Tensions at Cultural Crossroads


by Ali Shareef

As the year 2011 passes its halfway mark, perhaps it is time to reflect on the events of the past 2 years.  Specifically, events that exposed a festering tension between two segments of the American population: Muslims and the rest of the U.S. citizenship.

The year 2010 witnessed the hotly debated issue of Lower Manhattan’s Park51,the  community center also known as the “ground zero mosque.” That year also witnessed Juan Williams’ infamous “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Of course, over the past year, the mantra that “Muslims killed us on 9/11” and “all terrorists are Muslims” was repeated countless times as well.

This same festering tension was not restricted to the U.S. alone, but was apparent in the French “burqa ban.” A ban on all face coverings for the purpose of security and identification is understandable; however, the word “burqa”—the term for the head covering some Muslim women choose to wear—was specifically cited. This followed on the heels of the popular Swiss referendum on the ban against mosque minarets in 2009, despite the Swiss government’s opposition.

Here in the U.S. these same tensions motivated some talk-show hosts to speculate that the proposed Park51 center mosque at the very top would overlook Ground Zero, “where the faithful can look out and gloat over their victory.” Whether or not Park51 should be built at this location, the more interesting question that begs an answer is the motivation of the deep-rooted suspicions of Muslims.

Given the memory of September 11th a mere 10 years ago, some of these feelings are understandable. However, the vitriol that is vented belies a deeper distrust. A distrust, which admittedly, some Muslims have earned and unfairly brought upon the rest of the Muslim world.

Unfortunately, some people jump to the conclusion that because some Muslims act in a certain way toward people of other faiths, this implies that Islam must advocate it. Perhaps, this is the flawed reasoning that fuels the misconception of pluralism in Islam and results in the tensions that are directed toward all Muslims.

For example, it doesn’t help that ethnic tribes in Nigeria, some of whom are Muslim, are rivals of other tribes which may be Christian. Unfortunately, this was due to the tensions that were brought on by the effects of colonialism which lasted well past the mid-1900s.

Indigenous Muslim populations tend to view associates of their former colonial Christian masters with suspicion. As a result of these long-held animosities between tribes, often for reasons that had nothing to do with religion, violent clashes erupted. Though the root causes of the conflicts were not religious, the resulting uproar was twisted into religious ethos and used to spurn the violence with dark religious overtones.

However, rather than portraying these events as acts of local ethnic conflicts, the media often promotes them as holy wars. TV and radio stations routinely trot out self-professed “experts” on Islam whose biased opinions are often flagrantly false. These experts claim that “Islam” is the motivation, and Islam is to be blamed for the actions of these Muslims. Undoubtedly references will be made to verses in the Qur’an that are purported to justify attacks on innocent people who are not Muslim. References that are taken completely out of context without the verses that precede and follow them. In other cases, the background information necessary to explain the verse in the historical context of its revelation is conveniently ignored.

These “experts” will often conclude that Muslims want to forcibly convert as many non-Muslims as possible. Either that or “they hate us because of our freedoms.” Which only leads to an unsettling feeling in the minds of the public towards Islam. Either conclusion would be amusing in its naivety if it wasn’t for the gravity of the situation.

While it is true that the Qur’an refers to hell for people who are not Muslims, critics who point to this while ignoring similar references in the Bible only validate their hypocrisy. Virtually all religions promise a dark afterlife for those who do not adhere to that religion.

Islam considers life a test for everyone, and teaches that belief in it and its practices are a fulfillment of that test. However, the Qur’an clearly states:

“There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in the forces of evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And God is Hearing and Knowing.” (Qur’an 2:256)

In another place in the Qur’an it states that only God has the right to judge people on their beliefs and actions. It is not the responsibility of any human being to enforce religious beliefs on anyone.

“And tell my servants to say that which is best. Indeed, Satan induces [dissension] among them. Indeed Satan is ever, to mankind, a clear enemy. […] And We have not sent you, (O Muhammad), over them as a manager.” (Qur’an 17:53-54)

Islam accepts the individuality of each person and their aspirations in life, property, and spirituality. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) was quoted to have said in a tradition in the book Kitab al-Kharaj by Abu Yusuf, a prominent theologian in Islamic history: “Whoever wronged a mustamin (a non-Muslim citizen in a Muslim land) or burdened him beyond his capacity or took anything from him without the latter’s will, I will be his accuser on the Day of Judgment.”

The Day of Judgment is the day when everyone who was born in this world will account for all their actions before God. These verses and prophetic traditions are the reason why many of the Muslim rulers of the past were careful of their treatment of their subjects, both Muslim and non-Muslim. By and large, except for a few instances, the majority of Muslim lands in history were accepting of non-Muslims. Tolerance and inclusiveness was the norm rather than persecution and exile.

In 631 A.D., a delegation of sixty Christians arrived in Medina from an area close to Yemen that was known as Najran. The Prophet ﷺ received them, and served them. They discussed with the Prophet ﷺ the nature of God and the nature of Prophet Jesus `alayhi assalaam (peace be upon him). Despite theological disagreement between them and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the Prophet ﷺ concluded a treaty with them.

These were the ideals that were laid down in the early years of Islam. Ideals which, unfortunately, sometimes Muslims did not adhere to. And even more unfortunately this disregard seems to be more prevalent now. Tragically, disregard of tolerance of people of other faiths in Muslim countries is fueled in part by the actions of western leaders, such as the unprovoked invasion of and war in Iraq.

The U.S. and the Muslim world is at an impasse marked by suspicions on both sides. An impasse that is too dangerous and too destructive to maintain. Whatever the misguided reasons for 9/11, for every hijacker, there are thousands of other Muslims in the U.S. who abide by and work for the common good.

Petty snipes by radio and TV commentators do nothing to further the respect and cooperation that is so necessary to ease these tensions. Unlike their assertions that “Muslims killed us on 9/11,” there were dozens of Muslims too who perished in the carnage of that day. Islam and Muslims are a part of the hustle and bustle of Lower Manhattan and were a part of the World Trade Centers as well.

Despite the hour to hour coverage of the Park51 center protests, very little coverage was given to the news of the Muslim prayer room located on the 17th floor of the south tower; the prayer room that upon its collapse became the first “ground zero mosque.”

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3 Comments

  1. dawwning says:

    Their aim is not Islam with it’s good practices, their aim is keeping a guarded check on the vociferous few who are adamant in integrating and uplifting an Islamic outlook and practice for the majority. Our challenge, as Muslims will be to respectfully dwell amongst them without crossing the limits. Limitations which are becoming sometimes vague by some classifications by some scholars.

    The hype of the media is really powerless when it comes to a deserving populace. Praises be upon those who can put forth a balanced healthy view. Inter-faith and cross-cultural dialogues are critically relevant.

  2. convert says:

    Meh, theres no point in getting angry over this. Ignorant people exist, but they cannot keep us from practicing Islam. Yes, terrorist comments are annoying but most people with an ounce of sense know these things are not true. Its time for us to stop the back and forth with these idiots and let our actions speak for themselves.

  3. elishebabb says:

    Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. 2:62

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