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PeaceTimes Edition 101. Not in the Name of Islam: Muslims in the West Reject Violence, Claim Common Ground

5 February 2010 5 Comments
Detroit event

- by Mary Liston Liepold

“Where are the moderate Muslims? Why don’t we hear from them?”

It’s a question we hear frequently from people in our own neighborhoods, even though Peace X Peace has been showcasing Muslim peacebuilders, among many others, since its founding in 2002. Two kinds of developments make the question especially timely now: a recent rash of real and attempted “terrorist” attacks, and a cluster of decisions by European groups and governments that seem designed to suppress Muslim identity.

In an April 2009 survey of 1,000 US adults conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, most said they did not know a Muslim, and 55% said they didn’t know even the basics about the Islamic faith. Still, almost half, 48%, reported an unfavorable view of Islam. This was the highest negative rating since late 2001. Nearly three in 10, or 29%, said they see mainstream Islam as advocating violence against non-Muslims.

In a recent British public poll, where 4,500 people were questioned, only 25% reported positive feelings toward their Muslim neighbors. The French government wants to ban burqas. The Swiss, long known for their tolerance, want no more minarets. German police perform routine ID checks at mosques and have for years, though they have yet to intercept anyone out to do harm.

The US-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has conducted many global attitude surveys over the past 10 years. In the survey done in December 2009, only 1% of American Muslims said they thought suicide bombing was “often justified.” Yet the mistrust cuts both ways. In one conducted midway through 2006, the number of Americans who described Muslims as fanatical (43%) was almost identical to the number of British Muslims who said they thought of Westerners the same way (44%). Clearly, Muslims and non-Muslims who live in the same countries still don’t know enough about each other.

Muslims make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. The Pluralism Project Directory lists 1,660 Muslim mosques and centers in the United States, with the densest concentrations in California and in the Mid-West. Muslims are about 6% of the population in France, 5% in Germany, 4.3% in Switzerland, 2.7% in the UK, and 2% in Canada, according to a three-year study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released in October 2009. Most of these individuals are peace-loving, loyal to the country they call home, and concerned with making a good life for themselves and others. Unfortunately, the nature of the crimes committed by a small percentage and the preconceptions of the public combine to gain disproportionate exposure for this minority, while the mainstream activities of the majority rarely rate air time.

Before the sun went down on September 11, 2001, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and other leading Muslim organizations and individuals in the West had made statements condemning the violence and expressing their grief and sorrow. Similar statements were issued throughout the following days. Some representatives of these organizations were given media slots. But as the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion points out on its website, they were generally mature, male, bearded, and immigrant, reinforcing the image of Muslims as other, even though the typical Muslim in the West is young, native born, and as likely to be female as male.

MattsonIngrid Mattson, President of ISNA (pictured at right), is one Muslim woman who makes her voice heard– most recently in a message about Haiti that appeared on the organization’s site, in our own Voices from the Frontlines, and in other media outlets. Her 2001 statement was unequivocal: “Islamic law is very clear: Terrorism is not permitted. Even in a legitimate war — even if Osama bin Laden were a legitimate head of state, which he’s not — you’re not permitted to indiscriminately kill civilians, just to create terror in the general population.” (“Experts Say Bin Laden is Distorting Islamic Law“, NY Times, Oct. 8, 2001)

Still, even well-informed and well-intentioned observers frequently make pronouncements like author Tom Friedman’s on January 9, commenting on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas-day bomber: “Unless more Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders – the village – are ready to publicly denounce suicide bombing against innocent civilians – theirs and ours – this behavior will not stop.”

Friedman commends Abdulmutallab’s father, who averted a disaster by blowing the whistle on his own son, but insists on viewing his action as an anomaly. Yet the five young men from Northern Virginia who were arrested in Pakistan just a short time earlier were reported to the FBI by Muslim organizations their parents contacted. And when Admultallab was indicted on January 8, Detroit-area Muslims held a silent protest outside the courthouse with signs saying “Islam Is a Religion of Peace” and “Not in the Name of Islam.”

Muslim spokespeople and organizations across the West have been proactive both in condemning extremism and in making common cause with their neighbors since long before September 11, 2001. Today, women and men we admire are finding increasingly creative ways to let the world know that they choose life, and that what we have in common is far greater than what divides us. They use conventional media, new media, action, and the power of the arts.

“Where are the moderate Muslims?” They’re everywhere.

