US Muslims Feel Constant Tug Of Events Around the World
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — "WHAT we are learning is that nobody will cry for the Muslims."
That's a sentiment shared by several American Muslim men sitting outside an East Coast mosque last July. The men of Algerian, Egyptian, and Libyan descent were waiting for their children. But their minds were across the globe - in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where 40,000 Muslims were being "ethnically cleansed" by Serbs.
They couldn't believe the West was merely watching as Muslims were denied weapons and Serb forces drove their families from what the United Nations called a "safe area."
"Seeing this, as a Muslim person, makes me feel I am a member of the same community," Sameh, a soft-spoken environmental scientist, says of the Srebrenica Muslims.
A "good" Muslim feels responsibility for the global community of Muslims, the umma. American Muslims' focus has been shaped by the experiences of many immigrants who fled persecution or stifling regimes, giving them an international mind-set and a familiarity with suffering. Their political outlook today is shaped by their involvement in Bosnian issues, Chechnya, Kashmir, and the Middle East.
One can't visit an Islamic center and not see posters calling for the aid of Muslim victims. Bulletin boards show dynamited minarets and mosques, and announce meetings and marches to support those raped or disabled or hungry. Black Muslims also feel solidarity with the downtrodden, based on their ancestors' experience as slaves in this country.
So despite the deep respect many Muslims feel for a country with so much freedom, they have a profound ambivalence about the history and exercise of American power abroad.
"Most Muslims, if offered an Islamic homeland, would go there immediately," says Mamoun Fandy of Georgetown University in Washington. "But for the time being, America is the closest thing they can find."
Immigrant Muslims are often critical of European colonialism in the Islamic heartland and US foreign policy indifference - or worse - there. To Muslims in the US, media images of Islamic extremists and talk of a new "Islamic threat" by US policymakers are misplaced. They see themselves as the group most under attack around the planet.
Today, some younger Muslims want their community to shed its ties to Middle Eastern regimes and causes. But they also criticize the US for not pushing human rights standards in states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. US officials "accuse Islamists of terrorism," says Islam Abdullah, editor of The Minaret, a popular US Muslim magazine. "But they do not talk about their persecution."
Bosnia, especially, galvanized American Muslims. A 3-1/2-year siege of highly educated Muslims in the European city of Sarajevo seems to them a clear-cut case of double standards - where universal values of democracy and human rights preached by the West only apply selectively.
America's inaction in Bosnia has also undercut the support of Muslims who cooperated in the US-led Gulf war.
Nor has the NATO mission in Bosnia led by President Clinton wholly assuaged them. "We are glad for progress," says Khalid Saffuri, head of the Bosnian Task Force at the American Muslim Council in Washington. "But this seems more like election politics."
The example that America's long inaction in Bosnia set for the next generation concerns Ghazi Khankan, an Islamic leader in Long Island, N.Y. "I am a peaceful person, but I became radicalized by what I saw in front of my eyes," he says. "I am 62 and an American. If I am being radicalized, what is happening to young people?"
Muslims also smart at a new discourse that fingers Islam as the chief threat to the West, replacing communism. "The Islamic Threat" has become a popular term in some State Department offices. Yet Muslims remember with irony that, during the cold war, the West encouraged the growth of Islam as a counter to Arab nationalism and the Soviet influence.
Feeding Islamic radicals
Such policies create the very anti-Western attitudes that radical Islamic leaders feed on, they say.
Prof. Samih Farsoun, at American University, says: "That was the appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini. He said, 'The West doesn't care about Islam. It is using you.' "
Yet many American Muslims admit that, despite what they regard as an ignorant foreign policy, they are glad for the freedom to protest.
"I tell my friends," says one Muslim in the Boston area, " 'You are wrong to sit at home and think things will get better. Here you have the freedom to get involved.' "