01 Nov Islam in the Public Square – President’s Keynote
Assalamu Alaykum / Peace be upon you
MAPS President, Mahmood Khadeer, delivered the message below to a full-room audience of multi-faith groups today at Town Hall Seattle. Click here for the video of the conference. You can send questions or comments to: email@example.com.
In the name of God Most Gracious Most Merciful
“Trust in one another is key to a peaceful society”
Between the years 1901 and 1932 one hundred Nobel Prizes were awarded in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. Thirty-three of these prizes were awarded to the Germans. Eighteen were awarded to the British. And a mere six were awarded to the Americans. The early twentieth century appeared to be a time of great advancement for the Germans. They made great progress in the sciences, in engineering, in the arts, in philosophy and in intellectual thought in general. They appeared to be taking the lead in many literary areas over other nations, including our very own nation. Yet during the same time period the same German people would descend not once but twice into the deepest abysses that man has ever trudged. World War I would see 17 million people killed. World War II would see over 60 million people killed. A whole 3% of the world population was wiped out from the surface of the planet during the Second World War. A few months back, while on a business trip to Munich, I took time to visit the Dachau concentration camp, one of the first concentration camps run by the Nazis. I must say that the experience of seeing a place where men, women and children were mercilessly murdered because of their faith literally shook the core of my soul.
What causes a people who seem advanced, seem educated, seem sophisticated to descend to such lows? What causes a neighbor whom you have known your whole life to turn you in to the Gestapo and send you to a concentration camp? What causes man who appears to be civilized to turn against his fellow man and incinerate him in a pit?
If genocides were a one-time occurrence, we could chart them as an occasional aberrance of man’s nature, a rare lapse in his history, an anomaly is his otherwise sublime character. Unfortunately, the intentional action to destroy a group of people by another group of people is all too common. Since World War II, we have had a dozen or so officially recognized genocides. In our very recent past, we witnessed over a hundred thousand people murdered in Bosnia and a million people murdered in Rwanda. The wanton killings on the battlefields of several Middle East countries, be it Iraq, Syria or Yemen, today amount to no less. It is indeed not hard at all to find examples where supposed people of conscience turn against groups who are different from them and murder them en masse.
The question then is: what triggers such collective violence by one group against another group of people? The trigger for sure is not sudden. It is rather a process; a process that progressively and sometimes slowly takes man by the hand and descends him into these abysses. There are stages to this process. This will be the main topic of my keynote today.
Man is led to suspect the other. He then excludes and dehumanizes the other. Finally, he gathers and exterminates the other. The stages are: suspicion, exclusion, dehumanization, concentration and extermination. Let us take a moment and reflect on this: the darkest moments in man’s history have always started with Suspicion of the Other and suspicion is nothing but a Deficit of Trust.
Suspicion of the Other or Deficit of Trust is what places seemingly enlightened men and women on a pathway to exclusion to discrimination and ultimately to violence. The Germans fed suspicion of the Jews before they organized pogroms to vandalize their homes, their stores and their places of worship. They spread lies that the Jews were conspiring against society, that the Jews were an “alien race” who fed off the host nation, who poisoned its culture, who seized its economy, and who enslaved its workers and farmers. And our own country has a long history of suspecting the African American person. It was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstanding.”
Today American Muslims live in a state where over half of their co-citizens are suspicious of them. Surveys after surveys have told us what we fear: sizable percentages of America feel Muslims make America a more dangerous place to live, feel that Muslims are working to subvert the United States Constitution and feel that Muslims operate as sleeper cells secretly plotting terrorist attacks. Vast swathes of the nation suspect American Muslims of trying to change the country’s culture even when American Muslims contribute to every aspect of the American life. Many suspect American Muslims to be unpatriotic even when they die fighting for the country.
What is the effect of this suspicion? Discrimination against American Muslims has skyrocketed. American Muslims applying for jobs get fewer responses. American Muslims places are worship are threatened and vandalized. American Muslim men are removed from airplanes. American Muslim women are looked down because of their dress code. American Muslim children are bullied. In some cases, American Muslims have been physically attacked and killed.
