Hasan Zillur Rahim

Demonizing Moderate Muslims

I met Yusuf Islam, the former singer Cat Stevens, in the early 1990s when he attended an Islamic conference in San Jose, Calif. I was then the editor of a Muslim magazine and interviewed him about his views of the Muslim world.

Among other things, we talked about his alleged support of the late Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa (religious ruling) of death against Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses." The singer-turned-teacher, who converted to Islam in 1978 and founded a Muslim school in London in 1983, said he was frustrated that the media quoted him only partially on the subject. He told me that although he advocated a ban on a book he considered blasphemous, he also reminded Muslims to keep within the limits of the law of the country in which they lived.

He expressed regret at the violence that erupted in several Muslim countries and cost many lives following the publication of the book. Under no circumstance, he said, were people to take law into their own hands. In other words, while he supported the seriousness of the fatwa in principle as a warning against anyone maligning the prophet of Islam, he did not wish for Rushdie's head.

I recall this meeting with much sorrow, because my government has decided that this soft-spoken man has suddenly become a threat to America, so much so that he cannot be allowed entry into the United States.

How did the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arrive at this conclusion?

Islam, after all, had visited New York in May of this year to promote a DVD of his 1976 MajiKat tour and launch his charity organization called Small Kindness. In just four months, the singer had apparently metamorphosed into a threat because of his alleged past support of certain terrorist organizations.

A provision in the USA Patriot Act states that anyone who uses his position of prominence to endorse terrorism or terrorist organizations may not enter the United States. This was what a DHS spokesman was referring to when he said that Islam was denied admission to the United States "on national security grounds."

Islam has denied link to any organization such as Hamas. He states that he is an unabashed supporter of Palestinian rights and has made humanitarian contributions to charities that he felt were building schools and orphanages in the Occupied Territories. But he is also on the record stating that he has never knowingly supported any terrorist groups, past, present or future. His Web site (www.yusufislam.org.UK) gives a summary of his unequivocal opposition to terrorism, and includes a condemnation of the recent massacre of teachers and students at the school in Beslan, Russia.

Just last month a similar fate befell a Muslim scholar widely regarded as a progressive thinker. Author of "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam" (Oxford University Press, 2003) the Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan was scheduled to teach at the University of Notre Dame's Institute for International Peace Studies this fall. At the last minute, the DHS revoked his visa, under the same provision used to bar Islam from entering the United States.

Ramadan, too, has denied any link to terrorist organizations and has challenged his detractors, including the DHS, to prove their case. Notre Dame officials and prominent American scholars have vehemently protested the government's decision. Members of a Jewish student group at the Notre Dame Law School have joined in the protest.

Regarding the charge that he is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ramadan has asked that he be judged on his own life, not his genealogy.

Time and again, sane voices remind us that to defeat the terrorism unleashed by groups like Al Qaeda, America must build the trust of moderate Muslims around the world. The recently released 9/11 Commission Report states as much (p. 375-376): "The small percentage of Muslims who are fully committed to Usama Bin Ladin's version of Islam are impervious to persuasion. It is among the large majority of Arabs and Muslims that we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity ...." The report recommends that the United States "offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors ... If we heed the view of thoughtful leaders in the Arab and Muslim world, a moderate consensus can be found."

How can Muslims help reach a "moderate consensus" if America continues to arbitrarily pull the rug from under their feet? How can we fight the real terrorists if Muslim teachers and scholars who preach pluralism and peace continue to be demonized before the whole world?

It is activists and scholars like Yusuf Islam and Tariq Ramadan, both of whom denounced the Muslim extremists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and demanded that their leaders be brought to justice, that America should court in order to marginalize groups like Al Qaeda. Instead, we American Muslims are left wondering if our government is really serious, or even interested, in building our trust.

American Muslims Struggle for the Soul of Islam

American Muslims are at a crossroads after the Sept. 11 attacks. By and large, we had long been a docile and silent lot, content to let a few leaders and imams do the talking, keeping misgivings private. Not any more. Now, the soul of Islam is at stake.

