Here’s a list of five facts that most Americans have learned about Islam since 9/11, and five misunderstandings that we as American Muslims still have to grapple with.
1) Islam is a religion with a significant number of of followers around the world. In fact, it’s the second largest religion in terms of adherents (after Christianity), with more than a billion followers worldwide. Pre 9/11, many people weren’t even aware of other religions besides Christianity.
2) Adherents of the faith are not all “Arab,” and are as diverse as humanly possible. Ethnically, Arab Muslims represent only around 20 percent of all Muslims worldwide, and the largest Muslim country is not even in the Middle East (it is Indonesia, with over 200 million Muslims; the second-largest Muslim country is Pakistan, also not in the Middle East).
3) Islam has a healthy and historical presence in America. Everyone is now aware that there are plenty of Muslims in America (just look at all the mosque-building controversies around the country!). It is estimated that there are around 8 million Muslims nationwide. There were Muslims living in America during the days of the Founding Fathers, and a significant percentage of the slaves brought in from Africa were Muslims. There are even records of Muslims who fought in the Civil War. A significant percentage of American Muslims are African-American, and trace their roots to Islamic movements in America that began in the early part of the last century. However, the bulk of the Muslim community are recent immigrants who have come for higher education in the last fifty years, and who are now a part of the American fabric. My own father is an example of this wave; he landed in Houston, Texas in 1963 to pursue a Ph.D. in medicine, and was one of the first immigrant Muslims to Houston.
4) The religion of Islam consists of rituals, beliefs, and laws. Muslims believe in One Supreme God – the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus – and have specific rituals (such as daily prayers, annual charity), beliefs (such as believing in the Virgin Birth of Jesus and his ministry on Earth), and laws (the most apparent being laws pertaining to food and drink).
5) There are diverse factions of Muslims, with different understandings of religious tenets. Just as Christianity and Judaism are divided into many different sects, so too Muslims have their fair share. If one Muslim does something in the name of Islam (such as destroying the WTC), this is as representative of the entire faith as is a Christian bombing an abortion clinic in the name of Christianity.
1) “The term ‘jihad’ signifies holy-war, ‘killing the infidel,’ and political dominance.”
Actually, the term ‘jihad’ means ‘struggle’, and signifies many things, including struggling internally to fight one’s desires and living a better, more righteous life. The bulk of the Muslim world would consider acts of terrorism to be just that: acts of terrorism, and not a true manifestation of jihad.
2) “The ‘Shariah’ is repressive and against American values.”
This is simply not true. The “Shariah” is simply a set of rulings by which Muslims choose to draw closer to God (think of the laws of the halakha and kosher laws for Jews). The bulk of the Shariah deals with personal laws, procedures for ritual worship, and dietary restrictions.
3) MYTH: “Muslims are out to overthrow the Constitution and establish Sharia in America.”
This is actually so preposterous as to be comical, were it not for the fact that it is being used to indoctrinate hatred and fear against Muslims. There is no national organization that aims to overthrow the Constitution and replace it with Islamic law. Practicing the Sharia is not only fully compatible with the Constitution, it is a right that is protected by our Constitution, and American Muslims are proud to be both American and Muslim. Efforts to ban the Sharia are completely unconstitutional, and have always been ruled as such in all federal court cases.
4) MYTH: “Muslims aren’t condemning terrorism enough.”
Again, simply not true. Countless Muslim leaders have spoken out against terrorism in general and 9/11 in particular; in fact, there is not a single national American Muslim organization or prominent leader that has remained silent on this issue (much less supported the terrorists!). Don’t believe me? Log on to any national Muslim organization’s Web site, or ask your local mosque their opinion and official stance on this issue.
5) MYTH: “If that is the case, then why can’t Muslims just all release a statement against the terrorists?”
The answer to that is to understand that there is no central authority in Islam (i.e., there is no pope-figure). It’s the equivalent of asking all Protestants to unite together for some official statement. Each denomination and group can issue its own statements, but there is no mechanism for all Muslims (just as there is no mechanism for all Protestant denominations) to come together under one banner to ‘officially’ say something.
Note: This post appeared originally at the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, and contained the following introduction: “This weekend will mark the tenth anniversary of the horrific attacks of 9/11. It’s hard to believe that those tragic events, so fresh in our collective memories, occurred ten years ago. So much has happened, good and bad, since that eventful day a decade ago.”