“Brothers, please don’t take part in Thanksgiving. What is thanksgiving to us? We must protect our children from practice of other religions. Only then can we save ourselves from hell fire!!” Everyone nodded their head around me. This happened in Fresno, the city that is very much a heaven for white conservatives in California. The person was the Imam of the mosque, that is right across the street from our university. And that was the last day I stepped in a mosque. I was never a religious person, but I did enjoy commonality of culture. I lived all by myself in an isolated community. To me, going somewhere once a week and sharing a “Hi, how are you” gesture with a smile was more holy than anything. When I saw many around me were educated professional and school going kids and none pointed out, “Excuse me Sir, I think you don’t know what Thanksgiving is”, I knew this is not the place for me. I later heard they changed their stand on it and had organized a small ‘get together’, but to me this was just to save their skin. Their thought of the mainstream American community was pretty evident to me. I shared this story with someone in a conversation; he smiled and said,” I wish I could tell you, that was an isolated incident. But you know, not everyone is like that.” I knew mine wasn’t an isolated incident and I also knew not everyone in the Islamic leadership in USA is like that. Unfortunately I haven’t met anyone with a liberal mind frame. Until now.
The whole controversy about the Ground Zero Mosque is pretty interesting to me. This story has many angles and I think people are just picking the side that suits them. Those who don’t know what’s going on here’s a summery- in lower Manhattan area just two blocks away from the location of the Twin Tower an Imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, wanted to build a thirteen storied Islamic Cultural Center. Many saw it as a right to practice religion and many looked at it as an insult to injury. The poor Imam is clueless and I believe is really helpless at this point. The mayor of New York came out passionately in favor of the Islamic center, so did the idealist centrists and the left. But the right wing found it as a reason to ignite their base by saying, a 13 storied building so close to Ground Zero is a “triumph for the terrorists.” Even the president came in favor of the mosque as an idealist himself, but then did a bit of a topsi-terby juggling about the “judgement of the location”.
Well let’s look at the main character of this story. The Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf is a Columbia graduate in physics, who’s father was a senior Egyptian cleric. This person is now the symbol of Islamic faith in US. He’s portrayed as a “radical” cleric by the right wing media. But just a few months back the scenario was the opposite. The Imam was known as an agent of America in his Middle East speech programs, some of the programs where funded by the State Department. The poor guy was blamed to be a Western sympathizer for constantly denouncing the extremist ideologies of Middle East, in plain word the terrorist activities. His second and current Persian wife Daisy Khan left Iran for the extreme views of the Islamic Government. He was the kind of Islamic leader the right wing fantasized all the time. A man who believes in co-existence of religions, who believe interfaith dialog is the key to gain permanent solution for all conflicts. He points out that, Shariah Law in principle is sometimes implemented by Westerners more frequently then in the Middle East. His visit to the far east Asian Muslim countries especially Malaysia, gave him understanding of ethnic harmony over religion. A Sufi by practice, he wasn’t very much welcomed by the Wahabi practitioners. I guess, he would’ve never thought the he’ll be the shield that same Muslims will use and the right wing will use him as a placard of extremism. Poor soul! What he forgot is religion is not all spiritual, it’s also good business. But that discussion for another day.
Why such a controversy over an Islamic Center? Did the so-called free Willy practitioners of Islam in US ever ask themselves? Now they are taking shelter behind the liberal left but, how many of these mosques actually work into incorporating the Muslim community to the mainstream culture? Time is a very crucial factor and we had been ignoring it in this debate. In a pre 9/11 world this wouldn’t have been an issue. In a booming economy with more than 5000 alive teenage soldiers, most would’ve been pointing out how lower Manhattan used to be known as Little Syria. But we live in a world where ideological lines are drawn in the name of religion once again. On the main street, in a recessionary time, people will take their frustration out on anything and everything. This is natural. To middle America, which is still the majority of the country- there’s no difference between a Shia, Sunni, Ahmedia, Sufi. They know one thing- these are all Muslims who attacked with planes on 9/11 almost ten years ago. Who tried to do the same again in Time Square few months back, who attacked on a military base inside the US, who keep their prayer halls away from everyone else. What happens in a mosque is known to most by movies and documentaries just like the rest of the world thinks US is what they see in Hollywood movies.