The four founders of WISDOM. From left to right Trish Harris from St. Hugo of the Hills Catholic Church, Gail Katz from Congregation Beth Shalom, Shahina Begg from Unity Center Mosque, and Peggy Kalis, from the Unity church Michigan has one of the world’s largest Arab communities outside the Middle East, second only to Paris. Almost two-thirds of its Muslim population was born in the United States. Retired Detroit businessman Victor Ghalib Begg and his wife Shahina have been leaders in the region’s interfaith outreach for many decades.

“I got involved in speaking out during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979,” Victor says. The couple have founded and taken part in scores of initiatives since, with particular energy since 2001. Shahina is a co-founder of WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit, a group selected by Read the Spirit.org as one of 10 Spiritual Sages for 2010. (Peace X Peace enjoyed the same distinction in 2009.) So while one Christmas Day incident on a plane bound for Detroit captured international attention, the Beggs and their Jewish friends were making positive news.

“Christmas Day has been Mitzvah Day in Detroit for 20 years or more,” says Micki Grossman, a long-term board member of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Jewish volunteers spend the day working in soup kitchens, children’s centers, hospitals, and other community sites so employees who celebrate Christmas can have more time off. (That’s a mitzvah: a kindness or a good deed done in fulfillment of the commandments.)

Last fall the Executive Director of the Council had lunch with Victor Begg, and the two men agreed to invite Muslims to participate in Mitzvah Day 2009. The activity had grown so popular that 900 volunteers were already on the list, but the Council found assignments for 20 more at Gleaners, the community food bank, where Muslims and Jews could work together. Not 20 but 60 Muslim volunteers showed up and were put to work. CNN cameras showed up too.

The Beggs have founded, co-founded, or taken part in scores of interfaith groups and activities. Now the couple is seeding new interfaith initiatives in Florida, where they spend part of each winter.

Was that other Christmas Day incident a setback? “Yes, for a while,” says Shahina. “But each incident gives us a new opportunity to reach out instead of staying in our closed circle. We have no choice; we have to move forward. We do it for our kids.”

Flashmob Iftars
Across the Atlantic, London Muslims found their own way to claim common ground and positive publicity last year: the flashmob Iftar. The Iftar is the evening meal that breaks the daylong fast during the month of Ramadan, traditionally a time to gather with family and friends. Last year a few young Londoners packed up their Iftar meal and took it to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where many of the city’s homeless residents congregate. In the spirit of zakat—a concept akin to that of mitzvah—they shared the feast with those who otherwise might not eat. With the help of a YouTube video, the idea caught on quickly and more participants arrived as the month went on. By the time The Guardian carried the story on September 22, it was already winging its way around the world.

The Power to Change the Conversation
Zeba - Aasil's weddingZeba Iqbal (at left) is a Muslim American woman who chooses consciously to “live in the overlap zones” and serve as a bridge between cultures. She is the newly elected Executive Director of CAMP, The Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals, and she is emphatic about one thing:

“I am not an apologist. My religion is beautiful, like all religions. I am not responsible for the small percentage of Muslims who do crazy things. But when something like the Christmas event or the Major Hasan story breaks, my friends and I email each other: ‘Oh my God, how are we going to have to defend ourselves now?’

We have to find the most credible response. And we can do it. Do you remember the incident last year around Valentine’s Day, when a Muslim husband in Buffalo, New York, decapitated his wife? He was well known in the Muslim community as the founder of a TV station called Bridges, intended ‘to tell stories of Muslim tolerance, progress, diversity, service and excellence.’ A friend of the couple told a Fox reporter the station was the wife, Aasiya Zubair’s, idea.

She was divorcing him, and this horrible act was his reaction. Right away, the media started calling it an “honor killing.” Michele Norris used the term on NPR. And we said, ‘Wait a minute! This has nothing to do with his religion; this was domestic violence. You do this woman, Aasiya Zubair, and every victim of domestic violence a disservice if you call it anything else.’ So some friends and I worked hard to drive the news story in the right direction.

Thanks to the internet and our own networks, my friends and I, some of whom are Muslim journalists and bloggers, put together a call to action. We  got our point of view out virally through email, Facebook, and blogs. We cross-posted everything, including pieces in very well-read outlets like The Guardian. I even received a phone call from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, one of the most influential imams in America. He signed on to our request for a coordinated sermon on domestic violence at Friday prayers, and he sent a strong message that Islam does not condone this or any violence. We asked other imams to preach on the same topic at the same time. Our Facebook group on the topic has over 3,600 members.

We couldn’t undo what happened, but we could change the conversation, and we did. We have become smarter, more mature, more strategic than we were after 9-11, when the media asked a Pakistani cricket star about religion and Shaykh Yusuf about politics!

