By Hasan Zillur Rahim
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Many American Muslims I know feel more besieged now than when terrorists attacked America a year ago.
In the aftermath of the attack, President Bush took pains to defend Islam as a religion of peace and Muslims as patriotic citizens. He visited mosques, met with Muslims in the White House and warned against hate crimes. Most Americans heeded the President’s call and sympathized with their Muslim neighbors and co-workers.
A year later, however, the shrill voice of bigotry can be heard from various sources:
In June, the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with 15 million members called Prophet Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile.”
Frank Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told NBC news in October of last year: “The God of Islam is not the same God. He is not the Son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God...” In his new book “The Name,” Graham writes that, “Islam unlike Christianity has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths.”
Columnist Ann Coulter, in a June interview with NBC’s Katie Couric, said of Muslims: “I think it might be a good idea to get them on some sort of hobby other than slaughtering infidels.”
William Lind, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation, along with Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, wrote in a new booklet titled, “Why Islam is a threat to America and the West,” that “Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war,” and that American Muslims “should be encouraged to leave. They are fifth column in this country.”
In the year after Sept. 11, the Justice Department’s policy of domestic surveillance, racial profiling and detention without representation has steadily encroached on civil liberties, increasing Muslim fear and vulnerability.
Yet I do not share the despair and pessimism of many of my fellow Muslims. I remain optimistic about America. I believe in the inherent strength of its judicial and civil systems, tested and toughened by time, to filter out the aberrations of the day.
My optimism derives from the many hopeful signs I see in America. Let me cite just two.
The death of reporter Daniel Pearl at the hands of fanatics in Karachi, Pakistan, was barbarity at its extreme. But in an open letter to the people of Pakistan, Judea Pearl, mother of Daniel Pearl, wrote: “For the past seven years, Danny’s articles ... showed readers the hardships and aspirations of people in Islamic countries, as well as the intricate nuances of their religion. Thus, when he declared to his captors: ‘I am Jewish!’ what he said in fact was: ‘I respect Islam precisely because I am Jewish, and I expect you to respect me and my faith precisely because you are good Muslims.’”
What humanity! What magnanimity! This is the true spirit of America.
My other example concerns a U.S. postage stamp. On Sept. 1, 2001, the postal service issued a stamp in celebration of the two major religious holidays of the Muslim calendar, eid al-fitr (feast of fasting) and eid al-adha (feast of sacrifice), designed by the renowned American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya. Ten days later, the terrorists struck. Passion ran high among some Americans against the use of the stamp.
But the stamp was neither withdrawn nor redesigned and it sold reasonably well, largely through word-of-mouth advertisement. Then, on June 30, the cost of a first-class stamp increased to 37 cents. Would the 34-cent Eid stamp be reissued at the new rate?
Yes, it would be, on Oct. 10, 2002, announced the Postal Service recently. To some, the stamp story may suggest a small triumph for tolerance. I find in it a reflection of America’s big-heartedness.
I use my optimism as the basis for suggesting to my fellow Muslims a more positive role we can play in our country. By and large, we seem more intent on monitoring who is maligning us and less on the contributions we can make to America that our numbers 6 million strong and our high level of educational and professional successes warrant. Surely we must speak out when the religious belief of any group of people is attacked and their constitutional rights violated. But we must not let that divert us from the many ways in which we can enrich America, in social, educational, economic, environmental, and other spheres.
Here, I find myself remembering President John F. Kennedy’s recommendation to “ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country.”
These words should resonate with new meaning for American Muslims. Kennedy’s call for public service led, among other endeavors, to the Peace Corps. It can equally inspire us in these trying times to serve America in the best way we can not to “prove” our patriotism, for no such proof is needed but because it would be the right thing to do.
Kennedy’s concluding words from the inaugural address can serve as a beacon for American Muslims: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Rahim (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a software consultant in Silicon Valley who edited “Iqra” an Islamic magazine from 1986 to 1998.