivation of the deep-rooted suspicions with which Muslims are viewed.
Given the memory of Sept. 11, a mere nine years ago, some of these feelings are understandable. However, the vitriol that is vented belies a deeper distrust, which admittedly, some Muslims have earned and brought upon the rest of the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, some people jump to the conclusion that because some Muslims act in a certain way toward people of other faiths, then this implies that Islam must advocate it. Perhaps this is the flawed reasoning that fuels the misconception of pluralism in Islam and results in the tensions that are directed toward all Muslims.
For example, it doesn’t help that ethnic tribes in Nigeria, some of whom are Muslim, are rivals of other tribes which may be Christian. Unfortunately, this was due to the tensions brought on by the effects of colonialism, which lasted well into the mid-1900s.
Indigenous Muslim populations tend to view associates of their former colonial Christian masters with suspicion. These long-held animosities between the tribes, and often for reasons that had nothing to do with religion, resulted in eruptions of violent clashes. Though the root causes of the conflicts were not religious, the resulting uproar was twisted into religious ethos and used to spurn the violence with dark religious overtones.
However, rather than these events being portrayed as acts of local ethnic conflicts, the media often promote them as holy wars. TV and radio stations routinely trot out self-professed “experts” on Islam whose biased opinions often are flagrantly false. These experts claim that “Islam” is the motivation, and Islam is to be blamed for the actions of these Muslims. Undoubtedly references will be made to verses in the Quran that are purported to justify attacks on innocent people who are not Muslim. These references are taken out of context because the verses preceding them are left out.
In other cases, the background information necessary to explain the verse is conveniently ignored. These “experts” often will conclude that Muslims want to forcibly convert as many people as possible. Either that or “they hate us because of our freedoms,” which only leads to the unsettling feeling in the minds of the public toward Islam.
Either conclusion would be amusing in its naivete if it weren’t for the gravity of the situation.
While it is true that the Quran refers to hell for people who are not Muslims, critics who point to this while ignoring similar references in the Bible only validate their hypocrisy. Virtually all religions promise a dark afterlife for those who do not adhere to that religion.
Islam considers life as a test for everyone, and teaches that belief in it and its practices is a fulfillment of that test. However, the Quran clearly states: “There is no compulsion in religion, for the right way is clear from the wrong way … ” (2:256)
In another place in the Quran, it states that only God has the right to judge people on their beliefs and actions. It is not the responsibility of any human being to enforce religious beliefs on anyone.
“And tell my servants that they should speak in a most kindly manner (unto … those who do not share their beliefs). Verily, Satan is always ready to stir up … discord between men; for verily, Satan is man’s foe … Hence, We have not … sent you (Unto men O Prophet) with power to determine their Faith.” (17: 53-54)
Islam accepts the individuality of each person and their aspirations of life, property and spirituality. The Prophet Muhammad was quoted to have said: “Whoever wronged a mustamin (a non-Muslim citizen in a Muslim land) or … burdened him beyond his capacity or took anything from him without the latter’s … will, I will be his accuser on the Day of Judgment.”
The Day of Judgment for Muslims is the day when everyone who was born in this world will account for all their actions before God. These verses and prophetic traditions were the reasons many of the Muslim rulers of the past were careful of their treatment of their subjects, both Muslim and non-Muslim. By and large, except for a few instances, the majority of Muslim lands in history were accepting of non-Muslims. Tolerance and inclusiveness were the norm rather than persecution and exile.
In 631 A.D., a delegation of 60 Christians arrived in Medina from an area close to Yemen that was known as Najran. The Prophet received them, and served them. They discussed with the Prophet the nature of God and the nature of Prophet Jesus. Despite theological disagreement between the Prophet Muhammad and them, the Prophet concluded a treaty with them.
These were the ideals that were laid down in the early years of Islam. Ideals which, unfortunately, sometimes Muslims did not adhere to, and even more unfortunately this disregard seems to be more prevalent now. However, admittedly, this disregard may be due to skepticism fueled by actions of Western leaders, such as the war in Iraq and its unprovoked invasion.
The U.S. and the Muslim worlds are at an impasse marked by suspicions on both sides; an impasse that is too dangerous and too destructive to maintain. Whatever the misguided reasons for the hijackers of Sept. 11, for every one of them there are thousands of other Muslims in the United States who abide by the laws and work for the common good.
Petty snipes by radio and TV commentators do nothing to further the respect and cooperation that are so necessary to thaw these tensions. Unlike their assertions that “Muslims killed us on 9-11,” there were dozens of Muslims too who perished in the carnage of that day. Islam and Muslims are a part of the hustle and bustle of Lower Manhattan and were a part of the World Trade Center towers as well.
Despite the hour-to-hour coverage that the Park51 center received, very little coverage was given to the news of the Muslim prayer room located on the 17th floor of the south tower; the prayer room that upon its collapse became the first ground zero mosque.
This Voices column was written by Ali Shareef, a graduate student in the College of Engineering, University of Maine, Orono. Columns on Islam are published in cooperation with the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono.