By Asra Nomani
Credit: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post
When I heard that Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was going to hold hearings on the issue of radicalization inside our American Muslim community, I thought: It’s about time.
As those hearings begin on Thursday, all of us need to grab a front row seat. This is a discussion we desperately need to have as a nation because for far too long we have lived in a culture of denial, fueled in part by Muslim community leadership that–like just about any community tends to do until prodded–denies our problems rather than admits them.
I arrived in this country in 1969 as a four year old from India and, after 42 years as an American-Muslim, I can say without a doubt: an ideology of extremism has crossed across our borders, and radicalization is a real threat inside our communities in the U.S., often times unchallenged because members of our Muslim community are intimidated to speak out against it. We have brave leaders and activists who do, but usually at great cost to their social standing in the community.
To me, the hearings are not a “witch hunt.” Rep. Peter King is not a 21st century Joe McCarthy, the senator who led hearings on communism in the 1950s. I believe he is an American, like so many, frustrated and annoyed by the largely recalcitrant posture of our community to admitting our problems. In Congress, we have had honest debate about everyone’s dirty laundry–from BP to the Big Three automakers. There has been discussion in the halls of Congress about “Jewish extremists,” “white supremacists,” the Ku Klux Klan and clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Muslims should not be exempt from critical examination, just because its lobby takes a defensive posture–just like all special-interest groups tend to do.
If we have any doubts, as Muslims, about our divine injunction to truth-telling, even about our own community, we need look no further than the Qur’an, which states:
Oh ye who believe!
Stand out firmly
For justice, as witnesses
To God, even if it may be against
Yourselves, or your parents
Or your kin
– “Al-Nisa” (The Women),
Qur’an, 4: 135
Instead of circling the wagons with a public relations campaign of victimization, Muslims should rise to the occasion and honestly discuss what we all know: there is a very real interpretation of Islam inside our communities that threatens to convert our youth and others to extremism. It is expressed through publishing houses, imams, YouTube videos, websites and arm-chair ideologues.
We need to have an open conversations about how extremist Islam gets into the heads of Muslims such as would-be Time Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hassan and so many others. We need to own up to the fact that some within Islam have a problematic interpretation, and we need to have the moral courage to be honest about it. We will not shame ourselves. We will not shame Islam. There is no shame in honesty. In fact, I think we would engender more good will–and invite less anger and rage by folks frustrated by our stonewalling.
Like most Muslims, I’ve seen rigid, puritanical interpretations creep into the American Muslim community, starting in the 1970s with the exportation of the dogmatic Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia, fueled by the oil money that gave the Saudis a largess from which to pump its ideas into the world. In my hometown community of Morgantown, W.V., I saw the Saudi ideology express itself with mandates that women and men sit strictly segregated from each other at our community potluck dinners, rather than the family style arrangements we’d been enjoying. I felt a crisis of faith and didn’t think there wasn’t a place for me as I came of age as a fierce, strong-willed girl.
For most of my life I quietly bypassed traditions instead of directly challenging them. I distanced myself from the Muslim community, just like many of us do when we see dangers in our community that seem easier to ignore than challenge. With 9/11, I had my wake up call; then, on Jan. 23, 2002, my friend, Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped by Muslim militants in Pakistan and later beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described 9/11 mastermind.
I recognized that the stakes were huge for how Muslims expressed themselves in the world. Muslims like me sat silently while militants wrenched the religion from us and declared they were the protectors of the faith. I went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, and, in Saudi Arabia, I saw first-hand the exit ramp that told “non-Muslims” that they couldn’t enter Mecca. In Mecca, I realized how far we had departed from the Islamic principles of social justice, women’s rights or tolerance that my parents had taught me.
My immersion into darkness and my experience in the light of the hajj transformed me. It made me recognize that we each have a role in standing up to the extremists in my religion who try to intimidate us into respecting and following them. Starting in 2003, at my mosque in Morgantown, my family and I challenged the interpretations of Islam that assigned women the back door and led our imam to tell us we couldn’t be friends with the Jews and the Christians. When my family and I challenged the community to tackle our problems with radicalization, what happened? The men at the mosque voted to put me on trial to be banned from the mosque, they fired my father from the board and other families disinvited our family from potluck dinners. Today, as part of a Pray In movement, other women and I are thrown out of mosques in the Washington, D.C., area because we refuse to pray in the second-class areas reserved for women.
For far too long, our nation has had a politically correct stance when it comes to the question of militancy, extremism and radicalization inside Islam. In the name of interfaith dialogue, we have pulled our punches on the very serious and real issues of extremist interpretations of Islam, issuing feel-good statements such as, “Islam is a religion of peace.” We try to be polite and not offend. So many well-intentioned people who are critics about issues inside their own faiths are joining the bandwagon, trying to defend Islam and Muslims, as if the faith and the community are monolithic, but our best defense, I believe, is honesty about the good, bad and ugly.
The purpose of religion is to inspire in us the best of human behavior. That includes truth-telling.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Her struggles in the hometown mosque in West Virginia are featured in the PBS documentary, “The Mosque in Morgantown.” She teaches journalism at Georgetown University.