It’s become a pattern now. Every time September comes around, our society pulls the bandages off our collective wounds and insists on poking sticks in it. The self-torture has come to the point where some news outlets are broadcasting their original footage from that fateful morning, uncut, in order to ensure that everyone relives the horror at the same time. Surveys of all kinds show that each year, hope for a normal life diminishes, and anger at “the other” continues to grow. Far from being healed, the wound is infected, and threatens to spread to areas previously healthy.
Some of us want to forget the nightmare and move on. Others indulge themselves, wanting to recharge the batteries of anger in order to prepare for another year of war, whether virtual, verbal, or very much real. As Muslims, we’ve been caught in the middle for five years now – unable to escape responsibility for actions of people far away who claim to share our faith, and incapable of stemming a tide of increasing hatred being directed at our community. When I look into the eyes of my non-Muslim friends, I see honest people trying very hard to separate what they see and read about from the person standing before them. I can only wonder what goes through the mind of those who don’t have the benefit of having a Muslim friend to create some restraint against the natural impulse to blame a collective enemy.
I’m naturally an optimistic person. Each year, I think to myself that I’ve seen the worst of it. And each year, I recall events from the past 12 months that tell me otherwise. Muslim extremists emerge from the shadows, poking around our defenses for an unreinforced soft spot. Anti-Muslim extremists, fresh from mining our religion and history for any piece of information that can be used to defame and incite, grow bolder in their calls for the removal of Muslims from their midst. This year, I saw a first: a call for an all-out war on Islam and Muslims, even if millions of innocents die in the process. I’m reminded of the history of European Jews and Rwandan Tutsis, of how entire populations were desensitized in advance of genocide using similar campaigns. Could it happen again?
Five years later, jihad-minded Muslims such as al-Qaida still have the nerve to think of themselves as some sort of vanguard of defense for Muslims. In fact, their actions have done more to bring curses upon the Prophet and hatred toward our faith than anything in the history of the religion. It is a powerful form of anti-dawah, something for which I pray they will be held accountable for in this life and the next. The central problem for Muslims is that some of the disaffected among us are unable to express dissent in a constructive, nonviolent, and lawful manner. As small a group as they might be, they have caused, and continue to cause, incalculable damage.
Still I hear the refrains: “Where are the moderate Muslims? Where is the condemnation of terrorism?” I and many other Muslims involved in public service feel like we’ve been screaming in the middle of the ocean. How are we expected to compete with 24-hour TV news and a blogosphere that gives Muslim malcontents a magnitude of PR that money can’t buy? How are we supposed to respond when a community of 25 million Muslims in the West is served by institutions that have a relative handful of full-time advocates, most still trying to learn how to defend themselves against a media onslaught? One example of our inability to properly respond to the trauma inflicted upon the American psyche was the way the “Islam is a religion of peace” refrain, so common among Muslim spokespeople in the days after 9/11, was chewed up and spit back in our faces. We needed to address very real fears of Islam, but could only offer up only simplistic platitudes.
None of this is to say that the decline is irreversible. There is still hope that we can stem this decline. Recent surveys suggest that even though hostility towards Muslims has increased since the days of 9/11, those numbers drop significantly for those Americans who count Muslims among their friends. Rather than funding multi-million dollar public relations campaigns, a grassroots effort, it seems, is in order. If everyone in America had a Muslim friend, the poll numbers and attitudes towards Islam would be very different than they are now. And we need friends now, more than ever.
The recent involvement of Muslims in the West in directly stopping planned terror attacks should be an example for those who continue to think that mainstream Muslims do not care about our collective safety. We should be emboldened by this. We can be self-critical and vigilant about extremism without falling into the trap of apologetics or being ashamed of who we are. I believe that non-Muslims are very interested in seeing that we are acknowledging and working on our problems, which counters the impression that we are thoughtless automatons following orders from beyond. Perhaps in traditional Muslim countries, airing of internal issues and problems is seen as a sign of weakness. In the West, it is seen as a strength. Muslims living here should take note of that.
Next year, we will might find ourselves again wringing our hands about the escalation of tensions between the West and the Muslim world. It’s also possible that we may finally decide to leave the bandage on the wound so that the real healing can begin. Our actions between now and then will determine that outcome.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.