Laurie Goodstein�s article, �American Muslims Ask, Will We
Ever Belong?� was intended as a sympathetic reading of the concerns of US
Muslim communities facing increasing levels of hostility and fear. While
generally insightful and sensibly written, the article also highlights the very
misconceptions that riddle the bizarre debate pitting American Muslims against
much of the government, the mainstream media and most of the general public.
This is how Goodstein lays the ground for her discussion:
�For nine years after the attacks of Sept. 11, many American Muslims made
concerted efforts to build relationships with non-Muslims, to make it clear
they abhor terrorism, to educate people about Islam and to participate in
interfaith service projects. They took satisfaction in the observations by many
scholars that Muslims in America were more successful and assimilated than
Muslims in Europe.� (New York Times, September 5, 2010)
This argument is not Goodstein�s alone, but one repeated by
many in the media, the general public, and even among American Muslims
themselves. The insinuation of the above context is misleading, and the
timeline is selective.
True, it largely depends on who you ask, but there seem is
more than one timeline in this narrative. The mainstream interpretation
envisages the conflict as beginning with the hideous bombings on September 11,
2001. All that has happened since becomes justified with the claim that
�Muslims� started it. These same �Muslims,� some argue, are now twisting the
knife by wanting to build a mosque not too far from Ground Zero, and they must
be stopped. The media fan the flames of this fear, while unknown,
attention-hungry zealots propose to burn the holy book of Islam. Scheming
right-wing politicians jump on board, fiery media commentators go wild with
speculations, and the public grow increasingly terrified of what the Muslims
might do. Even the sensible among all of these groups advise Muslims to
basically try to make themselves more likable, to assimilate and fit in better.
That timeline and logic may be omnipresent in mainstream
society in the US, but many on the fringes dare to challenge it. More,
throughout Muslim-majority countries, in fact most of the world, September 11,
2001 was one station, however bloody, among many equally bloody episodes that
defined the relationship between Muslims and the United States. Again, it all
depends on who you ask. An Iraqi might locate the origin of hostilities with
the Iraq war of 1990-91, and the deadly sanctions that followed, taking
millions of civilian lives over the next decade. Some Muslims might cite the US
military presence in holy Muslim lands, or their intervention in Muslim countries�
affairs. They may also point to the US government�s support of vile and brutal
regimes around the world.
But the vast majority, while acknowledging all of these,
will refer to the genesis of all hostilities -- before Saddam Hussein existed
on the map of Arab politics, and before Osama bin Laden led Arab fighters in
Afghanistan, with the direct support of the US, to defeat the Soviets. It is
the tragedy in Palestine that has continued to pain Muslims everywhere,
regardless of their background, politics or geographic location. They know that
without US help, Israel would have no other option but to extend its hand to
whatever peace offer enjoys international consensus. With every Palestinian
killed, an American flag is burned, since the relationship has been delineated
with immense clarity for decades. When US General David Petraeus argued last
March that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fomenting anti-American
sentiment, he spoke as a military man stating a fact. He was right, although
many continue to ignore his remarks at their own peril.
True, timelines can be selective, but empathy requires one
to understand another�s perspective and not just one�s own.
The Florida pastor on a mission to burn the Koran needs to
see past his own terrible prejudices. Media commentators need to stop
pigeonholing Muslims, and realize that there is no such thing as a Muslim
polity in America. There is no truth to the idea that all Muslims hold the same
religious values and political aspirations which are at constant odds with
�American values,� and which need to be amended in order to make peace with
their �new� surroundings.
Needless to say, talks of �assimilation� are misguided.
Muslims have lived in the United States for generations and have become an
essential part of American life. Millions of US Muslims are also African
American. Do they too need to assimilate? And if not, should we divide American
Muslims into groups based on ethnic background, skin color, or some other
One cannot offer simple recipes by calling on the general
public to adopt this belief or ditch another. Public opinion is formulated
through a complex process in which the media is a major player. However, it is
essential that one remembers that history is much more encompassing and cannot
be hostage to our diktats and priorities. Such selective understanding will
surely result in a limited understanding of the world and its shared future,
and thus a misguided course of action.
That said, Muslims must not fall into the trap of victimhood,
and start dividing the world into good and evil, the West and Muslims, and so
on. How could one make such generalized claims and still remain critical of the
notion of a �clash of civilizations�? It remains that many Americans who have a
negative perception of Muslims are not motivated by ideological convictions or
religious zealotry. Most American clergy are not Koran-burning hateful priests,
and not all media pundits like Bill O�Reilly.
There is no question that the conflict remains largely political.
Misconceptions and misperceptions, manipulated by ill-intentioned politicians,
media cohorts and substantiated by violence and war will not be resolved
overnight. However, hundreds of interfaith dialogues and conferences will not
change much as long as American armies continue to roam Muslim countries,
support Israel and back corrupt leaders. Reducing the issue by signaling out a
Muslim community in this country and then calling on frightened and fragmented
communities to �make more effort� is unfair and simply futile.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist
and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is �My Father Was a
Freedom Fighter: Gaza�s Untold Story� (Pluto Press, London), now available on