Extremist who?

A complaint I hear (or read) on just about every platform for discussing Islam's role in America goes something like this:

"If the majority of American Muslims are moderate, why don't we see more of them speaking out against extremism?"

The implied meaning, of course, is that despite the earnest attempts of countless American Muslims to intone their peaceful views until they are blue in the face, despite those who continue to jump through hoops in an attempt to make an increasingly hostile wider society accept them, despite the fact that nearly half of all arrests made in terrorism cases here in the States are directly based on tips from within the Muslim American community, somehow American Muslims still "aren't doing enough."

So in the interest of objectivity, let's observe a few facts:
1. Though estimates are notoriously difficult to come by, there are somewhere between 1 and 8 million Muslims living in the United States.
2. That number is further complicated by the diversity of practice that exists within the Muslim community. Not all of those who identify as "Muslim" would consider themselves terribly religious. Moreover, those who do consider themselves religious are hardly monolithic in their practice and beliefs.
3. In 2009, 47 Muslim Americans committed or were arrested for terrorist crimes. In 2010, that number dropped to 20. Out of 1-8 million. That's about .001% of the American Muslim community, depending on what estimate you're using. Can you think about that please?
4. Roughly 150,000 Americans have been murdered in the years since 9/11. 33 of those were killed in terrorist attacks carried out by 11 Muslim Americans. That's .022% of all the murders in the past 10-ish years.

Does that excuse any of those attacks that did occur? Of course not--but it does offer some much-needed perspective. Personally, I abhor violence, no matter who does it. That's why it's important to me to know where the majority of it is coming from, and in this case, it seems I have a lot more to be afraid of from wider American society than from the American Muslim community. The majority of terrorist attacks in the U.S. are perpetrated by white, right-wing radicals. In my hometown of Chicago, I've witnessed the number of children killed in school shootings reach alarming levels; dozens of students have died in recent years. Gang-related violence claims thousands nationwide. So why is the outcry on a few dozen terrorists getting so much more airtime than the outcry against skyrocketing numbers of dead schoolchildren? Where are the Peter King-style Senate hearings on those shootings? Where are the self-made "experts" making millions on books, blogs and speaking engagements about the threat of creeping white supremacy in America? The lack of logical priorities boggles the mind.

But back to the "American Muslims aren't speaking out enough" premise. Have any of the individuals who continue to assert this ever stopped to consider that, if Muslims make up only 1-8 million of a 308 million-strong population, they're going to have a hard time being heard simply by virtue of being a minority? More importantly, have any of these "concerned" individuals considered that, just because they may not be personally acquainted with the efforts of American Muslims to combat extremism, they are still occurring? Because at least in my experience, I see and hear Muslim friends of mine, both here in the States as well as abroad, speaking out against injustice and violence on a day-to-day basis. Who'd've thought that having actual human relationships with members of a marginalized community can help you hear what they actually think?! Shocking, I know.

And moreover, not every American Muslim is going to make a full-time job of policing their community, or addressing the constant barrage of Islamophobic speech from outside--nor should they be expected to. As we know, those who continue to rail against the American Muslim community are, well, kind of overwhelmingly shrill, and at least in my experience, don't take very kindly to being challenged. It takes a pretty strong stomach and a lot of free time to effectively address that level of poisonous discourse while maintaining one's own sanity. It takes so much time and effort to make oneself heard above the clatter, in fact, that I would hardly be surprised if most people simply throw up their hands and try instead to lead by example. I think it's safe to say that a majority of the American Muslim community are, much like the rest of us, just trying to go about their daily business, do their jobs, feed their families--you know, human stuff. To blame them all for the actions of a proportionally miniscule faction of nutjobs seems silly, and to expect the entire community to singlehandedly shoulder the burden of babysitting them is just downright unfair.

Indeed, the responsibility for dealing with extremism from within any particular religious community doesn't fall only to that community. If we all have a mutual interest in preventing extremism, any kind of extremism, then we all share in that responsibility. We have the freedom to shape our own culture, not with dominance and hate speak, but with free thought and flow of ideas. That is one of democratic society's greatest traits: any lasting cultural ideology not only has to be compatible with that society's constitution, but it has to stand up to a Socratic method of evaluation. Instead of having one power source inflict its views on a captive majority, we get to be one another's checks and balances. When ideas can't stand up to scrutiny, they fizzle out from their own lack of merit. No segregation, no guns, no battles. They're not necessary.

And though the ubiquitousness of half-truths and mudslinging in today's public discourse often tempts me to give up on the notion of human intelligence and civility, I still believe that human beings can do better than stupid and hateful. When they say stupid and hateful things, it's probably because they don't know the whole story. If they did, they'd probably come to more prudent, logical and balanced conclusions. That is the beauty of being human: to be able to understand, appreciate and work for things that are bigger than we are as individuals. To be one step up from basic fear response when confronted with something "different." To think critically and rationally and cultivate an attitude of embrace. To seek understanding and reconciliation with the "other," and perhaps in the process find that they were not as "other" as you originally thought.

This is why, though I myself am not a member of the American Muslim community, I have taken a particular interest in the issues that pertain to them--particularly when I continue to see that community demonized for "not doing enough," when that assertion has been soundly and repeatedly debunked. I do it because I value my neighbors and I value my freedoms, and because I know the importance of putting things in perspective. I have seen what misinformation and dogma have done to the world, and conversely I believe in the potential of understanding and tolerance to fundamentally challenge that unfortunate reality.

We all want to be safe. We all want to feel secure in our communities. We all want to enjoy our freedoms and see our societies prosper. So can we please look at the facts beyond the prejudices and make it happen?


  1. Thank you for attempting to maintain perspective for us. I appreciate your writing.


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