At mosques, homes, at a wedding celebration, on the telephone in these difficult weeks, fellow Muslims -- moderates who find in Islam a balanced way of life -- seem to be strengthening their resolve to win the day against those few who incite hatred and distort the faith.

Muslims in America, including women, are used to speaking freely. The habit of comparing ideas -- even religious ideas -- surrounds them in schools and public forums.

Now, everything from the power of imams, the role of women in the faith and the dissonance between immigrant Muslims and black American Muslims is being debated. Globally, these American voices will prove important in the way Islam defines itself in coming years.

Mertze Dahlin, a founder of the South Bay Islamic Association of San Jose, Calif., embraced Islam more than 45 years ago. Of Finnish descent, Dahlin is not a spokesperson for any one ethnic group, but has worked with local newspapers and politicians against stereotyping since the l970s. Since Sept. 11, Dahlin said, Muslims are debating theological issues and scrutinizing received political opinions they once took for granted. Even Friday sermons have changed.

"Before, the imams would talk about how to be good, to pray, and such stuff," Dahlin says. "But we heard all this when we were children. Now they are talking about how Islam can help us cope with our day-to-day life in America. It is more relevant."

One of the things imams now stress is not to hide Muslim identity, "no matter how tough it may get," Dahlin says. Many Muslims are newly reaching out to their wider communities, where Islam may remain mysterious or be feared. "After 9/11, we became more visible. Many of us are visiting schools, churches and synagogues to explain Islam."

For Dr. Khalid Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Education and Information Center in Newark, Calif., Friday sermons haven't improved enough. Most imams remain silent on ethical and behavioral issues, he said, in part because they are poorly trained to explore such topics -- Muslim religious schools, called madrasses, teach mostly by rote. Moderate Muslims must become "more vocal and blunt" about what they expect of their leaders and more vigilant against extremists.

"We cannot say one thing inside the mosque and another thing outside," Siddiqi says. "For any event inside a mosque, including the Friday sermon, we should invite people from churches and synagogues."

But Siddiqi, too, sees a bright side after Sept. 11. At social gatherings, many who talked "mostly about stocks and fluctuations in their wealth" now speak about Islam and their responsibilities as Muslims.

Siddiqi's daughter Hana, who is studying for a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies at New York University in Manhattan, was close to "ground zero" on Sept. 11 and still has nightmares about it. Typical of many American Muslim women in their 20s, Hana insists Muslims must "improve themselves" with regard to the treatment of women, who are "definitely oppressed." She blames not Islam, but "men on power trips," including imams and mullahs who quote unsubstantiated and out-of-context hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) to justify sexist behavior.

Such tactics will no longer work, she says, because the stakes have become too high.

"We need new interpretation of the Quran and the hadith in the context of our times," Hana says. "We are as qualified as the men for this task."

Beena Kazi, a junior at the University of California at Davis, would start with basics. Often microphones don't work in the women's sections of some mosques, and carpets are old and stained compared to the men's section. Board membership at most mosques is entirely male, an unchallenged tradition that has no basis in Islam. Kazi is working to change that, encouraging women to run for mosque boards.

Fellow students, Kazi observes, are scrambling to learn more about their faith since Sept. 11. "For two years there was this Muslim girl in my class who never visited the campus mosque. One day after Sept. 11, she asked me to take her to the Friday prayers. Other students had been asking her about Islam and she realized she had to learn about her faith herself before she could answer them. She felt accountable."

Some of the discussion that shapes American Muslim thinking takes place in mosque open houses and interfaith dialogues. Dr. Anwar Hossain, an engineer from Dublin, Calif., said he has noticed more debate at such venues on issues such as democracy and Islam, something he said imams rarely speak about.

But Hossain says some still try to position Muslims vis-à-vis the West as "us versus them."

"We raise our families here, but claim American society is corrupt. This is hypocrisy," Hossain says.

Soul searching among U.S. Muslims doesn't end at debate about extremism, democracy or the role of women in the faith. Black Muslims are bringing their experience as a minority race and minority religion in America to the discussion.

Bilal Ibn Muhammad directs the All Muslims' Islamic Communications Center in San Jose, which produces a weekly TV program on Islam. He sympathizes with the plight of Muslims being rounded up for questioning by the FBI, but regrets that immigrant Muslims are not coming to African Americans like him to learn about resistance in the face of racial profiling.

"As much as I hate to say it, it comes down to race," Muhammad says. "Immigrant Muslims look down on us. They think we do not know enough about Islam."

In Muslim America, there is tension, anxiety, questioning and impatience with dead-end dogma. And there is optimism -- a new hope that out of the conflict of ideas will emerge the courage and strength to vanquish the extremists.

Hasan Rahim (hasan@jeskell.com) is a software consultant in Silicon Valley who edited "Iqra" -- an Islamic magazine -- from 1986 to 1999.

This Is My God

SAN JOSE, CA--The God that my family and I pray to is not the dark God portrayed in Osama bin Laden's taped messages to the world. Bin Laden invokes a God of rage and vengeance, but when I read the Quran I feel the presence of a forgiving God who instructs us to be kind, just, and patient, and to go the extra mile for peace.

Bin Laden sees the world divided into two camps, the faithful and the infidel. As the supposed leader of the faithful, he has threatened to wage war against infidels until achieving victory. As a Muslim, I do not see the world his way.

Bin Laden's definition of the faithful includes only his followers, a negligible fraction of the world's 1 billion Muslims. But in the Islam that I know, the right to differentiate between the faithful and the infidel belongs to God alone. His apocalyptic notion of two camps locked in mortal combat is also wrong. God says in the Quran that He has divided mankind into many nations and tribes and blessed them with variations in languages and colors so that "we may know one another."

In other words, diversity of culture and religion is a permanent human condition, designed to test our faith and deepen our spirituality. A rigid theocracy ruled by an autocrat claiming to be acting on God's behalf, as suggested by bin Laden's distorted vision, has no sanctity in Islam.

Bin Laden declares that "God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims who are at the forefront of Islam to destroy America." But the God familiar to Muslims is compassionate and creative, not cruel and destructive. History teaches that fanatics from any faith who fancy themselves as saviors of one kind or another reduce sacred texts to manuals on crime and punishment. So it is with bin Laden and his followers.

From the Quran I learn that suicide and the slaughter of innocents are unconditionally forbidden. God forbids violence and killing as catalysts for spiritual renewal. Instead, He tells us that spiritual renewal comes from reasoning and reflection. Indeed, Quranic verses describing nature and natural phenomena outnumber verses dealing with commandments and sacraments. In the more than 6,000 verses in the Quran, some 750, one-eighth of the book, ask believers to reflect on nature, to study the relationship between living organisms and their environment, to make the best use of reason, and to maintain the balance and proportion God has built into His creation. "Pure Islam" is what Muslims practice when they follow the "middle path," shunning extremism of any kind, living in peace with others and in harmony with the natural world.

In the 20 years that my family and I have been living in America, we have never experienced any conflict, moral or otherwise, in balancing our religious duties such as fasting, prayer, and charity with Western education and democracy. Contact with people of other beliefs and cultures sharing a common set of values has only strengthened our faith. Every day we realize anew that variation in "colors and languages" among the "many nations and tribes" is indeed a blessing from God.

That is why I am saddened when I hear some radio talk-show hosts filling the airwaves with xenophobia against Muslims while demonizing Islam. I hear them talk of the "war-mongering God" of Islam, attempting to prove that Islam is a "dying religion" and that Islam holds appeal for conversion only among "convicts in prison."

But they are the minority. The great majority of Americans are beginning to realize that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common root and that excesses of a few zealots cannot be a reflection on any religion.

My teenage daughter and I were watching television on Oct. 11, reliving the horrors of the attack on America a month ago, when images of a dazed and terrified man and woman fleeing the Twin Towers filled the screen. Blood was streaming down their faces. My daughter turned toward me and asked, "Dad, how can anyone love God in heaven if they hate people on earth?"

It is a question for which I had no answer, but one I want to pose to extremists everywhere.

Rahim is a software consultant in Silicon Valley who edited "Iqra" -- an Islamic magazine -- from 1986 to 1999.


Happy Holidays!