<%-- Page Title--%> Special Feature <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 116 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 01, 2003

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How Muslims are Perceived in America

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed

The day after winning the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship by dethroning Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Centre in February 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay, declared to a stunned America and the world that he had become a Muslim, and would like to be addressed by his Muslim name (given to him by the late Malcolm X, or Malek El-Shabazz), Muhammad Ali. Ali's legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee, a Roman Catholic Italian-American from Philadelphia had no idea what “Muslim” was. He thought Cassius had said that he had become “muslin!” How could Cassius become “muslin,” which Dundee knew to be a piece of exquisitely woven fine cloth (for which pre-British Dhaka was so famous), he wondered!

Such ignorance about Muslims was unwarranted even in the 1960s, because America always had a Muslim presence. African Americans believe that a majority of the slaves brought to the America from Africa were Muslims. Many of the slaves were shipped from a building in the Goree Island in Senegal (“point of no return”), which President Bush visited on July 8, and President Clinton had visited in March 1998. Senegal has an over 90% Muslim population. In America, the African slaves not only lost their name, they lost their religion as well. That is why Malcolm Little first took the name Malcolm X (“X” signifying his lost African name), before reclaiming his Muslim roots by adopting the Muslim name Malek El-Shabazz. According to African Americans, Muslims have been in America from the beginning of America. As slaves, they practiced their religion secretly. Even after the abolition of slavery, they were afraid to organise for fear of persecution. It was only in the 1930s that the Nation of Islam was born in Chicago under Elijah Muhammad. The members were known as Black Muslims, an oxymoronic term, because it excluded all other races. It combined religion with black activism. Disgusted with Elijah Muhammad's sexual indiscretions, Malcolm X was the first prominent Black Muslim to leave the Nation of Islam and join the mainstream Sunni Islam, an act that cost Malcolm his life in 1965. Muhammad Ali, who never defended his friend when Elijah Muhammad was hounding Malcolm, followed suit soon. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his sons, too, became Sunni Muslims. To this day, the Nation of Islam, now under Louis Farrakhan, remains political and exclusionary, and only 2% Islamic, according to a former member. For example, Ramadan for the Nation is always in the cool month of December!
Contrary to popular belief, most Muslims in America are not of Arab descent. Of the 7 million Muslims in America, African-Americans constitute the plurality (over 35%), followed by Southeast Asian Americans (30%) and Arab-Americans (25%). Areas of large Muslim population are New York-New Jersey, Baltimore-Washington DC, Florida, Michigan-Illinois, Texas-Oklahoma and California. And among Arab Americans, 80% are Christians. No Muslim American has reached the upper echelon of political power. Muslim celebrities enjoy superstardom only in the field of sports, especially in boxing (Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson), basketball (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was born Lew Alcindor, Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille Rashan, who adopted his step-father's surname O'Neal, after his Muslim father, Rashan, abandoned the family, and whose current religious affiliation is unclear) and in American football. Christian Arab-Americans can boast of an array of dazzling superstars in every field, including former leader of the US Senate, Democrat George Mitchell, former Republican Governor of New Hampshire and senior President Bush's Chief of Staff John Sununu, former Health and Human Services Secretary for eight years under Clinton, Donna Shalala, consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, journalist James Zogby and his family of “Zogby public opinion Poll” fame, disc jockey Casey Kasem, famous for counting down America's top-100 songs, footballer Doug Flutie, former head of the Pan American Airways and Federal Aviation Administration, recently deceased Najeeb Halaby, who is the father of Lisa Halaby, the late King Hussein's Queen Noor, and of course Columbia University's world renowned Orientalist Edward Said. Not surprisingly, Christian Arab-Americans are just as passionate about Palestinian and other Arab causes, as are Muslim Arab-Americans.
Large-scale immigration of Muslims to America began in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It took the Jews over 100 years to establish themselves in America. Muslim Americans adopted the Jewish blueprint for success and empowerment in America and have made remarkable progress in only thirty years. There are over 1500 mosques in America and about 400 full-time Islamic schools. For those Muslim children who go to public schools, there are weekend schools to teach them their religion and heritage. Many school districts, such as the one in New Jersey's capital city Trenton, are closed for the two Eids. And many more school districts with heavy population of Muslim children would do the same if only the Muslims would give them the exact date of the two Eids (which Muslims can't)! The Clintons started throwing Iftar parties at the White House, a tradition the Bushes have continued. In 1996, the Muslims of New Jersey turned a close Senatorial election into a landslide by voting overwhelmingly for the Democrat Torricelli, when his opponent, Zimmer, criticised Torricelli for attending a function of a Muslim organisation.
To demonstrate their political muscle, for the 2000 Presidential election, Muslim American organisations decided to endorse the Republican candidate George W. Bush. This was no easy task because African-Americans traditionally vote Democratic as do most Southeast Asian Americans, while Arab Americans and Pakistani Americans favour the Republicans. Many Muslim Americans were alarmed at the nomination of Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is Jewish, as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. Senator Lieberman would be far more reasonable towards the Muslims and the Palestinians than Al Gore's record indicated he would be. By becoming the most hawkish Democrat for attacking Iraq and by advocating a staunchly pro-Sharon agenda, Senator Lieberman has revealed his true Zionist credentials and proved me absolutely wrong! The endorsement of George W. Bush made sense. George Bush's faith-based initiatives as the Governor of Texas (1994-2000) helped Muslim institutions. In the second presidential debate, Bush went out of his way to criticise the racial profiling of Arab Americans in Michigan. Muslims believe that by voting overwhelmingly for Bush in Florida, they delivered the Presidency to him in 2000. And for a while Muslims felt like winners. After Bush's inauguration, the official religious line became (articulated by none less than Ari Fleischer!), “in the churches, synagogues and mosques of the United States”