When I speak, I tell audiences, ‘You do not realize your power. You can write op eds, cross-post, make cold calls, make yourself heard. You have the power to make it better―or worse.’ ”

“Everyone Is Interested in Love”
shelina zahra janmohamedBritish author Shelina Zahra Janmohamed opts to make herself heard through writing.

“We are condemning violence until we have no breath left. And eventually you wonder why you have to keep saying it. We don’t have an archbishop or a pope who speaks for all Muslims everywhere. There is a variety of groups, and people can select one to prove the point they wish to make. I’m choosing to create positive stories and make them as universal as I can while still representing my own tradition.

9-11 affected me strongly. I felt unsafe being on my own street. But in the years after that I was hopeful. I thought Britain was using its history and its heritage of freedom.

Then came July 7, 2005: four bombs on public transport during the morning rush hour, 56 dead, including the four bombers, and some 700 injured. We call it 7-7, our own 9-11. This time I wasn’t afraid; I was outraged that someone would do this to my home city, the city I am so proud
of. And I found that there were very few British Muslims claiming that name, so I started a blog to speak for myself.

I believe that Muslim women will be shaping the future of the community. They want to make change from within Islam. Many non-Muslim feminists don’t get it, but people read my posts and forwarded them, and soon they were telling me I should write a book. It happens there’s a bookstore right across from where I live. I went in one day and there was a theme table on Muslim women a few meters square, filled with stories of oppression and liberation.

Those stories are important, but I thought, ‘None of this is my life! Someone has to tell my story―and no one else can.’ I decided the best way for someone to stand in my shoes was to make it a love story. Everyone is interested in love.

Romantic love is the hook, but my memoir―Love in a Headscarf: Muslim Woman Seeks the One―is also about divine love and your relationship to the community. It’s been picked up around the world, and I get letters every day from women who say, ‘You have described my life.’ The book will be released in the US in October.

Like Shahina Begg, Shelina and Zeba struggle to be hopeful. Both mentioned President Obama’s election as a sign of hope, even though his luster has dimmed in the past year. Zeba remembers watching General Colin Powell on Meet the Press in 2008 as a “milestone moment.”

“Addressing claims that Obama was a Muslim, Powell said, ‘Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ I was in front of a television with tears running down my face.”

But Is It Enough?
Violence, even the threat of violence against any of our fellow human beings is real, terrible, and grave. Mitzvah days, flashmob Iftars, media campaigns, and books may seem too light to weigh in the balance against such evil. In fact, though, a critical mass of such actions may be precisely the counterweight we need.

People who had accepted and grown inured to large-scale violence conducted by more or less willing combatants—the system we call war—are profoundly shocked by the expansion of hostilities to include sporadic attacks on noncombatants. “Terrorism,” the shorthand term that has been adopted for this kind of violence, can be succinctly defined as freelance warfare. Freelance diplomacy on a sufficient scale—along with freelance development beyond the work of governments and NGOs—can reach the roots of violence in human hearts and minds, removing fear and hatred of those we see as Other. I submit that it can do more to defend human life than all the security apparatus governments can devise, and certainly more than burqa bans or terror alerts.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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5 Comments to “PeaceTimes Edition 101. Not in the Name of Islam: Muslims in the West Reject Violence, Claim Common Ground”
  1. Banu Iqbal says:

    Iam delighted that the muslim women are beginning to speak out. We need to empower ourselves, to bring out the peace beauty of Islam. I am especially proud of my daughter Zeba. May Allah guide and give you strength.

  2. Imran Anwar says:

    Mary, this was a wonderful item to read. I tweeted it at http://twitter.com/imrananwar and on my FaceBook page.

    Kind regards

    IMRAN

  3. Naeem Harry says:

    Dear Mary Leipold,

    Thanks for serving for peace. Your thoughts are always inspiring. In peace time you talk about the Moderate Muslims.
    They are all stuggling but they are so powerless. The issue of religion is so powerful and their thoughts on human beings are not heard in the Muslim world. So still we have to support them so that they may keep stuggling.

  4. Naba Hamid says:

    Dear Mary,
    Thank you so much for this article. As always your thoughts are very clear and to the point.
    For almost six years Peace X Peace know my work and you know more peace work for other Muslim women. Hundred Millions of moderate Muslims are living peacefully with other faiths and people on earth. Political money and political Islam manipulate and distort the principles of pure Islam. Unfortunately the people of the West do not hear the voices of moderate Muslims but they recognize the evil actions of few fanatic Muslims.

  5. nora says:

    Just read this excellent article. You are truly doing God’s work. And pale soup is much better than no soup, as we always said at Peace Links.

    Struggle is just like that river we can’t step in twice….but more than that, we step in from where on the bank we are. At that point, all good information is priceless!

    love,
    n.

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