Since President Obama's December 6th message from the Oval Office in response to the violence in San Bernardino, most American Muslims are relieved to hear that our president and our government stand against unprecedented Islamophobia. In recent weeks there is an outpouring of solidarity with Muslims from thousands of religious institutions, organizations and community groups and on social media. A coalition of groups, including SARAH, the Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope, and Charter for Compassion, even created an Islamophobia guide.
Yet, even with this support, I see that the American Muslim community is tired. We are tired of seeing the same horrors, the fearmongering of the media, explaining our religion, and tired of the social media debates about whether we need to apologize while feeling that we need to be more vigilant than ever in protecting our families. We must overcome the tiredness as the president has called on us.
In his address, beyond the reminder that Muslims are part of America, Mr. Obama also asked American Muslims to take action:
Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.
If we are going to accept the president's challenge, this means we must reject hateful ideology and speak out against misinterpretations of Islam within our own community first. We must start with our inner circles and even ourselves.
We may also need to examine possible causes of these ideologies. It is impossible to fully understand the reasons that individuals are pulled towards terrorism and violence, and any justification is inexcusable. However, radicalization and extremism can be based on certain perceptions of history and events which morph into a warped ideology.
We know that for many Muslims there is a shared narrative that Muslims throughout modern history and all over the world have been dealt with great injustice and that the oppression is ongoing for many groups. Look at the plight of the Palestinians, the Rohingya, and now the Syrians. Many Muslims think the end of the injustice is nowhere in sight. The field of post-colonial studies attests to the facts and this perspective of history.
There is another part of this collective consciousness that sees everything as a conspiracy against Muslims; leaders in Muslim majority countries are Western puppets and even that the West is at war with Islam itself. We know not many Muslims believe in the conspiracy theories. As American Muslims, and likely Muslims elsewhere, we feel we have power and privilege to be able to constructively contribute to the future, for Muslims and for the world.
Yet, in the current crisis, there is a thin sector in our communities who are fear struck and see that Muslims face only insurmountable injustice. This fear can turn into anger and then extreme ideology, and lead to violence. This path to radicalization is not the answer to Islam's future.
For those of us looking for a better future for Muslims, we realize that we, the American Muslims, are part of the solution and we can reach out. It is in our hands to prevent extremist thinking by tackling the problems straight on.
Here are ten actions I believe American Muslims can take to reach out to their wider communities in solidarity with peace and justice for all American.
1) Start talking to your older aunt or uncle or relative who may have simple views of the world and sees things as black and white, Muslim or non-Muslim, halal or haram. You know who I mean; there are many such people around us. Engage them in a discussion about how the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community, has a responsibility to be engaged and to give back. Who knows? Perhaps together you might redefine the idea of the ummah to mean all of humanity!
2) Look around for those in our communities who are alienating themselves and starting to move away. Perhaps their ideas have started to become rigid and you are a bit uncomfortable. Instead of letting them go, engage them more. If you find them in the mosque, spend time talking after prayer. Ask them what they are reading and where they are getting information about Islam. Engagement and dialogue can go far in making things clearer.
3) If some of your Facebook friends are posting exclusively about how Islam is under attack from the West, or if they are not empathetic in acknowledging how others are feeling about the violent acts, don't unfriend them! Keep them connected. Share your views and ask them to explain theirs. Keep engaged in positive ways. For that matter don't unfriend your social media contacts who are Muslim bashing. If you continue to show kindness you may get them to realize they are being small-minded bullies.
4) Reach out to people in the Muslim community who are in need, especially those struggling to educate their children. We know there are many families struggling, not only with making a living, but with moving through the maze of our educational system. There are families who do not have access to the Internet that most school work requires. Volunteer and help them set it up. Teach their children how. Mentor their child who is struggling to understand not only homework, but what papers his parents need to sign and how to communicate what happens in American schools. Ask parents if you can talk to their child's teachers and set up meetings where you can be the liaison. That young Muslim student may be feeling alienated in school and your outreach to them can keep her on track.
5) Teach English to our Muslim brothers and sisters. We all know there are many illiterate adults in our communities. It's amazing how you may find people who have memorized the Qur'an, interpret it, but cannot read a word of Arabic, or any language. Stop pitying or patronizing those who don't have an education! It's usually not their fault. If you can't volunteer yourself, connect the learner -- and this usually means making the call -- with the amazing adult literacy programs in American communities.
6) Reach out to Muslim youth who do not identify as Muslims. These young people may not be interested in religion and religious knowledge at this time in their lives, but they generally have some kind of affiliation with Islam -- perhaps their name? They too may be feeling the heat of Muslim-bashing and may need some guidance or just a friend. Fareed Zakaria, CNN media personality who explains that his views on faith are complicated -- "somewhere between deism and agnosticism," recently identified himself as a Muslim in a Washington Post essay, because he is appalled by Donald Trump.
7) There are all kinds of other Muslims you can reach to. They are many reverts to Islam (among them single women), new to the Muslim community who do not have families of their own. I have heard many say they are alone in learning Islam and are excluded because of ethnocentric groupings that our communities sometimes tend to create. There is danger for people who can become disenfranchised and tune into all kinds of misinterpretations of Islam. Invite them to coffee. They are usually interesting people with an amazing story and sometimes their knowledge of Islam is of great depth.
8) Become a public speaker. Among the greatest gifts is your voice. We are looking for spokeswomen, writers -- Muslims who can talk to the rest of the American public. If you are not an expert on religion, then focus on one area and become knowledgeable in that. Of course, Islam is vast, but we don't need scholars now. Media outlets, especially in small communities in the U.S. are desperately looking for Muslims to speak and there is a void. If you have any experience presenting or teaching in your work or school, you can speak as a representative of the American Muslim community. Perhaps you can change the story and dispel the myths. Wouldn't it be great if we stopped talking about Arabs and Muslims in the same breath? Arabs are only 20% of the Muslims and many of our Arab brothers and sisters are Christians. Let's stop being Arab-centric! Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him (PBUH), said:
There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white -- except by piety.
See how easy it can be? Lay people like me can quote from the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, to make a point! For that matter, wouldn't it be wonderful if we referred to the terrorists as TIIS, the Terrorists in Iraq and Syria, since they are neither Islamic nor a state. And if you can get the media to stop talking nonsense of the existence of caliphate, it would be miraculous! Please, you are needed!
An excellent resource is Islamic Network Group, whose mission is "educating for cultural literacy and mutual respect." ING has a speaker's training program. How about becoming a volunteer at the mosque. You know the 20% of the volunteers that are doing 80% of the work? Join them.
9) Outreach to other Americans. Support your local community, go to rallies, vigils, interfaith prayer meetings, and support gun control advocates. There are a million things Muslim Americans need to do to reach out to other U.S. citizens. Right now we are looking for warm bodies. Too often there are interfaith events which churches, synagogues and community groups organize in solidarity with Muslims, and only a few Muslims, if any, show up. The organizers of these events are gracious, giving people who are in need of our help.
10) Our American Muslim organizations need to add diversity and that can be you. These groups are doing their best in these circumstances but there is room for improvement. Let's start with: #NoMoreAllMalePanels! #NoMoreOnlyMaleSpeakers! We need women of all kinds, including those homemakers who may think they do not have much to offer. We need new faces and the leaders of these organizations need to make room and mentor young people. Push your organization to do that - call them!
Let us all take on President Obama's call. Just do it.