American Muslims are a part of the American fabric – and have been since before the Civil War. (Walden, Steven. Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, Harper-Collins, New York 2019) American Muslims have fought and died alongside Americans — for the United States — in both World Wars and in the wars and conflicts that followed, including those since 9/11. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower required that the military “dog tags” for American soldiers have four options: “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic, “J” for Jewish, and “I” for Islam, in recognition of their military service to the U.S.
Like American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, American Muslims are diverse in their beliefs. How American Muslims interpret and apply their Islamic beliefs at different moments in time varies widely, similar to other faiths. Islam has no single, world religious leader the equivalent of the pope, and not all Muslims interpret the Quran in the same way. The relative independence of American Muslims can be seen in the majority of American Muslim’s commitment to peace and American patriotism, which is the opposite of how Muslims are depicted by the media and some world and religious leaders when discussing Muslim extremists or terrorists.
In the weeks following 9/11, President George W. Bush made the point that American Muslims were grieving too and he characterized any backlash against American Muslims as unpatriotic. President Bush concluded that “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” and reiterated his conviction that Islam as it is practiced in the United States is consistent with democracy. In the years since 9/11, however, there has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., fueled in part by the failure of media and our leaders to make the distinction between Muslim terrorists and the beliefs held by the majority of American Muslims. Not all Muslims are terrorists; the majority of Muslim Americans are patriotic, and they believe in peaceful coexistence with other faiths consistent with American ideals.
In truth, both non-Muslim and Muslim Americans probably would agree that there is a fundamentalist strain of Islam fueling the rise of terrorism abroad and occasionally within the U.S. They would probably agree that radical Islam abroad is unlikely to disappear, at times contributing to misinformation and anti-Muslim sentiment within the United States. As Americans, we are faced with the challenge of responding to the spread of radical Islamic ideology that promotes intolerance and terrorism, while also supporting our American Muslim neighbors who promote peaceful coexistence, religious freedom, and American ideals.
Author Steven Walden, who studies Islam and promotes peaceful coexistence among religious faiths, recently wrote: “A noxious, fundamentalist strain of Islam is spreading and feeding the rise of global terrorism. The problem is not endemic to the entire region, but it involves more than just a few extremists. At its worst, a bastardized version of Islam has energized or provided a pretext for ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups. In some parts of the world, Muslim hatred of the West is pervasive… Meanwhile, persecution of Christians and other non-Muslims is growing around the world, often — though not exclusively — driven by Muslim governments.” (Walden, Steven. Sacred Liberty, p. 272) According to Walden, in some cases, Muslims in the United States have become “radicalized,” embracing the idea that Allah sanctions the murder of innocent, non-Muslim Americans. He writes, “When politicians and journalists insist that terrorists are simply isolated actors, disconnected from any religious motives, they are as wrong as those saying all Muslims are terrorists.” (Walden, Steven. Sacred Liberty, p. 272)
The problem is that this fundamentalist strain of Islam creates challenges for the United States. Walden writes, “the biggest obstacle to successful Muslim integration in the United States has been the role of money from Saudi Arabia. The boom in mosque construction in the past few decades was financed in part by money from Saudi Arabia, which advances an ultra-conservative form of Islam. At one point, more than half the budget of the Islamic Assembly of North America, which sends Qurans to prisons, came from Saudi Arabia. Many American mosques received books that peddled fundamentalist doctrine, including hatred of non-Muslims.” Social media, including Facebook, in many ways rewards the promulgation of extreme views, including hostility to Islam and hostility to the U.S. In addition, since the advent of social media, it has become far easier for a few people to disseminate toxic opinions and to promote hate with relative anonymity.
Walden concludes that Americans are under siege from Islamic radicalism, including both Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. In many ways, many American Muslims are attempting to push back and chart a new course for Islam that defies the radicalization of their faith. “‘We should not look to the Muslim world any more for leadership,’ declared W.D. Mohammed, probably the most significant Muslim leader in America after 9/11. ‘The hope is not there. Don’t expect anything from these governments but more disappointment, until they repent.’” (Walden, Steven. Sacred Liberty, p. 272)
Meanwhile, there may be a silver lining beneath the storm cloud of Islamic radicalism. It has highlighted in many ways Americans’ conviction as a people that religious freedom — our search for God— is among the freedoms that most Americans hold dear. Our laws already recognize that religious individuals need the freedom not only to worship privately, but to associate with others of their own faith and to express their religious views publicly. Even against a backdrop of sometimes violent divisions, America’s cultural values and legal protections provide American Muslims an opportunity to educate others about their faith and allows them to fight back against the radicalized Islam that threatens their values and misrepresents their religious beliefs. It has also provided a backdrop for individuals from other faiths to provide their support to American Muslims under siege. Although we don’t always agree with or love our neighbors, there is strength in our diversity and American values that has helped us weather storms together in the past to emerge even stronger.
Cultural change and periodic social upheavals are inevitable in a diverse and dynamic country such as ours, but with the grace of God Americans will recognize that, as a people, we cannot remain the same if we are to face the challenges of tomorrow. There is a time for everything. As so eloquently stated in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: “There is a time for everything: A time to be born; a time to die; a time to plant; a time to harvest; a time to kill; a time to heal; a time to destroy; a time to rebuild; a time to cry; a time to laugh; a time to grieve; a time to dance; a time for scattering stones; a time for gathering stones; a time to hug; a time not to hug; a time to find; a time to lose; a time for keeping; a time for throwing away; a time to teat; a time to repair; a time to be quiet; a time to speak up; a time for loving; a time for hating; a time for war; a time for peace. What Christ teaches us is that “now” is the time for us to obey God; to do this, we need only to focus on loving God — and one another, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, other faith, or atheist.
Jesus says, “… ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second most important is similar: ‘Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.’ All the other commandments and all the demands of the prophets stem from these two laws and are fulfilled if you obey them. Keep only these tand you will find that you are obeying all others.” Matthew 22:37-40
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