Muslim Americans: The dangers of lumping our friends in with our enemies

Sen. Dick Durbin is holding Senate hearings on anti-Muslim bigotry today – an important move in the wake of Peter King's hearings on Muslim-American radicalization. Casting suspicion on all Muslim Americans violates American ideals and weakens a first line of defense against extremism.

Remember when your parents used to drag you out of bed for Sunday school? I do. Despite my best efforts to persuade my parents to let me sleep in, growing up in a religious, middle class, Muslim American home meant I attended mosque every weekend for nearly a decade. So when Rep. Peter King (R) of New York and others insist that 85 percent of mosques in this country are being run by extremists and are breeding grounds for homegrown terrorists, I have to wonder: Was my childhood mosque just an anomaly that functioned more like a church than one of those terrorist-producing institutions?

Here’s the short answer: No.

Extremists and those susceptible to being influenced by them will always exist on the fringes of any religious or political community. But casting suspicion on millions of Muslim Americans and their places of worship because of fringe elements not only goes against our American ideals but also unduly burdens and thus weakens a first line of defense against extremism: Muslim Americans.

Members of my family have been involved in our mosque’s leadership for as long as I can remember, from working with the architect who designed the mosque to interviewing potential imams to serving on the board of elders. But in addition to being active members of our local faith community, these same individuals often looked beyond the walls of the mosque to serve the wider public good, whether that meant helping newly arrived immigrants assimilate into American society, serving food to the poor at the downtown soup kitchen, or campaigning for mayoral candidates in our town.

More religious, more civic engagement

To Mr. King and his supporters, my childhood mosque would appear to be the exception to the vast majority of American mosques that King has described as controlled by “extremist leadership” and breeding grounds for radical views. But from visiting numerous mosques in the US and listening to the stories of Muslim American friends from all over the country, I know the strong connection between being involved in a mosque and being civically engaged is not at all uncommon. Recent research suggests a similar finding.

According to the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey, the largest study of Muslim Americans to date, levels of civic and political engagement rise with mosque participation. The study shows that there is a 53 percent increase in civic engagement for Muslim Americans who are heavily involved in their mosque over Muslim Americans who are not involved in mosques at all.

The study also found that the more religious a Muslim American was, the more likely he was to be politically informed and to have favorable views of the American political system. An overwhelming 95 percent of highly religious Muslim Americans surveyed believe that Islamic teachings are compatible with participation in the American political system.

Is it just me, or don’t we want more Americans to be well informed, civically engaged citizens?

Muslim communities reject extremism

Muslims regularly attending mosques will not rid this country of all homegrown terrorism emanating from Muslim communities. As we’ve seen in the recent past, mosques are not impermeable to fringe extremists. Before Anwar al-Awlaki was the first US citizen ever to be placed on the CIA target list, he was an imam at a Virginia mosque. The five young Muslim men from Washington, DC, who in late 2009 disappeared from their homes only to be found in Pakistan allegedly trying to join Al Qaeda, also attended their local community mosque.

But in both cases, as with countless other cases before and since, the Muslim communities that these individuals were members of resoundingly rejected their actions and beliefs. Mr. al-Awlaki had to go to Yemen because no community here would accept him, and the parents of the DC men were the first to alert the FBI of their children’s sudden disappearance. And just three months ago, a vigilant Muslim-American community in Irvine, Calif. was so disturbed by the behavior of an undercover FBI informant posing as an extremist in their mosque, that the community turned him in to the FBI. As a recent study from Duke University and the University of North Carolina found, Muslim Americans provide authorities with more tips on suspected terrorists than any other group.

ANOTHER VIEW: Peter King hearing: Why won't media – or Muslims – address Islamism in America?

We need to support Muslim-American communities as they lead the fight to root out and prevent extremism in their own communities. Yes, there is much work to be done, but let’s not make it any harder by lumping our friends in with our enemies.

Zeba Khan is a writer and social media consultant. In 2009, she was recognized as a Muslim Leader of Tomorrow by the American Society for Muslim Advancement. You can follow her on twitter @zebakhan.

via The OpEd Project

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