People talk about extremism all the time these days, but because the term isn’t defined clearly, it has come to mean just about anything. These days, it is increasingly become synonymous with Islam, leaving Muslims in the US constantly accused of tolerating, harboring, or even being extremists themselves. The Oxford Dictionary describes an extremist as “a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.”
By this definition, the accusation that the Muslim community is made up of people who tolerate, harbor, or are themselves extremists falls flat. To whatever extent that extremism exists in the Muslim American community, it has been disowned by our organizations, given no refuge in our mosques (particularly after 9/11 and 7/7), and is relegated to the margins of our community and the Internet. In the few mosques that have been linked to extremism, individuals have used the facilities to conceal their activities from worshippers and the public at large. For all the complaints that people have about extremism among Muslims, you’d be hard pressed to find one that will unabashedly declare their views to all.
However, the same is not true when it comes to those whose unabashed hatred of Muslims lead them to defile the very foundation of this country.
When right-wing pundit Dennis Prager penned a column that said that newly elected Muslim congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) “should not be allowed” to take his oath of office on the Qur’an, he revealed something disturbing about himself and the thousands that rallied to his side. Because the Constitution strictly prohibits “religious tests” being used on elected representatives, and the Bill of Rights has a strict protection of the freedom of religion, this issue pits the legal and moral foundations of this country against irrational hatred. Praeger and his supporters have chosen the latter, and we now have thousands of people who claim to not be held to the tenets of the Constitution and Bill of Rights when it comes to the pursuit of their Muslim foes. (Thankfully, many thoughtful conservatives – despite having no love for Islam or Muslims – have defended the rights of Muslims in this case.)
Ultimately, Muslim extremists in the US are few and marginalized, with both Muslim and non-Muslims united against them. To think that elected Muslim representatives, or a population making up some 1% of America, could enforce sharia law by surprise – as some prophesize – is laughable. But the real extremists, who seek to discard the legal foundation of this country and set up a Taliban-style “morals police” to enforce fealty to a state religion, are getting stronger each day. Which one is more of a threat to our society?
Some pundits, unable to find actual Muslim extremists in the US to argue with, seem intent on manufacturing them. CNN�s host Glenn Beck warns that if Muslims aren’t “lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head”, then they will end up “behind razor wire.” Put another way, Beck issued an extremist threat against Muslims if Muslims don’t engage in extremist actions against extremists. If this were actually to happen, it is reasonable to assume that Beck would respond by claiming it as proof of the maxim that Muslims don’t believe in civil society and rule of law, and resort to violence first. How could this ever be taken seriously? But as Beck’s ratings will attest to, it is.
It is easy to find bloggers, commentators, radio talk show hosts, and many others who state very clearly that Islam should be “dealt with” or “confronted”. They are on some of the most-listened to radio shows, the most-read op-ed columns, and the blogs with the highest traffic. But what do they mean by this? Tellingly, each can speak or write forever about the “threat” that Muslims in the US pose, but they have hardly a word about the “solution”. (It would be informative if the media, when bringing these people on the air, would ask that simple question.) They leave no room for “moderate Muslims”, no respect for Islam as a legitimate faith, and do not want Muslim Americans – more than half of whom were born in America and know no other home – as neighbors. Perhaps they haven’t yet bothered to take their rhetoric through to its logical conclusion (the amount of time they devote to this obsession makes it unlikely). They are only responsible for whipping people into a frenzy. What happens next is in the domain of the lynch mob. And we all know where that gets us.
Again, what is the more extremist threat in America? The Muslim bogeyman in America that everyone talks about but nobody can seem to find? Or the thousands of Americans who daily declare their intent to fight their Muslim neighbors with no shame or guilt, and accompanied by silence on the part of our fellow Americans? I believe in the goodwill of Americans, and truly believe that the vast majority would not allow Muslims to be swept aside in violation of the laws that make our country special. What worries me, however, is that it may take many innocent Muslims being put behind razor wire – or worse – for the country to wake up to the threat of the real extremists among us.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.