In the eyes of some, the greatest fault of Muslim-Americans since 9/11 has been a collective failure to make a strong statement against terrorism. Not satisfied with the hundreds of condemnations and fatwas that Muslims have issued since that dark day, people call for a more dramatic Muslim response to the rise of global extremism in the name of Islam.
An oft-suggested response is for Muslims to stage a march against terrorism, one that would mirror the “angry Muslim street” that people are so familiar with from news footage. After all, what better way to stare down Al Qaeda and the rest of the extremists than to show them that we’ve got an even bigger group of angry Muslims right here, on America’s side?
Put aside for now a central question of why Muslims as a group should be required to prove themselves opposed to the barbaric shedding of innocent blood. Nobody suggests, for example, that Catholics must take to the streets to protest pedophilia among the clergy. Instead, the focus in the pedophilia scandals is on those criminally responsible. Law enforcement is involved, and the larger Catholic community is given the latitude to fix its problems.
The Muslim-American community yearns for this kind of rational response.
But even if we Muslim-Americans were able to pull off a grand protest-and that’s a big if-would it do anything to curtail the rise of extremism? Would the terrorists care what we thought? More important, would such an action make the average non-Muslim American feel more secure?
Muslims are understandably wary of any public displays of our anger toward extremism. For one, such a display would reinforce a tired stereotype: the “Rage Boy” Muslim who can find expression only by pouring into the streets.
But the biggest reason behind a reluctance to march is that many Muslims see it as a setup for failure. Even if a march drew tens of thousands, would that mean that only those marching oppose terrorism? In the current climate of suspicion, the rest of the 2 million to 3 million Muslim-Americans would be portrayed as pro-terror.
Take the demoralizing effect of years of suspicion, alienation and hostility that have been absorbed by Muslims in our role as a proxy for those “over there”; work in the geographic spread of Muslims in the U.S.-we have no Muslim ghettos like the ones in Europe; and combine that with a lack of the organizing skills needed to pull off a demonstration, and you can easily see why such an event is doomed.
A weak turnout would confirm for some the presence of a Muslim “fifth column” in the United States. The cycle of mistrust and fear would worsen.
But if one still wishes to see mass protests against extremism by Muslims-well, they have already happened, usually in response to tragic attacks. After all, Muslims themselves are still the most likely to be terror victims, whether it is in Bali or Baghdad.
So, too, have authoritative scholars issued rulings against the use of political violence. But these actions have occurred in Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, Turkey and Pakistan. And yet the violence continues.
The sad truth is that hardened extremists are immune to this kind of pressure, and deep down, we all know it.
Muslim-Americans have proven to be a lawful and productive community that believes in-and lives by-the American dream. These millions of Muslims feel they deserve better than to be used as a shield between America and Al Qaeda. There was much talk after 9/11 of America standing united in the face of terror. Singling out Muslims to protest in this way contradicts that noble response.
Despite all this, Muslims in the U.S. do have a responsibility and a unique role in combating extremism. And it requires a comprehensive approach. It requires that Muslims identify and counsel those with identity issues who are most susceptible to extremist thought. It requires transparent and respectful cooperation between Muslim communities and our government, both of whom share the goal of keeping America safe. It requires that Muslims-like all Americans-keep an eye out for suspicious activity and have a zero-tolerance policy against extremist rhetoric.
Many initiatives with these goals in mind already are quietly under way, because sometimes the most effective strategy isn’t the one with the highest profile. These efforts require more of a commitment than a two-hour walk down Main Street.
For these to succeed, it requires that the Muslim-Americans who engage in this struggle feel that our fellow citizens are covering our back, not standing on it.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com. This article first appeared in the Sunday, July 29, 2007 edition of the Chicago Tribune.