Before 9/11, America was mildly curious about Islam. Looking in from the outside, they would focus on what appeared outrageous. Men would wistfully like to know more about having four wives; women would be horrified at the practice. (I would pour cold water by adding that the verse ends with, “it is better to have one wife.”) To questions, “How do you fast for one full month? How do the children do it?” we would answer, “Fasting is only dawn to dusk; we actually gain weight by overeating during the month and children are not required to fast.” When they heard that we could not even drink water, they freaked out. When they saw a Muslim woman in Hijab, they would automatically assume that she was the most oppressed person on earth. We would counter that they did not know Muslim women! Some of these Hijab-wearing women were highly educated doctors and Ph.D.s who actually oppressed their husbands! There were always pressures on Muslims to make their names American-sounding, for example, by making Muhammad, “Mo,” Salma, “Sally.” When my colleague Steve asked me if he could call me Freddie or Rudy, I said yes, only if he would let me call him Swami! (Interestingly, while my name remained intact, everybody started calling Steve “Swami!”) Then came September 11!
Like the rest of America, Muslim Americans were completely blindsided by the terrorist attack on 9/11. But the searchlight focused immediately on the Muslim Americans, who lacked the sophistication to deal with it. Muslims' gut reaction was to put distance between them and the terrorists, explaining that Islam forbade terrorist acts and that suicide was un-Islamic. For an angry America, Muslims had a lot more explaining to do as to who they were and what their religion stood for. Unwittingly, Muslim Americans found themselves holding the bag for the terrorists. Thanks to the quick action by the New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who threatened anyone harassing a Muslim with arrest, and that of President Bush two days later, violence against Muslims was averted. But in the wake of 9/11, America began taking a cold, hard and suspicious look at Islam and American citizens of the Islamic faith. “Are you sure you are not worshipping the devil?” wrote an American in a newspaper. God forbid if there is another 9/11, Muslim Americans will have to take to the hills!
The importance of practicing Sura Ma'un, in which Allah exhorts Muslims to engage in neighbourly deeds regardless of the religion of the neighbours, became apparent after 9/11. Since America did not know who its enemies were, if a Muslim's neighbour called the police, the police or the FBI were quick to come and check out the Muslim family at any time of day or night. It was clear America knew very little about Islam and the Muslims. Into the void stepped in some Zionists and to a lesser extent some Hindus, who said the most outrageous things about Islam and the Muslims in the American electronic and print media to help their coreligionists in their native lands. They made every Muslim in America a member of a terrorist “sleeper cell!” In this atmosphere of suspicious recrimination was passed, with undue haste, the anti-Muslim Patriot Act, which curtailed civil liberties, and under which many Muslims are still languishing in jail without being charged. Now it is ok to discriminate against Muslims, many of who have familiar Muslim names (Ahmed, Muhammad, Hussein). Unemployment among Muslims is disproportionately high, as high as 40% in the Silicon Valley.
Then came the attack on Islam itself. No less a person than the nation's highest law enforcement officer, Attorney General John Ashcroft, said: “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sent his son to die for you.” The attacks kept on coming in an avalanche. Evangelical preachers Franklin Graham, who delivered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion,” Jerry Falwell alluded to the Prophet (PBUH), “a terrorist,” Jerry Vines called him a “demon-possessed pedophile” and Pat Robertson ridiculed the Prophet as “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic, a robber and brigand.”
The Evangelical Christians form the most solid support block for President Bush, and are actively engaged in converting Muslims to Christianity all over the world, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world in spite of the Muslims. Contrary to how non-Muslims became Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, very few non-Muslims embrace Islam these days because of the exemplary behaviour of practicing Muslims. They convert after reading the Holy Book, the Qur'an. That is how Yusuf Islam (the former British rock star Cat Stevens) and others embraced Islam. No scholar of Islam himself, I nevertheless, was involved in a series of lectures on religious fundamentalism recently and found himself constantly correcting non-Muslim speakers. “The Qur'an is contradictory;” a speaker said, “in one place it asks the Muslims to love the Jews and Christians, in other place it asks Muslims to kill them.” I pointed out that the Qur'an was revealed over 22 years, during most of which the fledgling faith was under constant attack by the pagans, Jews and Christians. At one time the Prophet had concluded a treaty with the Jews and the Christians against the pagans. But the Jews and the Christians broke the treaty and sided with the pagans. Attacking Jews and Christians was valid only in that context, and that context alone. (Let us not forget who spearheaded the attack against the Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.) I had no better luck with Muslims. What amazes me is how little many Muslims in the US know about their religion and how little they study the Qur'an. The other day someone was complaining why is Allah referred to as He, not She! I replied that Allah is neither. As Berkeley's religion professor Huston Smith says, with a “royal” We, He or She (all upper case) we mere mortals attempt to conceptualise the infinite.
I remain optimistic. America is slowly beginning to make a distinction between the peace-loving Muslims (99.99%) and the terrorists. The Muslims of the world, however, will be fully onboard for the war against terrorism only after America is seen to be just with the Palestinians and the Islamic world.

