Combatting extremism: Don’t worry, we’re going to do something

Combatting extremism: Don’t worry, we’re going to do something September 16, 2008
It’s our move

Seven years ago, four planes hijacked by 19 Arab Muslim men crashed into specially chosen sites of American significance in New York City, the country’s financial and cultural capital, and Washington, D.C., our political capital. As we know, the hijackers of United Flight 93 only partially succeeded in their mission of destruction: the brave passengers of that flight managed to down the plane in a field in Pennsylvania. All on board died, but none on the ground did.

In passenger Tom Burnett’s last call to his wife from aboard the plane, he said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.” The passengers of United Flight 93 did not go down without a fight. They stood up for themselves and for the American people, paying the ultimate price. Their brave actions prevented the deaths of more Americans and those visiting our country on the ground in Washington DC. In New York, many Americans, as well of people of other nationalities, died – on the planes and on the ground. Some of those people were Muslims; most of them were not.

Dear Ummah, I would like to know when we are going to stand up against those we say have hijacked Islam. “Oh, they hijack Islam,” we say, and we leave it there. “Oh, I’m a moderate Muslim,” we reassure our co-workers. Most of us don’t dare say, “Let’s roll” when it comes to confronting the extremism of our own people. The bitter, bitter truth is that Muslims have largely been apathetic and ineffective against the creeping tide of Islamic extremism and terrorism — despite the fact that most victims of said violence and extremism are fellow Muslims.

On Flight 93, a flight attendant named Sandy Bradshaw prepared scalding hot water to throw on the hijackers, in an attempt to disable or distract the terrorists. Looking at the behavior of Muslims the past seven years, I’d say most of us are preparing hot water so we can have another cup of tea. (Well, those of us who aren’t preparing to offer the terrorists a cup of tea, that is).

Where is our Sandy Bradshaw? Where is our Tom Burnett? Our CeeCee Lyles? Our Todd Beamer?

I am tired of the defensiveness and ineffectiveness of the Muslims when it comes to this issue. “I’m not a terrorist!” “I’m not like that!” “Most Muslims aren’t extremists!” “They’re a minority!” Great. That may all be true, but they are a minority who have been on a decade-long rampage of murder and rape across Africa, Europe and Asia. “They’re a minority!” we crow as women are gunned down in the streets of Iraq for not being “properly covered.” Well, of course, that one is Bush’s fault, according to a lot of Muslims. While his actions have made it convenient for them to act there, the fact is that it is Muslims doing the killing. The plain, hard truth is that it is people who profess Islam who are killing others in Nigeria, in Sudan, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Pakistan, and elsewhere. George Bush didn’t force a machete into the hands of the Muslim men who beheaded Daniel Pearl.

Stop deflecting. It is true that the war in Afghanistan has gone on too long, that the Taliban keep resurfacing like some sort of bad dream, that Osama is still on the loose, that Iraq is a huge disaster, that the Muslims who live in post-colonial nations have valid complaints against both the Western powers and the autocratic despots who rule over most of them. All of this is true.

But Muslims have to stop making it their sole response to the question, “What are you doing about extremism and terrorism amongst Muslims?” Are our statements “strongly condemning these actions” enough? No, because it has to be backed up by real action, action which I believe is largely intellectual and spiritual. We have to firmly and without any reservations reject the rhetoric of extremism and invalidate its sources. We have, so far, been unwilling to do this.

For crying out loud, you have Muslims in the West who refuse to denounce the Taliban. I find this absolutely disgusting, and would be willing to contribute to a fund whereby these jokers can leave the freedom they find in the West and go live with the Taliban. I’m sure all those women defending them on ‘net forums as the vanguard of true Islam will really love it.

I met a Muslim a few years ago who referred to Osama as “sheikh.” And I know a lot of you out there know characters like this. We have remained silently embarrassed of the rhetoric of extremism that exists inside of Western Muslim communities. We have said very little about the fact that before 9/11, khutbas and halaqas urging hatred of the West were common in many communities. We forget that anti-American rhetoric among Muslims living in America was common. It was not even unusual for many of us to fall prey to this, since the Islam of the Saudi petro-dollars dominated much of what was available in English. An Islam where, ideally, all women would wear black and cover even their eyes, since these tiny organs are so alluring to most men. An Islam where polygyny was not only the norm, it was the truest way of being Muslim. Many of us were taught that this was the only way you could be Muslim — that to be a true Muslim who were required to hold specific political, cultural, and social positions.

We said nothing about the implicit support of certain segments of the community for suicide bombing (as long as it’s against the Jews, it’s okay!). We said and say nothing about the treatment of Muslim women in our communities in the land of the free. We say nothing about rampant anti-Jewish sentiment, which extends to horrifying and intellectually cowardly ideas about the Holocaust. And not just in the Arab countries. We all know it is present among many in the West. Everything wrong with us, from Osama to the dudes who ban women at the masjid, is the fault of the Jews, the West, capitalism, the Sufis, the Shi’a, and anything else under the sun. It is never the fault of Muslims.

The fact that I am afraid to publish this is proof enough of the fact that beneath our well-intentioned talk of tolerance and moderation, the truth is that there are plenty of crazies amongst us, and that we are not dealing with them sufficiently. Several bloggers have even received death threats that the authorities viewed as credible. Not from anti-Muslim types (although I think that is true too), but from fellow Muslims. I myself was threatened last year here in Jordan over things I was writing (not by the authorities, by just another “crazy” Muslim). Blogger Tariq Nelson is someone I can point out as an inspiration. In the face of threats and hatred, he continues to tell the Muslims what we need to hear, what we don’t want to hear. He has not been cowed by these idiots. Why should we?

