Thursday, September 15, 2011

Muslims in America: From fear to the future

The early stories are about fear.

Americans fear about Islam after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Muslims fear about what life holds for them in this nation.

The current stories are about crossing bridges, tentatively at times, but with some sense that there may be something better on the other side. Students of different faiths share service projects.  Adults begin to share their beliefs.

The stories of the future grow out of the histories of other beleaguered religious groups in this country – Catholics, Jews, Mormans.

The stories were told in many ways by many voices during a day-long seminar today at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. They were told by professors, by religious leaders, by students, by journalists.

The gathering was for members of the Religion Newswriters Association as it began its 67th annual conference. The session was hosted by Duke’s Islamic Studies Center.

First, the fear.

Eboo Patel, the founder and leader of the Interfaith Youth Corps, a dynamic voice for crossing those bridges that separate faith traditions, recalled the signs he saw at protests: “All I know about Islam I learned on Sept. 11.” They were signs reflecting the fear of Americans who knew little about Islam and who let the attackers who not only hijacked airplanes but who also hijacked Islam define this long, rich and varied religious tradition.

The fear is reflected more recently in signs opposing the use of Shariah law in America, the efforts in 16 states to ban the use of Shariah law – efforts based in a fear stoked up by those who would demonize Muslims with no basis in reality.

The fear was reflected in the experience of Nona Sherif as she arrived for classes two years ago at Duke and met a woman on her way to the bookstore who grabbed the cross around her neck and held it out towards Sherif with a look of terror on her face.

The fear was reflected in the phone call Patel received from his mother after efforts to build a Muslim community center in New York City burst in to a spasm of anti-Muslim feeling across the nation. She told Patel his kids’ names – Zane and Kalil – sounded to Islamic and he ought to Americanize them before it was too late.

Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered some facts as an antidote for Americans’ fears.

He recently published a book called The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists. He talked about the data he had gathered. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 175 arrests in this country for Muslims suspected or convicted of acts of terror. That’s not quite 18 a year … and some of those were arrested as they were headed to foreign lands like Somalia to join terrorist groups there.

Kurzman’s point is not that there are not threats from terrorists, but they are not anywhere near as overwhelming as the fear industry would have us believe. And, important in the context of this day’s discussion, they represent an infinitesimal fraction of the Muslims in this country.

Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke, does not deny that there is what he called “the cancer of Islamic terrorism” in this world. But he called for a better understanding of the roots of that terrorism not in the theology of Islam but in the political and economic actions of major world powers.

“Radicals, extremists, are not products of Islamic theology or Islamic societies,” he said. “They are products of deeply broken societies, products of American foreign policy, products of greedy economic policies.”

When someone challenged him on citing American foreign policy as a factor, he asked that as an American Muslim, he be given the same opportunity to call for a better foreign policy that other Americans have.

He also told one of the most compelling stories of the day. Last month, he was in Afghanistan, where for the first time in his life, he came face to face with Muslims who believed it is their duty to kill Christians and Jews.

“I went ballistic,” he told me later. He said he pulled a Koran out of his pocket and argued verse by verse with them. He was so shaken by the experience, he now plans to go back to Afghanistan every summer to build programs to counter that kind of ideology.

“There is a form of Islamic theology that prepares the ground for violence,” he acknowledged. “That theology is reinforced through certain foreign policies and economic policies. People who are not religious at all suddenly find resonance in that theology. It will take global efforts to eradicate this poison,” he said in explaining his hopes for this project in Afghanistan.

But in the midst of the fear, there are efforts in this country to find the bridges that will ease the fear.

Meredith Rahman, a sophomore at Duke studying French and biology, noted that the head of the Muslim Student Association on campus is not a Muslim. This is a bridge.

The other students all talked about the pressure they feel as Muslims in a largely non-Muslim environment to explain their faith, to act in proper ways, and yet they also described that as an opportunity to help shape a more pluralistic society.

Patel calls this an example of how Muslims in America are moving from “the architecture of the bubble to the architecture of the bridge.”

He noted that Muslim immigrants who came to this country initially focused on building their own institutions, on staying relatively separate from the dominant culture, much like Catholics and Jews did as their communities took root in America. That was the bubble.

The reaction to Sept. 11 changed that. Muslims came to realize that they had to engage the wider community, they had to become part of the American experience. Just as Catholics and Jews and Mormans faced deep-rooted prejudice at one time and now are part of the American mainstream, he sees that happening to Muslims as well.

“We are going to be part of the story of American opportunity and expansion,” Patel said.

(Patel and other speakers also cautioned that there are two very different Muslim experiences in the U.S. – the immigrant Muslim community that is getting most of the public attention, and the large African-American Muslim community, that has lived a very different experience in this country. He acknowledged the absence of the African-American Muslim view on this day.)

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