American Muslims: America’s best ambassadors

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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Ever since the 9/11 attacks, American Muslims have been subject to an intense campaign which has questioned their loyalty to the United States. Charges ranged from claiming that they have not been so outspoken in their condemnation of terrorism to complicity, incitement, and even (specious) claims of active participation in anti-American activities at home and abroad. Several prominent Muslim organizations, large mosques, and some civil rights advocacy organizations have argued that the charges were baseless and deliberately malign the true views of Islam and its adherents.

Times have changed, but serious challenges remain an impediment to a fuller and active international role by the Muslim community. These challenges include the trust deficit that so defines the relationship between law enforcement and the Muslims. Add to this the incendiary statements by Internet-based pundits (Pamela Geller and Steve Emerson) and even public officials (Cong. Peter King and Cong. Michel Bachmann) and a series of laws (The Patriot Act) and the NYPD espionage activities. All these efforts aim to strip Muslim citizens of their basic rights, are all present hindrances. I have covered all these topics.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, the community, motivated by both internal and external factors, appears to be on the verge of a yet-uncharted path to becoming America’s de facto ambassador to the Arab and Muslim world. Some pundits argue it is self-survival that is at the core of this transformation. One writer charged, that by shouldering their ambassadorial roles, “Guilt has already been cast on Arab and Muslim Americans – for the recent string of attacks, and those that preceded and will follow them.” Others assert that such a role is meant to ease the doubts that Muslim haters have so intricately woven into the popular discourse. On the other hand, supporters argue that while the community is cognizant of its still evolving political prowess, it has reached an identifiable confluence of factors that portend of a rising constituency confident of its achievements, of the American constitution and laws, and like, others before it, desirous of “marketing” the United States to the world.

America’s often problematic and exceedingly controversial relationship with its over 6 million Muslims is the subject of much debate, political pandering, and downright hateful acts. An entire industry of Islamophobes and self-styled experts have attained national prominence due to their advocacy of the impending and irreversible existential divide between the backward world of Islam and the enlightened West. Regardless, American Muslims have put aside these matters and engaged in a significant campaign here in the US and abroad, fulfilling a role usually reserved for skilled and seasoned diplomats versed in the art of diplomacy. In essence, American Muslims have taken the role of goodwill ambassadors. Their role was twofold: first, to situate the aftermath of the recent vile anti-Islam movie (the protests and the killing of American officials) in its proper context for both fellow Americans and people in Muslim countries.

Several mosques I have contacted confirmed their weekly congregational sermons (on Fridays) focused on the proper response to the American-made 14-minute movie titled “Innocence of Muslims,” that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual, and child-molesting buffoon.

“What would Prophet Muhammad have done?” was the title of a sermon given in a mosque in Rockaway, NJ. The Imam’s straightforward answer: “Forgiveness and patience in the face of adversity is the best response to physical or emotional attacks.” He went to implore his congregation to use legal and peaceful means to express anger or disagreements and not to fall prey to those who wish harm and bring disrepute to our faith.

In what was perhaps one of his most passionately delivered sermons since arriving in the US in 1996, Imam Mohammad Qatanani of the Paterson Islamic Center of Passaic County prodded his congregation not to rush to judgment and not to make blanket accusations against all Coptic Christians. Eloquent and well researched as is customary, Imam Qatanani implored the community to recognize that the incessant attacks on Islam have done little in the way of precluding more people from becoming Muslims or weakened the faith of Muslims around the world. “Islam and its revered prophet are much bigger than any cheaply made movie or specious book or expedient political stance.” The few who were exploited by certain political groups must know that the “prophet (PBUH) forbade the killing of foreign envoys even 1400 years ago.”

The Imam stated further that the evolving events should avail us of “an opportunity to educate our fellow Americans that Islam is not represented by the actions of a few extremists.” Similarly, ‘it is incumbent upon to remind our brethren that America did support the desire of the Arab peoples to rid themselves of the dictatorships and oppressors.” Continued the Imam, “We are not against critical, scholarly debates about the life and message of Prophet Muhammad. We are against intentionally insulting material that has already been demonstrated to infringe upon the feeling of 1.8 billion Muslims. We hold the people who produced the film equally in moral and in legal responsibility to those who committed the murders in Benghazi.” The Imam added further, “Muslims should be offended by the movie. But they should also consider the source. The offensive video is no more representative of America than it is of the extremists who co-opted the video as a means to incite violence in the Arab world.”

Our organization, the American Arab Forum, AAF, did its part in responding to local and national media inquiries. We fielded many media queries from US and Middle Eastern media outlets. Our message was clear: terrorism is a criminal act that must never be condoned irrespective of the reasons given. We especially stressed our suspicion that the protests were staged and timed by extremist anti-Arab government entities. Whether by appearing on television, or being interviewed for a newspaper column, the AAF joined other organizations in an attempt to contain the damage. We have also appeared in several Arab newspapers and TV stations.

CAIR, the Council on American Islamic relations, in a pioneering fashion, released an Arabic language video plea urging the protesters to understand the true implications of their actions. (See video of similar appeal in other languages) Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told viewers in the Middle East that ordinary Americans and the U.S. government should not be blamed for the religious hatred expressed in the film.

Speaking in fluent classical Arabic, Mr. Awad said: “Islamic traditions include a number of instances in which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had the opportunity to retaliate against those who abused him but refrained from doing so. “One tradition, or hadith, states: ‘You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness.

In a warning tone, Mr. Awad adds, “We must not let extremists control the political or religious discourse. That means that people of all beliefs should repudiate those who would commit acts of violence in response to intentional provocations and repudiate those whose only goal is offending religious sentiments.”

Perhaps the most symbolic of the community’s assertiveness to combat extremism came in the formal union of Muslim and Coptic Christians in a Jersey City mosque and a similar one in Los Angeles (The main culprit in the production of the ill-fated movie is reported to be an Egyptian Coptic). Mutual respect of all faiths and categorical denouncements of bigoted acts were their messages. Their message will reverberate all over the Middle East.

Dr. Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, which specializes in accurate dissemination of information from and to the Arab and Muslim American community.

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