How bad is this level of suspicion of American Muslims? We have popular politicians openly advocating for the next level towards violence, i.e., they are calling for exclusion of American Muslims. In this election season we heard calls to ban all Muslims from entering the country, calls to have Muslims carry identity cards, calls for Muslims to take an ideological tests, calls for mosques to be placed under surveillance, calls to closed down mosques. Only a few years ago, it would have been unconscionable to even think that a politician would be calling for citizens of this country to wear a badge identifying them by their religious affiliation just like the Germans required the Jews to wear the yellow badge of shame. Yet are we shocked today? Pundits have been offering analyses explaining that such acts are supposedly Constitutional. If, God forbid, these exclusion measures get implemented can you see the next steps on the horizon? How hard would it be for a group to move from exclusion to dehumanization of American Muslims? As a country, as a nation, as humanity we have come too far to subject anybody, American Muslims or otherwise, to this pathway from suspicion to exclusion to dehumanization and ultimately to violence. So if there is one action that I want all of you to take away from this conference today, it is this: you need to remove Suspicion of American Muslims in this country. Eliminate the Trust Deficit. Reverse the flow of Suspicion towards Hate. Hearten the tide from Trust towards Peace!
I will dedicate the rest of my keynote today to reflect on how suspicion arises and what we can do to replace it with trust to create a peaceful society.
In a popular narration, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the most false of speech. Do not seek out faults, do not spy on each other, do not contend with each other, do not envy each other, do not hate each other, and do not turn away from each other. Rather, be servants of God as brothers.” In this narration, the Prophet is not only warning us of suspicion as the most false of speech, he details the evils that lead to suspicion: seeking faults with others, spying on others, contending with others, envying others, hating others and turning away from others. And then he commanded the solution, “Rather be servants of God as brethren.”
Why is there so much suspicion in America about American Muslims? I want to again draw a parallel between the situations of the Jews in Germany before the holocaust. Jews comprised only about 1% of the German population at the time just like Muslims in America do today. The Germans, despite their supposedly informed mindset, refused to acknowledge the complex world they were living in. It was easier to blame all ills on the minority Jewish population than face their own doings and face reality in all its complexities. The Germans blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War 1. They blamed the Jews for the bad economic situation at the time. They blamed the Jews for their own misery. In a complex world, the weak mind seeks simple answers. The coward seeks a scapegoat.
In our current complex world, which is easier? Understanding the perplexities of economic theories and policies or blaming apparent job losses on Mexicans? Understanding the socio-economic dynamics of inner cities or blaming gun violence on African Americans? Understanding geo-political complexities in the Middle East or blaming national security fears on American Muslims? Understanding challenges arising out of historical and contextual intricacies or blaming Islam? The weak mind seeks simple answers. The coward seeks a scapegoat.
Therefore, Suspicion of the Other is fed when we seek to blame a group for perceived ills. Is it hard to generate such suspicions? Unfortunately, it is not hard. It is easy to look at instabilities abroad taking place in dozens of countries and over decades of years and simply say all Muslims are violent. It is also very easy to feed these suspicions by picking and choosing examples from history. The West and the Muslim World have a thousand year old common history, which includes the crusades, the inquisitions, fights over Jerusalem and Constantinople, the dynasties in Spain, colonialism and so on. You can create the idea that American Muslims are against the West and then twist examples from this long history to justify your suspicion. Let me give you one example. We often hear that Islam has been at war with America since its foundation. Proponents of this suspicion use the example of the battle of Tripoli that took place between the United States forces and the Ottoman Empire in 1804 to make their case. Suspicions are easily created and easily fed.
What are we to do then? How do we dispel Suspicion of the Other and establish Trust? How do we nip these ideologies in the bud preventing the spread from suspicion to exclusion to dehumanization and towards violence? How do reverse the trend and build strong bonds like brothers and sisters and not fraying bonds like enemies? How do we ensure that the world we will leave for our children is a better place than it is today? How do we become the architects of a peaceful society?
There are three requirements to dispel Suspicion of the Other and to establish Trust. Please pay attention as I am going to ask you to take these to your congregations and have them take these to their friends and neighbors.
The first requirement is a strong belief that the promise of religion is to achieve peace, that God above all wants us to live a life free of hatred and of harm, that the Golden Rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” still sums the precepts of our faiths. The second requirement is an understanding that life is complex, that the conditions and situations of people are decided by a number of factors many of which are beyond our control and that there are often no simple answers to complex problems. The third requirement is a need to emphasize the similarities and not the differences among us, emphasize the many parts of history where cooperation and not dissent existed and emphasize that at the end of the day we are all equal and we are all seeking the same thing. Let us look at these three requirements to dispel Suspicion of the Other some more and I will explain what MAPS is doing to ensure that at least American Muslims are fulfilling them.
First, we need to have the strong believe that religion preaches peace. You have heard often that the meaning of Islam is Peace. You have no doubt heard as well that Islam preaches nothing but violence. This is an old and tired trope. We have heard it throughout history from people with an axe to grind against Muslims. Lately we are hearing this same chorus from supposedly intellectual circles. One popular author writes, “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” A Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton commented, “Muslims are embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion.” This new wave seeks to blame Islam for all that has gone wrong with humanity.
