Islam and pluralism: Who speaks for Muslims?

They all speak

You’ve probably heard that Islam is a decentralized religion, that there is no recognized clerical hierarchy or no one person with authority to speak on behalf of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. I’ve always viewed this organizational structure with appreciation that as a Muslim, I am personally empowered to understand the dictates of the religion in my own cultural & national context.

However, after 9/11, it quickly became evident that this very absence of a religious leader left many non-Muslims shaking their heads over what they perceived to be the overwhelming silence from Muslims in the condemnation of the 9/11 attacks. Irrespective of the many Muslim voices which did speak out – it’s clear that these voices were not heard, especially in America, a land where the media thrives on sound-bites & vivid imagery which do little to explain the complexities of world affairs.

As an American Muslim who is signed up on numerous blogs and e-mail lists, I hear the voices of condemnation, I read about the interfaith initiatives, and I’m aware of the volunteer & community-building projects thriving across the country. My two children & I even co-authored a book about the basics of Islam in order to dispel stereotypes about the religion and its followers, so believe me when I say that Muslims are proactively trying to engage in the dialogue. In January 2009, the United States Institute of Peace published a report titled Islamic Peacemaking Since 9/11 which extensively outlines the numerous Muslim initiatives in this regard.

Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the ASMA Society (American Society for Muslim Advancement) in New York is one such tireless advocate for education and authentic Islamic thought. Along with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, they are leaders in the field of prominent American Muslims who are striving to pursue religious harmony, yet even they face obstacles in receiving the media coverage which their efforts duly deserve. Muslim activists, authors, artists, average citizens – we’re all around you – but what do we have to do to break through the pervading atmosphere of willful misunderstanding about Islam in America?

As a religious group, American Muslims are not a monolithic block – they are as diverse as American Jews in terms of differences in orthodoxy and observance, yet the media continues to define them by the radical acts of a few. To compound the issue, most non-Muslims remain unaware of the vibrant debates over interpretation and self-identity within the Muslim arena.

Who speaks for Muslims? I can only speak for myself when I try to explain the basics of Islam at book-signings, lectures, and Islam 101 classes. This ongoing dialogue is important to those non-Muslims who are curious about learning the facts of a religion which is often perceived as foreign or even un-American (my children are third-generation Americans). Our book, The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, is in over 750 libraries and on a growing number of school and college curriculums as a handy, non-proselytizing resource on Islam, yet some Muslims themselves glance at the cover and dismiss us as ‘not Muslim enough’.

The diversity which we firmly believe is inherent in Islam lends itself to not only our shadings of skin-color, but also the wide acceptance of personal interpretation. For example, the jacket cover of our book includes pictures of a variety of American Muslim teenagers – some in hijab, some not wearing hijab, some holding basketballs or guitars or i-Pods, some just smiling confidently into the camera – basically a snapshot of the unique teen experience. The welcoming accessibility and inclusiveness of this image resonates with my sincere belief that an American Muslim cannot be narrowly defined by any one image.

And yet, a fringe element within the Muslim community is bent on adhering to a definition of Islam which has no room for music or non-hijab wearing girls. Our book IS judged by its cover and summarily dismissed by these ‘representatives of true Islam’ – an irony which probably remains lost on them as the rest of us continue to strive against their narrow interpretations through our interfaith discourse and active involvement within our neighborhoods and communities – all activities which they do not engage in as they are loathe to leave their Muslim bubble. These critics love to condemn outspoken Muslims who endeavor to follow the fundamentals of Islam – belief in God and doing good deeds. Whose image of a Muslim is more valid in this global world, one who strives for peaceful co-existence through education and dialogue or one who is busy enforcing the minutia of dogma?

Explaining Islamic belief to anyone who is curious remains my foremost goal during this time when our voices are desperately missing in the media. However, it’s sad when our attempts are met with active condemnation by the very people whose children and grandchildren will one day benefit from the acceptance and tolerance which will eventually come to Muslims in America. Just as Jews, Catholics, and Mormons struggled for their place in this pluralistic nation, one day our time of struggle to be recognized as American Muslims will be over too, no thanks to the intolerant minority who sit on the side-lines passing judgment on the rest of us.

(Photo: Shazron via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Dilara Hafiz is the Vice President of the Arizona Interfaith Movement and co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook.


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