As the revolt of the passengers of Flight 93 began, forty-four average American men and women came together roughly a half an hour after the hijacking to stop what they knew to be a suicidal mission being carried out by the four Arab Muslim men who had taken them hostage. Forty-four average Americans, like you and me, overcame all of their fears of the unknown, of being hurt, of death to try and put a stop to it. And though they all perished, they succeeded in stopping the hijackers from killing more everyday people on the ground.

Where is your courage, community? We are a group of people who can’t manage to keep the masjid bathroom clean. In most of our large-scale endeavors we have proven impotent and ineffectual. Forget large scale, our day and weekend schools operate on a seat of the pants philosophy. How do we think that we can be effective when it comes to speaking against and ending extremism in our own country, let alone the rest of the world?

Why is it politically incorrect, simply “not done” to express admiration for the passengers of Flight 93 in our community? For the firefighters and transit cops, the NYPD and EMTs at the World Trade Center? When Sheikh Hamza Yusuf dared express sorrow for their loss, he was loudly excoriated by a segment of our great community that feels it is somehow offensive to God to mourn the loss of good people because they are not Muslim. Yes, individually, many people do have these feelings of admiration and sorrow, but collectively, as a community, we avoid discussing it. In the seven years since 9/11 happened, I have never heard much sentiment or sorrow expressed for these people among the Muslims. We point out and mourn the Muslim victims (I think this helps make us feel more American and more innocent of the crime), but stay oddly silent on the rest. Why? All of their lives had meaning and value, all of them.

Two people in my graduating high school class, as well as one in the class before mine, and one in the class after mine died that day. And that was just my time. It doesn’t include the victims who graduated many years before I did (or after I did), nor does it include those who graduated from our sister school at the same time. People I had study hall with, or whose lockers were near mine. A woman I grew up with, whose younger siblings I went to school with, died that day. A neighbor from New York, an EMT, died trying to rescue people. A very, very good Muslim friend of mine lost a cousin at the Pentagon. He was serving his country in the military after having an extremely rough childhood and young adulthood. None of them were Muslims. They are as deeply missed as the dervish from Rockland County, or the Muslim EMT from Queens.

They were good people, just working for a living, just like the Muslim victims we publicly mourn.

As though it somehow makes us disloyal to Islam to acknowledge this. As if mourning the firefighters or the passengers of Flight 93 means we don’t mourn the dead in Iraq or Palestine or anywhere else. As if mourning our own fellow Americans means that we valued their lives more than people anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be that at all.

To acknowledge these victims and heroes, from the traders and programmers to the cops and firefighters does not mean aligning ourselves with the xenophobes in our country and elsewhere who use the victims to push for racist policies, or who unfairly demonize Muslims and other groups.

I remember everything about that day. The terror, the fear, the uncertainty, the panic. We were without television, cell phones, or landlines. Unbeknownst to me, friends and relatives all over the country were attempting to phone and e-mail us in a state of near-panic. The one who called the most often, the first one I spoke to? Not a Muslim. I remember Rudolph Giuliani, of all people, being the first to tell Americans not to attack Muslims, that it was not our fault, that we were not guilty. I remember weeping that night and other nights following that Tuesday, wondering who these people were that they did such a thing, and that they were Muslims. I was mortified, horrified, embarrassed, and angered. Within days of the attacks, I had joined a fledgling activist group, Muslims Against Terrorism, meeting in the heart of Manhattan itself. The group did not last very long. Infighting and an inability to find direction did us in, alongside the demands of everyday life. And this was largely a group of American born, highly educated, professional Muslims. Some were critical of the name chosen when the founders had come together. Some were afraid that it insinuated that some Muslims were for terrorism.

Well duh! Wasn’t that the point?

I felt sure that now the sun would shine in, that things would be exposed for what they were, and that the Muslim community, all around the world, would reject extremism, reject its proponents. That our American Muslim leadership would put an end to extremist rhetoric and actions inside of the community from the second-class treatment of women to anti-American hate speech. To stand up against the fear that these people would label us people of bid’a or apostates if we dared question their stultifying and suffocating “interpretations” of Islam. To realize that disagreeing with them was not a rejection of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as they claimed it was, but a reclaiming of our own religion. To not deny, for once, that the perpetrators of these acts were, in fact, Arabs and Muslims. For once, not to descend into ridiculous conspiracy theories (usually involving Jews), but to say, “My God… these were our people.”

No, we were not guilty for what those 19 men did… or the guys in the London bombings, or the guys in the Madrid bombings, or the guys in the Bali bombings or… or… or. We did not carry out those acts ourselves. We would never, ever do such a thing. But what we have done is allow extremists to flourish prior to 9/11, and to allow their rhetoric to remain largely unchallenged after 9/11 (rather than alienating those Muslims, who are largely liberal, who do challenge it). All because we fear that we will not be “true Muslims” if we challenge and put an end to it.

I’m still waiting, leaders. I’m still waiting for you to say, “Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.”

(Photo: Jeff Kubina via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Saraji Umm Zaid is the author of the popular Brass Crescent Award-winning weblog Sunni Sister.

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