London attacks: turning point for US Islamic community

It was all too familiar. Part of me felt a tinge of desperation, a feeling of inevitability. But this time, there was something else - a feeling that we, the American Muslim community, were now ready to take the steps we should have taken long ago.

Where we had slowly become desensitized by the endless reports of slaughter in Iraq, 7/7 came unexpectedly, forcing our community to finally confront an uneasy reality. On that day, something clicked inside me and so many other Muslims who, in focusing primarily on the threat to Muslim civil liberties, had not paid enough attention to the threat of religious extremism in our own communities.

July 7 will haunt us for the foreseeable future - as it should. As American Muslims, we had seen terrorism as something uniquely foreign - relevant, but remote. But the London attacks were a frightening reminder that if anti-American anger and jihadist sentiment were left unaddressed in our communities, the consequences would be devastating. Too often, in the face of nearly daily terror attacks abroad, American Muslims had wiggled and equivocated. Past condemnations of terrorist attacks have been sincere, no doubt, but they've sometimes had the appearance of being forced. This time around the response from the national Islamic organizations has been more forceful and resolute but that, alone, isn't enough.

First, the July 7 bombings reaffirmed what already should have been obvious - Islam has been hijacked by a band of murderers. It's imperative that Muslims, instead of waiting for others to remedy the situation, offer a stronger, more systematic response to terrorism. Mosque leaders must begin by instituting a policy of zero-tolerance for terrorism. In practice, this means that anyone caught advocating violence against the US government or its citizens should be, first, expelled from mosque grounds, and then reported to the appropriate authorities.

Second, national Islamic organizations and local mosques must do more to encourage political integration of young American Muslims. Most Muslims will continue to oppose the Bush administration's policies abroad, especially its unbalanced approach to the Palestinian conflict and its continued support for various Arab and Muslim autocracies. Yet, at the same time, an effort should be made to convince young, easily impressionable Muslims that the key to change lies not in a return to some idealized notion of an Islamic state, but rather in a pragmatic, nuanced approach to involvement in the American political process.

Finally, Muslims must rediscover their religion's deep respect for the sanctity of human life - whether the lives in question are British, Iraqi, or Israeli. The Muslim community's inability or unwillingness to speak out against suicide bombing in Israel is reflective of the moral depths to which we've so tragically sunk. Some things in life are morally ambiguous. The killing of Israelis in cafes and pizzerias, however, is not one of them. When we argue that the immorality or illegality of suicide bombing is contingent upon political considerations, we're on a dangerously slippery slope.

If these steps are taken, the preachers of hate will find it harder to gain support in the Muslim community.

Ultimately, American Muslims aren't walking time bombs or potential fifth columns. To see it that way is to misunderstand the nature of the struggle ahead of us. Rather, Muslims here should be seen as one of the best weapons against terrorism. With their diversity and knowledge of Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu, they're an untapped resource. As the US wages not only a war on terror but a war of ideas, American Muslims can do much to strengthen public diplomacy efforts in the Arab world that, so far, leave much to be desired.

The war on terror is a generational battle, and American Muslims, whether they like it or not, will be on the front lines. Muslims have tired of their religion being defined by extremists. I remember, last year, the reaction to the detention of Ali al-Timimi, a US-born "Islamic scholar" who was charged with exhorting followers to take up arms for the Taliban. Although few American Muslims sympathized with such sentiments, many defended his right to express his views, however extreme they might have been. (Mr. Timimi's words got him a life sentence in prison this month for his conviction on treason-related charges of soliciting followers to join the Taliban and fight the US.) But freedom of speech is not and cannot be absolute.

In the wake of the London bombings, there is a growing realization in the Muslim community that the intolerance by some of its own can no longer be tolerated.

In these most dangerous of times, the margin for error is small. And considering how small it is, American Muslims now have a unique opportunity to play a greater, more central role in the continuing struggle against those who brandish the name of Islam so selfishly in the service of terror.

Shadi Hamid just returned from Amman, Jordan, where he was a Fulbright fellow researching Islamist participation in the democratic process.

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