Islam in Britain

Misunderstood and Misrepresented

Roger Barb and Nadia Kabir Barb

British views on Islam have for the last thirty years been primarily political. Ignorance may have been diluted through constant media exposure, but there is little understanding of Islam as a religion. In fairness, other than a certain fashionable curiosity, British people also generally know little about Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism or any other religion. But Islam is different to the rest because thirty years of disastrous international perception, including the notion that it is intolerant of other religions, have resulted in a religion which is misunderstood as opposed to not understood. The British man on the street does not feel threatened by vegetarian Hindus or chanting Buddhists, but a Muslim remains an explosive enigma.

Political Islam quite literally exploded in the British national consciousness in the 1970s with the international activities of the PLO and Gaddafi's Libya. In Britain, the actions of those 'Islamic' causes who felt compelled to resort to hijacking and bombing to be heard on the World stage were regarded as terrorism. And not only was any sympathy obscured by outrage, but an unfortunate, erroneous and enduring association developed between Islam on the one hand and the terrorist actions of these 'extremists' on the other. In a country which was basically sympathetic to the plight of Israel, the dilemma of the Palestinians was for the most part lost in the fear and derision which the PLO itself provoked. British experiences with civilian terrorism in Northern Ireland played no small role in the nation's reaction. At that point, however, for the average Briton, Islam had not achieved the status of international threat.
Islam's plight went from bad to worse as the hijackings and bombing increased. As if matters were not bad enough, the actions of the Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrowing a pro-Western capitalist in favour of a fundamentalist regime, and the Libyan “Lockerbie” hijacking sealed its fate. Here was all the proof that was needed. Islam was the religion of fundamentalists, terrorists and extremists. And then, to rub salt into the wound, a “fatwa” was declared on the British author Salman Rushdie, adding dogma to the list of Islam's shortcomings and ridicule to the armoury of Islam's detractors.

