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Muslim-Americans are reacting to the increasingly strident anti-Muslim rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz with emotions ranging from shock and disbelief to wariness and resignation. The latest came in the wake of the Brussels bombings when Mr. Cruz called “to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
The suggestion is absurd. Most of the 3 million American-Muslims of widely diverse backgrounds, about 1% of the population, live in integrated neighborhoods. A recent landmark study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reported that in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are about 250,000 Muslims living over six assimilated counties. South Asians comprise 30%, Arabs 23%, Afghans 17%, African Americans 9%, Asian/Pacific Islanders 7%, Whites 6%, and Iranians 2%. My neighbors in San Jose, for instance, include Christians, Jews, Chinese, Korean and Indian Americans, but not a single Muslim.
If Muslims do cluster in certain neighborhoods, as in Queens, New York, it is based more on ethnicity than on religion. When I visit friends in Jackson Heights, I see far more Bangladeshis spending long stretches of time in ethnic restaurants serving Samosas and Biryani than in mosques serving piety. There is no equivalent Molenbeek in America, the ghetto in Belgium that breeds petty thugs and criminals who, bereft of a future, real or imagined, become foot soldiers for ISIS.
So if Mr. Cruz can identify Muslim neighborhoods that require special patrolling, he will not only be helping law enforcement but, even more, Muslim-Americans. Whether the senator knows it or not, Muslims have been at the forefront in foiling terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Of the 72 known terrorist plots since 9/11, 56 were detected by law enforcement, 44 of which happened with tips from Muslims. In the 15 years since 9/11, the number of Americans killed by Muslim terrorists in the U.S., including San Bernardino, is 45. That’s 45 too many, which is why we would like Mr. Cruz to tell us where to look, so we can help apprehend the radicalized without going through ‘needle in haystack’ hunts.
Here are the facts, however. N.Y.P.D. has almost 1000 Muslim officers, some of whom are also combat veterans. For the record, combat experience on behalf of the United States is something that is missing from Mr. Cruz’s resume.
But while the threat of Islamophobia is real, it is not preventing Muslims from engaging in serious self-analyses. Because of our diversity, such analyses assume many forms but the basic goals are the same: Confront our internal problems honestly and work on solutions that will help us become more open and responsible.
Based on my years of observation and interaction with fellow Muslims, there are three areas we need to work on, even though we are making cautious progress on all three.
First, we must curb our excessive reverence for imams and scholars.
Enlightened Muslims who have earned their reputation deserve our respect but the attitude of some of us toward them verges on hero-worship. The infatuation with celebrity imams is fraught with peril for all. I have also seen highly-educated Muslims turn into toadies in blindly accepting the most banal, absurd, misogynistic, or downright stupid, religious statements made by some of our imams and scholars, often members of an old boys’ club trained in religious schools abroad without any exposure to modern subjects. At a Friday congregational prayers, for instance, I heard a ‘scholar’ claim in his sermon that if a Muslim woman walks by a group of men and the men experience lust because she is improperly dressed, it is the woman’s fault and she is the one who has sinned! The Quran mandates that each one of us use our faculties for critical thinking. Letting the clergy do our thinking for us is against the spirit of Islam. The way out is to revive the practice of Ijtihad, an Arabic word that means to think independently, and to reinterpret sacred text in the context of the times.
Second, we must shun religious chauvinism.
I come across Muslim-Americans who are condescending toward followers of other faiths and are eager to proselytize, convinced that those who are not like them are destined for hell. They are a minority but because of their strident nature, play a disproportionate role in shaping the Muslim discourse in America. The Quran insists on respect for people of all faiths. A verse states, “O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other.” Diversity of faith, culture and language are a human condition. If we all followed the same faith, wore the same clothes and ate the same food, we would go mad with boredom. Religious chauvinism leads to arrogance and is at the root of terrorist organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS.
While many Muslim-Americans condemn religious chauvinism in the privacy of their homes, such condemnations are becoming more frequent in our places of worship as well. In mosques around the Bay Area, including the Evergreen Islamic Center that I attend, we are required to speak about other faiths with respect and humility. A contributing factor is our increasing alliances with interfaith groups that are guided by the principles of pluralism, democracy, freedom of religion and secular governance. Still, much remains to be done.
Finally, we must reject the culture of victimhood and embrace the culture of self-assurance.
In the past, particularly before 9/11, Muslim-Americans were focused mostly on rights and not much on responsibilities. Islamophobia is a serious, and sometimes deadly, threat for us. We have to speak out for our constitutional rights, as when Muslim passengers are forced to get off planes only because they happen to be Muslims.
Yet we cannot allow Islamophobia, and its attendant culture of victimhood, define us. As we demand our rights, so we must also act on our responsibilities, one of which is to engage with the broader community, particularly with our neighbors, in helping the needy, feeding the hungry and opposing injustice of any kind against any group. If victimhood is the foundation of our identity, we will remain weak, objects of pity and prone to conspiracy theories. We are mostly middle class, mainstream and moderate. It does not suit us to be grievance collectors. We must have the self-assurance to legally secure our rights while working with Americans from all walks of life to help ours become a just and generous nation.