Notes From Babel

Advice to American Muslims

with 2 comments

I had a talk once with my Muslim friend, who was frustrated that Americans still don’t seem to accept Muslims into their culture, particularly in comparison to Jews, for example.  I suggested the first of the following suggestions below, and recently thought of some more.

1. American Muslims ought to be more upset about terrorism than anyone.  9/11 was a calculated attack against Americans, so American Muslims ought to be at least as upset as any other American.  And terrorism casts aspersions on Muslims’ religion and inhibits their acceptance into the American mainstream.  In other words, the social and psychological effects of terrorism hurt Muslims in America more than anyone else.  They ought to be leading the charge against the violence done either in the name of Islam or with its supposed blessing, by offering clear, forceful rebuttals to arguments suggesting the Koran endorses and/or mandates these atrocities.  There have been lots of wackos purporting to follow some brand of Christianity who wind up brainwashing and murdering lots of otherwise good folks.  The idea is to explain these people were off the reservation, following nothing like true Christianity and instead made up their own cockamamie doctrine, and were, well, wackos.  American Muslims need to do something similar.

Instead, a common response from American Muslims to this point has been a cool-headed psychoanalysis of terrorists, suggesting that while terrorism is to be flatly denounced, we ought to understand what has pushed them to this point.  But while there is indeed some interesting stuff here for the head-shrinkers, no one wants to hear the “I feel your pain” trope when it comes to those driving planes into our buildings yelling “Allahu Akbar.”  No one wants to talk about how we ought to peer into the subtle and complex inner workings of the terrorist mind so that we might understand his pain.  This is not to say we can’t ask those questions.  But when these sorts of sentiments dominate one’s thinking on the issue of terrorism, one comes off as entirely disengaged from the reality of the subject and wholly out of step with the rest of America.

2.  Somewhat less severe yet symbolically significant, American Muslims ought to be come out and condemn burkas. Modesty is fine.  In fact, American Muslims’ strong commitment to traditional moral values put them in the mainstream of conservative Americans.  But burkas are problematic in a number of ways.  Legally, they ostensibly pose a problem of state incursions into religious practices, such as when burka-wearers would purport to testify at trial.  There are also obvious security implications where a fashion custom prevents a person from being recognized.

Simply as a matter of custom, however, they’re weird.  At the outlet mall a couple of weeks ago I passed a couple of of burkas, who were apparently doing some shopping.  Though I couldn’t directly tell, I assumed there must have been people inside of them, judging by the general cut and surface area of the textile, and intuiting that the propulsion of a five-foot tall drape along the sidewalk at midday was best explained by positing some manner of anthropoid lurking about in the contents.  Even the little eyes peering out were difficult to discern, as the accompanying custom of burka wearers is to avoid eye contact.  (I imagine an enterprising fellow might think to introduce a periscope to the general design.)  Even diversity-loving, kumbaya-singing free spirits should be able to admit it’s off-putting.  Moreover, I am given to understand the burkas have nothing to do with Islam as a religion, but rather with certain regional customs.  Cultural tolerance is fine, but let’s encourage the home team Muslims to accelerate these new folks’ assimilation.  Americans like their beer cold, their TV loud, and their people with faces.

3. With respect to more current events, American Muslims ought to be deeply troubled that South Park and Comedy Central—the program and network who broadcast a single episode featuring the word “shit” in 162 separate instances—finally succumbed to censorship in its 201st episode, apparently due to to this warning/threat from an American convert to Islam featuring an image of the murdered and bleeding body of Theo Van Gogh.  There is something to be said for the sacking of our entertainment by those who find it easy to obtain laughs simply by pushing the envelope.  This, perhaps, is the cost of inexpensive production and distribution of culture.  (Though, I do admit, I find South Park hilarious.)  But one would like to think that it goes without saying that “culture war” is just an expression.  Aside from furthering the impression that the religion is intrinsically violent, the South Park matter just makes Islam seem deeply lame.

4. This leads to my final suggestion.  Given there are so many reasons Islam has left such a bad impression on Americans, it is lamentable that American Muslims are so uniquely awful in not only failing to seem to care about that negative impression, but that they are so disproportionately concerned with America’s relationship with Israel.  Without going into a big thing about it, I will say that I understand the skepticism over our foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel.  I read Walt and Mearsheimer’s book.  It seemed to make some sense.  But that’s neither here nor there.  No one likes a Johnny-one-note.  American Muslims need to get off the hobby horse and get concerned about some other causes, too.


[UPDATE: A friend forwarded me this article, entitled “Changing the Muslim conversation.”  While it contains perfectly valid points, it is nonetheless indicative of the problems I discuss above—namely, that American Muslims are far too disengaged from the cultural and ethical battles that the rest of America takes up with boundless enthusiasm.

So why, I ask you, is Abou Talha Al-Amreeki not written off as just another lunatic? Are his blue eyes and flowing brown beard giving him credibility even though Revolution Muslim has all of 12 followers? Muslims in general and the media in particular are misdirected. The ones offended by South Park must choose their battles, no pun intended. The media, following journalistic ethics, ought to do basic homework and interview representative organisations such as CAIR, Council of American-Islamic Relations and MPAC, Muslim Public Affairs Council, or individuals of scholarly credentials such as Dr Sherman Jackson, Dr Akbar Ahmed of American University or Dalia Mogahed (former President Obama’s adviser on Muslim relations), among many others all across North America.

Incidents like South Park unnecessarily endanger us all. Together we can change that if we alter the interaction by marginalising the violent and discoursing with the deserved. And, of course, keeping response to offence in perspective.

This advice—that American Muslims’ message ought to wait on journalists getting around to talking to Muslim religious scholars and policy wonks—is precisely the opposite of what is needed.  This advice suggests that American Muslims perhaps really aren’t all that upset that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are kept from drawing Muhammad snorting coke (as they did with Buddha) or watching internet porn (as they did with Jesus).  Instead, offer up a cool, reasoned, white paper reaffirming that the official position that violence is bad, but don’t get more exercised about the whole thing than absolutely necessary.]

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Culture, Islam

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. I couldn’t agree more with regard to point # 1. I had a Muslim friend who sent out a mass email to all his friends the day after 9/11 explaining why (according to him) the attack happened. Although he clearly didn’t feel happiness because of the attacks, he certainly had sympathy for people behind the attacks and did not display any for the victims.

    I don’t understand why there isn’t the same type of condemnation from American non violent muslims for violence as there are from similarly situated groups.


    April 30, 2010 at 3:15 pm

  2. Good advice. Maybe the message isn’t getting across, and more work needs to be done, but I do maintain that a majority of American Muslims do sincerely (already) speak in the passionate and clear angry terms that you think they should.

    The “Not in the Name of Islam” petition states: “We, the undersigned Muslims, wish to state clearly that those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent. No injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam. We repudiate and dissociate ourselves from any Muslim group or individual who commits such brutal and un-Islamic acts. We refuse to allow our faith to be held hostage by the criminal actions of a tiny minority acting outside the teachings of both the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

    “As it states in the Quran: ‘Oh you who believe, stand up firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even if it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor; for God can best protect both. Do not follow any passion, lest you not be just. And if you distort or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do.’” (Quran 4:135)


    May 4, 2010 at 8:59 pm

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