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When I first heard of the Boston Marathon bombing, I was in shock and in disbelief. I was sick to my stomach reading the news of this tragedy, how families lost loved ones and innocent spectators lost limbs. I then called the FBI to speak with the counterterrorism chief and asked him if there was any information we could share with our community leaders in Boston and what they should do if they had seen anything suspicious leading up to the bombing.
And finally, I asked him if I there was anything I could do to help. Like all Americans, I did not know the background of the culprits, and it did not matter. I offered my assistance as my civic duty to the country, no matter what others may think.
That Monday, I scrolled down my Facebook page and read prayers from Muslims hoping the perpetrator did not share our faith. It struck me as such a shame that the culprit’s potential religious affiliation was on the minds of so many. Unfortunately, our obsession with labeling people distances us from the most important mission – helping the victims of the terrorist attack and showing solidarity with the people of Boston.
Terrorism has no faith. Every act of terrorism is a cowardly and criminal act. It is a manifestation of despair, which faith considers a sin. Yet religion does play a role in all of our lives, and just like mental illness, religious ideology can be twisted to be a motivating factor for violent behavior. That’s a reality.
In this bombing case, American Muslims are bearing the burden for this crime, because their name has been dragged through the mud once more by Muslim extremists like the Tsarnaev brothers.
American Muslim communities have issued condemnations in the past as they did this time around once again In a sermon last Friday in Southern California, the speaker received praise from his many congregants when he said of the bombers, “They are not my brothers. My brother is any sound, healthy American citizen who wants a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
But even that sentiment is not enough. We must go beyond rhetoric to the allocation of more resources in countering violent extremism.
Countering extremism also requires a major ideological battle between moderates and extremists. It is the responsibility of community leaders, not law enforcement, to promote Islam’s theology of life, while extremists promote the cult of death; to be pluralist, not exclusivist, and to use critical thinking and not follow anyone blindly. We have to establish resolve as a nation to work together and end the scourge of terrorism. A collective attitude of determination will help us prevail.
Some of America’s most well-recognized Muslim scholars have taken the lead, reaching out to their fellow Muslims about the trap of fiery rhetoric to impact the world through violence– a violation of Islam.
Shunting radicals from our mosques is a rational reaction. It is testimony to the rejection by American Muslims of any al-Qaeda ideology. The problem has been shifted from immunizing mosques from extremism to dealing with lone wolf types who have been shown to be susceptible to extreme and hateful messages posted online from so-called sheikhs abroad. Disgruntled individuals can be lured by a desire to belonging, only to be led to killing and death by those who sit on empty thrones of self-righteousness. Much like gang prevention, countering violent extremism will need more allocation of resources and focused work.
While American Muslims deal with pundits and politicians who want to exploit this tragedy by compromising civil liberties for a false sense of security, we must also find ways to be part of the solution, even though we in the mainstream were never part of problem. We must put our highest values in action, in the service of our love for our country and our faith. American Muslims are vital in the fight against extremism in all forms. America needs us. We are called, indeed it is our duty, to take action.
Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.