My Islam: Freedom and Responsibility

MUSLIMS IN AMERICA today seem to have lost the right to be individuals. We are treated as a collectivity-responsible as a group for any crime committed by another Muslim or done in the name of Islam.

Shortly after 9/11, I wrote an article stating that Muslims have the greatest obligation to reject terrorism and political violence committed in the name of Islam. I still believe this is the case. Islam does not have a centralized authority; there is no universally recognized council of scholars or clerics who speak on behalf of all Muslims.
With freedom from clerical authority, however, comes the responsibility to engage in the debate over the true meaning of Islam. Islamic law states that silence is an indication of consent. If Muslims do not reject the perverted interpretations of the Qur’an proffered by terrorists, they will have shirked their responsibility to define the real meaning of Islam.
At the same time, clarifying our own position does not mean that we have to “speak out” against each and every statement issued by terrorists or every criminal action taken by groups claiming to represent Muslim interests. Once we have defined what we stand for, and what we stand against, then any particular action that violates those guidelines are clearly rejected by us. American Muslim organizations have made extraordinary efforts to publicize their rejection of terrorism and extremism in the name of Islam: we have organized petitions, written fatwas and position papers, distributed brochures, held conferences, organized press briefings, published op-eds, spoken on the radio and television.

Still, we are asked, “Why have moderate Muslims not spoken out against the extremists?” We have spoken, but we have not been heard-primarily because good news does not get much coverage.

Even worse, we have spoken, but we have not been listened to. There are many people who are ideologically opposed to Islam-to the most benign interpretation of Islam-because of their own extremist religious or political ideologies. No matter what conscientious Muslims do to live as peaceful citizens who contribute to the welfare of society, these groups will attack us and our religion.

Most objectionable is what I call the, “non-Muslim Islamic fundamentalist.” What I mean by this is a non-Muslim who applies a literalistic, decontextualized hermeneutic to the Qur’an and Islamic tradition. This is not how I read my scripture maybe it is how they read theirs), so who are they to tell me that this is what Islam “really” says?

Being judged as a group, rather than as individuals, also means that the negative experience of one Muslim is considered to be representative of all Muslims and all of Islam. I do not deny the right of any individual to tell his or her own story. We all have that right, and I must learn from the pain, hurt and anger of women and men who were mistreated in the name of Islam.

But these negative experiences are not shared by all Muslims-indeed, not by most Muslims. This is why such authors have little or no constituencies within the Muslim community – because large numbers of Muslims do not feel they represent their interests or perspectives.

The burden of collective guilt, the oppressive weight of stereotyping, and the violence of hateful anti-Muslim discourse is difficult to bear. It is even more difficult to see how this affects our youth.

But there is hope. Hope lies in the goodness of ordinary Americans who try to overcome their prejudices and reach out to their Muslim neighbors. Hope lies in the solidarity shown by other groups – like Japanese Americans – who have faced similar situations. Hope lies in the extraordinary moral leadership shown by many American religious leaders to guide their congregations to the path of understanding and compassion.

More than anything, I see these challenges as opportunities to examine myself and my community, to see if we are responding with enough courage and moral leadership when we witness discrimination against others. Are we able to avoid burdening other groups with collective guilt? The Qur’anic revelation, “no soul bears the sins of another” is directed first at our community. We are all human, and all of us have to struggle with our own selfishness, prejudice and will to power.

As a Muslim, my struggle for my community’s rights should be only the starting point of a wider struggle – a struggle for the dignity of all people. Being a Muslim in America today means having the opportunity to work towards this goal in solidarity with compassionate individuals of all faiths and good will.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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