In a time when 1 out of 5 think the President is a Muslim and he has to come and defend that he’s a practicing Christian, instead of asking the question,” wait a minute,what is wrong in being a Muslims?”;the Muslim community also should trade their trade a bit carefully. Majority of Muslims in US would tell you that they don’t care what happens in Palestine or Iraq, they are working hard to have a better life for their families but it does effect our lives, doesn’t it? It’s also our duty to realize the circumstances and work accordingly. Obviously, there’s no problem in practicing religion. But you also have to make sure that the main stream understands what you are practicing. Instead of convincing yourself of others faults, it’s also time we look at our owns once in a while. A religious minority specially Muslim community is very tricky to identify in USA. We have African American Muslims here who have a history since the slavery. Muslims from Ottoman empire came here at the beginning of 1900s. Asian Muslims started to migrate for last 60-70 years. They all have only one part of their culture in common- their religious background. It’s very important mainstream Americans also understand the fact that 8 million Muslims in US are not all from one part of the world.
I’m a firm believe that nationalism triumphs over anything. It’s true for Bangladesh, and it’s true for United States or France or England. When I think of a French, I don’t see someone in full Burkha, sorry to say. I know neither does a French. When I imagine schools in Bangladesh, I don’t think of classroom where I can identify someone by their religious attire. Same goes for most Americans. When they see someone from another part of the world, who speaks an alien language in their neighborhood, they also want to find the common grounds, to reason in their mind on why and how can they welcome this person. Remember we came to this country, so when in Rome, you must act a little bit like the Romans. How you take part in the mainstream community makes a huge difference.
I think this is where the Muslims in the West failed and the rise of extremist ideology didn’t help either. It’s easy to identify a practicing religious person, let it be a Christian, Jew or Muslim. It’s another thing to be isolated for that; and a totally different issue to be self-isolated. It’s important that ethnic minority communities don’t become a self isolated community in a multicultural country. But for many Americans, that’s how they perceive many minority community people. If all of a sudden they think the same for a religious minority i.e. Muslims, it’s also a question we need to ask ourselves, why and how can we change that.
The rise of right wing Christian ideologies in main stream politics, all over the West, needs to be analyzed with a different approach. I don’t believe all of them are anti-Islamics. If that was the case, then why did they tolerate Muslims in their countries for so long? We also need to see, where did we fail. Again, even though I don’t like to incorporate myself with a religious community, I still say we-because as I have said many times before, your name carries more power then a lifetime of work. Problem is, we are in a state of denial. We are ready to blame everyone else and keep a blind eye on our failure. Our main question shouldn’t be who’s against us, but are we against everyone else who doesn’t sound like me? In the book “Clash of Civilizations” Sam Huntington said religious identity would be the source of conflict in a post Cold War era. I think even he didn’t realize, the conflict would be also in an intra-religion basis. Shia-Sunnie, Kadiani, Ahmedia, Sufies, Wahabies.
bia is spreading in different forms in different countries. It’s real in one form in the West and in another form in Bangladesh, Algeria, Pakistan and Indonesia. The West needs to understand that by generalizing all Muslims they are isolating a huge number of liberals, who are more inclined to their ethnic identity then religious. If this quarantined trend continues some of them will naturally look for refuge in the extremist camp. But I think, the mainstream Western media and communities have been more accommodating then the other way round. It’s time also Muslims look at themselves and separate the extremist fractions out of their lives. I think then Mr. Rauf can have a world that looks a bit like Cordoba (Do your own research what the name means!)