Now, saying that Islam is a cult of death is not only divisive, it is patently false. It ignores the overriding teachings of the faith, the fourteen-century history of Islam, the contributions of Muslims to humanity, the teachings of Abrahamic morality that has contributed greatly to Western civilization. If Islam were a cult of death, there would be 1.6 billion people in the world waking up everyday plotting to kill. How ridiculous is this thought? We have to be wary of bigots and racists masquerading as intellectuals. Let us not forget again that the Ministry of Propaganda under The Third Reich used pseudo-intellectuals to blame all Jews and Judaism for the problems they perceived in the world. So, the first requirement is to have the firm believe that religions, including Islam, at their core seek to establish peace.
At MAPS, we have been very active at demonstrating the true face of Muslims and Islam. We hold regular lectures, conferences and workshops that are open to the public. We host hundreds of visitors including many school children every year at our facility. We have expanded our involvement and presence in the community. On any given week, MAPS volunteers host free health clinics, operate dental vans, donate blood, feed the homeless, work with the tent cities, distribute blankets, prepare school meals, teach the young, comfort the elderly, visit the sick, clean roadways, repair trails and parks. We participate in activities organized by other faith groups, like the CROP hunger walk a few weeks ago or in activities organized by the City, like the Redmond Lights event during Christmas. We, the American Muslim community are living true Islam by making the lives of those around us better. This is no cult of death!
The second requirement to dispel Suspicion of the Other is a realization that seeking simple answers to complex questions is, more often than not, misleading. Let us take the violence in the Middle East as an example. There are dozens of factors that have created the situations of instability in that region: century-old conflicts, lawlessness and lack of independent legal institutions, tribalism, sectarianism, post-colonial nationalism, foreign involvement, economic hardships, economic disparities, political feuds, control of resources, spread of social ills from lack of education to lack of healthcare, etc. Unfortunately, the instabilities created by these factors feed a vicious cycle creating more instabilities. Even if actors in these instabilities use religion to rally people to their sides, looking at such a complex situation and concluding that all Muslims are by nature violent is simply dishonest.
In a similar way, we tend to think that simple solutions can fix complex problems. Build a wall we are told and the economy will be better. Arrest minorities and we will solve inner city problems. Ban Muslims and we will be safer. Use the term “Radical Islam” and violent extremists will be defeated. We have to understand that to solve complex problems, we need the genuine effort of many dedicated people looking patiently at many factors over a long time.
At MAPS, we bring in nationally known speakers almost every month to talk about complex issues. We craft programs around them that shed light on the events that impact us. We host events looking at social ills like racism. Our Youth group hosts discussion nights monthly to critically look at issues. We partner with many government and law enforcement agencies and we have hosted many leaders including Senator Patty Murray and Governor Inslee. We believe that only in an open dialogue involving all parties can we grasp difficult problems and arrive at sustainable solutions.
The third requirement to dispel Suspicion of the other is a need to reinforce our commonalities and not our differences. Let us go back to the example of those who claim that Islam and America have been at war since the country’s foundation. There are plenty of examples that demonstrate that this is indeed not the case. The first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation was a Muslim nation, the Sultanate of Morocco in the year 1777. The Sultan maintained several correspondences with President George Washington. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1786 between the two fledgling nations. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the very first Iftar dinner at the White House for the envoy from Tunisia. Jefferson, of course, maintained a copy of the Quran in his library; that copy is now with the Library of Congress.
We cannot let a few find snippets of divisive evidences and fragments of history to break the overarching human bond that binds us all. I believe President Kennedy made this case best when, standing at the American University in 1963 at a ceremony sponsored by the Methodist Church said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
At MAPS, as many of you know, we are actively engaged with the interfaith community. This year, we hosted the Standing Together series with several of the organizations present here to find these bonds of commonality and strengthen them. This very conference today aims to achieve just that.
In conclusion, let me summarize the key points I am making today. History is replete with examples when groups of seemingly enlightened men descended into dark abysses and murdered their fellow beings. A pathway that leads to this violence starts with Suspicion of the Other, then exclusion, dehumanization, collection and extermination. Today, over half of the country suspects American Muslims’ motives and voices are calling to exclude them from the nation. The burden rests on all of us, men and women of faith and men and women of conscience to dispel this suspicion and replace it with trust. I propose three actions to dispel this suspicion: firmly believe that religions, including Islam, aim to establish peace; understand that complex problems do not always have simple solutions; and, emphasize our commonalities rather than our differences. I do hope that you will take these to your congregations and let them take these to their communities. We cannot let suspicion divide us. We cannot abdicate to those who intend to do so. The stakes are too high. As Reverend King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”