Britain then knew little of Islam and its tenets. And there was little money to be made or mileage to be had from defending the religion or seeking to educate people. In a country where religion in the 20th Century has been fighting a losing battle against agnosticism and vague morality, the British Press had all it needed. Islam was not a religion or a culture to be understood. “Muslim” and “Terrorist” were allowed to become synonymous.
Islam's defenders, of course, quite rightly pointed out that to equate the religion with the fundamentally political actions of a loud and desperate minority was unjustified and unjustifiable. And for those who were minded to listen, Khomeini's risible “fatwa” notwithstanding, that argument carried some weight. At least, that was the case until September 11,2001 when Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden raised the stakes dramatically. The attacks politicised Islam just as the crusades had politicised Christianity. And the United States was moved firmly into the centre of the picture. The events of “9/11” compounded the prejudice already faced by Muslims around the non-Islamic world, and no less so in Britain with Muslim Clerics such as the one-eyed, hook-handed Abu Hamza and his loudly-held extremist and anti-American views monopolising the press as the face of British Islam. Being a Muslim in Britain in September 2001 was a deeply uncomfortable experience. It was, however, probably a cakewalk compared to the condition of American Muslims or worse, foreign Muslims in America.
Muslim leaders with genuinely large followings were of course desperately concerned by the suggestion that Hamza represented a significant strand in British Islam. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Society of Britain said he was an “embarrassment” and could not understand why action had not been taken against him years ago. Much of the British Media, however, keen to support a war in Afghanistan and a strong anti-terrorist policy chose, not to dedicate a fraction of the page space to these comments as they set aside for the more lurid and sensationalist comments and photos of Abu Hamza.
The same pattern evidenced itself in the aftermath of '9/11'. Zaid Shakir, speaking on behalf of the LightStudy Group published the following statement, which could only be found by the observant or diligent in the pages of the Observer. 'We should choose a day. On that day every Muslim family will buy 14 flowers along with 14 cards with a message explaining that we are their Muslim neighbours and we wish to extend to them a small expression of condolence. We should personally deliver them to our neighbours.' At the same time, Anjem Choudary of Al-Muhajiroun was quoted in the same paper as saying: 'The people of America deserved 11 September. Osama bin Laden is a hero to people in the UK. If support for al-Qaeda wasn't proscribed and people were free to air their views, many more would voice their support. Here at al-Muhajiroun we fear only God and are free to speak our view. Osama bin Laden is a hero and should be loved.' It is not hard to imagine which comments attracted more media attention. To all intents and purposes this statement was taken as advocating what was broadly viewed as an act of mass murder. And by portraying itself as a “Muslim” view, the likes of Abu Hamza and organisations such as Al-Muharjiroun effectively overshadowed the sentiments of the quiet and moderate majority.
In July 2003 British Muslims can afford to feel a little less exposed. Whether or not this is understood outside of Britain, the British are deeply ambivalent about their involvement in the War in Iraq. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq may be, however, one clear consequence has been the emergence of Muslims as victims. Twenty-four hour saturation news coverage has ensured that every event in the war, from the trivial to the tragic, has been aired and covered in depth. Ironically, when you consider that many feel the BBC's coverage was unduly pro-war, the BBC received significant criticism from the British Government for refusing to report the War from a pro-war standpoint, and in any event, the endless images of civilian casualties and the atrocities of war have turned any sense of victory into a muted sense of relief that more people, soldiers and civilians alike, did not die.
Quite apart from their war casualties, Muslims in Iraq have emerged as victims of politicians, both their own and the American and British. The Israel question, which at one level should perhaps play no role in the debate on the Iraqi conflict, has exposed diplomatic hypocrisy on a scale, which cannot be ignored, whatever historic allegiances may have been. Armed with this new way of thinking, allied with their traditional affinity for the underdog, the British people seem to be divorcing the previously unified concepts of Islamic religion, Arab politics and terrorism. There is marked shift in British thinking towards Palestine. For now, at least, it is a braver man who speaks up in public unreservedly in defence of Israel.
But despite this change, British Muslims are not yet standing tall. There is still much negative domestic coverage. For example, the emergence of gangs of Asian youths, invariably assumed to be Muslim, as a source of local crime and harassment and the advent of British-born Muslim bombers continue to influence people's views. Of course, the majority of British Muslims are at pains to take a determinedly anti-fundamentalist position and have consistently emphasised the need to take a rational and human approach. And this is not just posturing for the benefit of the British media. It is also motivated by Muslims' own recognition of the fact that Islam, the religion of many of the world's poorer and least stable countries, is ripe for politicisation and exploitation by the cynical, fanatical or misguided. The difference is that Britain is now open to be persuaded that many Muslims feel this way.
What British Muslims wish for themselves is probably no more than for their religion to be a social irrelevance, the right to practice their religion without fear of consequence. But this remains a distant goal and one which is not within their control.



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