Reverend Jeremiah Wright: Could a Muslim ever say that?

Words matter

If anything, the timing was quite interesting (and suspicious). Just as it seemed nothing could stop Barack Obama from capturing the Democratic nomination for President, grainy videos of Rev. Jeremiah Wright – Obama’s former pastor, spiritual guide, and mentor – were released showing him condemning America and spewing incendiary, offensive rhetoric from the pulpit.

“The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America’,” said the Rev. Wright in a 2003 sermon. He then continued, “No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people.” On September 16, 2001 – the Sunday after 9/11 – the Reverend said, “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.” He also said, “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

Immediately, the Obama campaign scrambled to distance the Senator from the comments of his old pastor, and it led the Senator to deliver a landmark speech about race in America, in which he repudiated the comments of Rev. Wright, but not the man. Despite the relative success of the speech, the Rev. Wright’s comments have clearly damaged the Obama campaign, and it remains to be seen what effect, if any, the Reverend’s comments will have on Obama should he be the Democratic nominee.

Yet, there is one thing that is undeniable in this entire controversy. No Muslim leader in America – in his or her right mind, that is – could ever say, “God damn America, that’s in the Qur’an for killing innocent people.” No Muslim in his or her right mind could make the statement that Hurricane Katrina is “God’s judgment” for the sin in New Orleans, as conservative pastor John Hagee said to NPR’s Terry Gross. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s $10 million donation to New York after 9/11 was rejected by then Mayor Giuliani when Al-Waleed suggested the attacks were an indication that the United States “should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause,” a sentiment similar to that of Rev. Wright.

Why is this? Why the double standard? First of all, I do not bring this up to suggest that there is nothing the matter with Muslims saying “God damn America,” and calling Hurricane Katrina “God’s punishment.” I bring this up, rather, to highlight a sad, yet important truth. Muslims are still considered “foreign,” outside of the American mainstream, and the antithesis of what it means to be American.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whatever one may think of his comments, is accepted as genuinely American in the minds of all. By virtue of his experiences, his ancestry, and the history of his people, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is as authentically American as George Washington. Thus, although many people would cringe and reel from his comments and angry tirades against America, no one would even fathom of calling for the surveillance of his church for seditious activity. No one would call for the deportation of Rev. Wright to Africa. No one would accuse Rev. Wright as materially supporting the enemies of America. At least not in the America of the 21st Century (I hope).

Muslims, however, are not considered as “genuinely American,” even though Islam has been part of the fabric of America since before its very founding. Islam is still considered a foreign transplant, an alien faith coming out of an alien tradition. Very few non-Muslim Americans see Islam as coming directly out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Most Americans would probably reject the notion that Islam is the culmination of Judeo-Christian sacred history. This is largely due to a fundamental ignorance about the tenets and basics of Islam on the part of the overwhelming majority of people in America. The incessant bad press and the wilful distortion of Islam by a small, yet vocal minority of Americans does not help matters, either.

As a result, any anti-American statement would immediately be considered tantamount to sedition. Had an “Imam Muhammad” in some suburban mosque been filmed saying “God damn America, that’s in the Qur’an for killing innocent people,” there would be an enormous outcry. American Muslims (including this one) would roundly “condemn,” “reject,” and “repudiate” his comments as fundamentally un-American and un-Islamic. The Imam could very well be arrested and charged with “material support for terrorism.” His mosque would be scrutinized for any “links” to Al Qaeda, or other foreign terrorist organizations, and the mosque itself would probably be vandalized, if not burned to the ground. Further, his comments would be used as proof by anti-Islam forces in America that Muslims are a fifth-column, seeking to destroy America and are not to be trusted. Most people can stomach criticism from one of their own, however disliked he may be; but criticism from an outsider is utterly intolerable.

Herein lies one among many of the challenges the American Muslim community faces, namely to increase its engagement in the greater American society. For too long, American Muslims were isolated from the larger society, and it has done both Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors a disservice. The less isolated American Muslims are in society, the more they come to be seen as part and parcel of the American fabric. When fellow Americans see their Muslim neighbors engaged in local politics, neighborhood watch committees, PTA meetings, and the like, they will come to realize that Muslims are as American as they are, except they follow a different faith tradition (that is really not that different at all).

The end result of an engaged American Muslim community is not the safety to spew angry rhetoric from mosque pulpits. Such speech is useless and counterproductive, serving to only further isolate the American Muslim community. Rather, an engaged Muslim community can then join hands with their non-Muslim neighbors and come together as one people, living in one nation, working as one body to help promote economic security, social justice, civil rights, and civil liberties for all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. America can only become a better nation because of it, and I have the audacity to hope that such a vision can one day become reality.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.


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