Moderate Muslims need to raise their voices - By Javeed Akhter

September 12, 2004

I have always considered myself fortunate. I feel lucky in being born into Islam, a belief system that I love passionately. I am proud of its rational concepts, its moderate teachings, its egalitarianism, its pluralism and in particular the tenet that there should be no intermediaries between man and God.

I also am continually grateful for U.S. citizenship. The decision to migrate had not been easy, and I had vacillated for a long time. But any doubts about migrating vanished the moment I set foot on the U.S. soil. My new country of choice appeared to be a modern-day miracle.

Daily life functioned effortlessly. Class distinction was minimal. People were friendly yet minded their own business. Work ethic was great, and institutions like hospitals were run professionally.

As a physician I was impressed by the dignity and compassion with which patients were treated. Bribery in daily chores, except for driver's licenses, was virtually non-existent. Streets were clean, and the toilets cleaner.

Freedom of _expression was taken for granted. There was a healthy irreverence toward authority. No subject was too sacrosanct. There were no sacred cows, neither figurative nor literal.

I loved the freedoms this country offered more than its luxuries. The ideals that Islam stood for, such as egalitarianism, compassion and honesty, appeared to be more evident in U.S. society than in most Muslim-majority countries.

There was no fear of unexpected searches or arrests, no flash riots, as happen in India, which would imperil one's life and property.

The country felt safe and secure, and daily life was free of all of the usual annoyances and tensions that I had become used to in India.

Soon I discovered the Muslim scene was more productive in the U.S. than anywhere else in Islamic world.

Here the scholars were more creative. Many important scholars of contemporary Islam and Muslims such as Hossein Nasr, Cherif Bassiouni and Ali Mazrui were in the U.S.

Islamicists such as John Esposito, John Voll, John Woods and Ralph Braibanti wrote about Islam and Muslims with empathy and sensitivity. Books written in the English language were quickly becoming important new additions to the Islamic literature.

In fact there was such strength and exuberance that people talked about the much-awaited Islamic renaissance starting in the U.S. The commonly touted rationale was that only in the West could Muslim scholars express their opinion freely without being ostracized or sometimes even branded an infidel.

Like any other immigrant group, Muslims and South Asians were stereotyped, but this problem of stereotyping and otherness rarely intruded in my daily life. The color of my skin, my facial features, dietary restrictions, religious rituals and my worldview all set me apart from my fellow Americans.

Nevertheless like most of my Muslim immigrant friends, I always felt warmly received by my colleagues, patients and other Americans. My children were thriving in schools, and the universal hope of a better future for our children appeared to be coming true.

This remarkably munificent state of affairs changed abruptly on Sept. 11, 2001.

My work remains as fulfilling as ever. The little cocoon I live in has more creature comforts than ever before. The stand-up comics are funnier than ever. But the outside has fallen apart. War and the violent actions of small groups of Muslims driven by anger and revenge dominate the news.

The attempts by some Muslim militants to justify their actions as sanctioned by Islam are meaningless to me, but they feed into the stereotype of fanatical Muslims who are the followers of violent religion.

Violence against Muslims in many parts of the world, ranging from southern Thailand to Chechnya, continues unabated. In the U.S. the stereotyping and hate speech by some news and views shows, political pundits and a few religious leaders have become so strident and pervasive that I can barely look at a newspaper or news channel or listen to radio.

All of a sudden the American media appear flooded with people with provincial and parochial outlooks. My initial read of America as a broad-minded nation now appears naive. I have come to the slow realization that my privileged position in my profession may be akin to the honorary white status of South Asian Indians in the apartheid South Africa.

The new authority given to law enforcement under the Patriot Act has resulted in violations of civil rights, mostly of Muslims, on a large scale. Indictments brought under the law have led to few prosecutions but a lot of heartache and serious disruption of innocent lives.

This hasn't tempered the Justice Department's zeal to prosecute these cases of alleged terrorism. A new round of questioning Muslims and Arabs is under way, with unannounced, intrusive and intimidating visits to homes and offices by the FBI.

The very freedoms and security that I cherished as an immigrant have evaporated. The law-enforcement sweeps have had a chilling effect on the Muslim community. People are afraid to talk freely. They wonder whether there are informants among them. They do not know which act or what word they utter may be misconstrued and prompt a visit from the authorities or worse.

In the current climate in Washington, the world is looked at as black and white. There are no shades of gray, no room for introspection and no middle ground. And yet it is this middle ground, these shades of gray that we need to reclaim. There is an alternate way of dealing with the problems we are all faced with.

This demands a fresh analysis of the problems facing our country with input from Muslims who care for both the U.S. and Islam.

Muslims here want the U.S. to be the best nation in the world, not just the one with the richest economy and the strongest defense force, but also the nation with high ideals upholding justice, fair play, civil and human rights. They also want Islam to get the recognition and respect it deserves as one of the greatest living traditions in human history.

This crucial input from American Muslims is missing from most public policy debates.

Two influential reports published recently are a good illustration of this point. Both the analysis published by the Rand Corp. titled "Civil and Democratic Islam" and the 9/11 Commission report fail to include a Muslim perspective.

The Rand Corp.'s solution of influencing the struggle within Islam is to stratify Muslims into various categories by their attitudes toward such disparate issues as democracy and wife beating, and based on this stratification support the groups that are deemed more acceptable against those that are perceived as potential troublemakers.

The 9/11 report, a thorough and painstaking crime scene investigation, barely flirts with the issue of the root causes of violence. It has no input from any Muslim scholars.

Both reports assume that the problem of violence is entirely with the Muslims and Islam. There is no attempt at introspection. The oppression of Muslims by the West, whether real or perceived, is not addressed at all.

The possible reasons why the current U.S. administration has become the most distrusted and feared in the Muslim world are ignored.

A Muslim-American perspective is missing also from the op-ed pages of most newspapers, discussion circles on TV and policy-making bodies of both the legislative and executive branches of the government. The greatest and the most conspicuous absence is from the law-enforcement agencies. In these areas the U.S. may learn from the newly elected government in India that is aggressively pursuing a policy of inclusiveness.

Any attempt at regaining middle ground has to start with debating what is prominent on the U.S. radar as well as the Muslim radar.

It is only by initiating an honest discussion that we can start reclaiming the middle ground, recapture some of the sense of security that we have lost, salvage some of the freedoms, and come up with a set of solutions that may bring peace to the world.

Otherwise the spiral of violence will predictably continue with an ever-increasing intensity, and peace-loving folks like me will continue to wake up each morning and ask, "When will it end?"

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune


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