COLORADO SPRINGS – I spend much of my time veering between the worlds of Muslims and non-Muslims in America, and sometimes I wonder if ever the twain shall meet. Recently in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey they did meet, in a moving and encouraging way. They need to meet like this more often.
On October 8, after Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey mosque, fifty or so invited members of the wider community arrived to take part in a conversation with teenagers from the Noor-ul-Iman school (whose students, incidentally, have a 100% college acceptance rate and average 1920 on their SAT scores).
“What it is, is an Islamic education along with our other education,” one student explained. “Being an American Muslim is something that’s very easy to do. The laws in America are very similar to the laws in sharia.”
“We’re Americans,” said another. “We all want the common good of this country.”
“We want our voices to be heard more,” said a third student. “It is our job to go out and educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about what Islam is all about.”
It sure is. In a country brimming with urgent needs and wake-up calls, I can’t think of any task more urgent, or anyone better equipped to take it on than the young Muslims I know who are already helping build a new, improved America for the twenty-first century.
But the most moving moment that day came from a voice of historical memory. A 67-year-old woman in the audience – she later told me her name was Rita – raised her hand to tell the young people that she knew what it must be like for them, as members of a misunderstood and suspect religious minority. Growing up Jewish in America half a century ago, she told them, she had endured “Christ-killer” and other slurs from her classmates. And she wanted to share with the young Muslims what her father had always told her: “Hold your head up high and be proud of who you are.”
In the past month I’ve walked in a walkathon for Pakistan flood relief in San Ramon, California (put on by the wonderful Pakistani-American organization Mashal); heard the all too typical story of a Muslim girl who grew up post-9/11 in small-town Texas; attended prayers at what is provocatively and inaccurately called the “Ground Zero mosque” in lower Manhattan; and had many public and private conversations with both Muslims and non-Muslims in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Colorado. And what I’m seeing are the seeds of a much-needed movement.
It’s time for Muslims in America to hold their heads up high and be proud of who they are. I say this cautiously, because I’m not Muslim and thus not vulnerable in the ways Muslims are. But I’m vulnerable enough; after speaking at a Pakistan flood relief fundraiser at Gettysburg College, I received hate mail (anonymous, of course). And it’s high time all of us who remember and/or hope for an America governed by the better angels of our nature stopped apologizing and reacting to bullies and started assertively changing the conversation.
The ugly truth is that Muslims are the people against whom, in today’s America, it’s considered not only okay but, somehow, even laudable to be bigoted. But it’s not okay. As my late grandmother would have put it, that’s just plain wrong. What’s dismaying to me, as an American, is that I thought we had learned that lesson. But we don’t seem to have learned much from the Vietnam War, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve also failed to learn – or are willfully unlearning – the lessons of the civil rights movement. Most disturbing is that anti-Muslim bigotry and moral recklessness cut across the American ideological spectrum, from the Quran-burning pastor in Florida to the young woman in Seattle, whose silliness does not excuse her irresponsibility, who now lives in hiding because of the cartoon she published. I drafted this paragraph before the Juan Williams fiasco erupted, and that sorry episode only underscores my point.
What would be the shape and goals of the movement I’m positing? For starters, the civil rights movement offers a model in terms of both moral and political urgency and methods. The parallels are not exact, but it’s not far-fetched to hope that one day places like San Ramon and Monmouth Junction might be remembered the way Greensboro and Selma are (or should be) today. (To learn the relevant history, read the three volumes by Taylor Branch, starting with Parting the Waters.)
One thing the example of the civil rights movement ought to motivate us to do is to get off our rear ends and out from in front of our laptop screens. “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in an excellent recent New Yorker article, “but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.” In other words, you can’t make a better America simply by “liking” it. Gladwell drives home the point:
Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. … If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.
What is to be done, specifically? I have a few suggestions. It’s time we Americans re-learned how to make genuine political statements. For example, how about an assertively nonviolent Million Muslim March on Washington? If Glenn Beck can dishonor King’s legacy by filling the National Mall with Tea Partiers on the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, surely we can – and should, and must – honor and reclaim it.
Here’s another idea: National Wear Muslim Garb on Airplanes Day. I’ll do it if you will, and I’m not joking. As any student of King or Gandhi knows, nonviolent resistance is anything but passive. The point is to flush out and shame bullies and bigots, by confronting them. What if thousands of ordinary Americans wore “Muslim garb” through airport security and on planes, all on the same day? Some of the reactions might not be any prettier than Bull Connor’s dogs and water cannons, but they sure would get across the point about who’s violent and who isn’t.
In the August 31 issue of The New York Review of Books R. Scott Appleby and John T. McGreevy, historians of the Roman Catholic experience in America, published a helpful and encouraging article titled “Catholics, Muslims, and the Mosque.” In it they wrote:
Must Muslims unequivocally reject all forms of terrorism—especially those Muslims who wish to promote full Muslim participation in American society? Of course. But if the Catholic experience in the United States holds any lesson it is that becoming American also means asserting one’s constitutional rights, fully and forcefully, even if that assertion is occasionally taken to be insulting.
Such assertion, by Muslims and the rest of us, is long overdue. This is what I mean when I say, as I’ve found myself saying many times in public recently, that I believe Muslims have a historic opportunity to play an important leadership role in American society today.
ETHAN CASEY is the author of the travel books Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime in Haiti for publication in 2011. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and his books and articles are available online at www.ethancasey.com/books/ and www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans