I read the latest foiled terrorist plot in Portland like many people do, with a mix of shock and relief. However, this one struck closer to home, literally. While I have lived in New York now for over six years, I grew up just outside Portland in a small town called Battle Ground, and frequented downtown Portland most of my life, including for school and church. The day after the arrest, I received the following text message from my sister:
"Hey, I was at Pioneer Square last night when they found that guy who was going to bomb it. He was Muslim and he was yelling 'allahu ackbar' when he was arrested. If the FBI hadn't have intercepted his plan you'd be down a sister. Why aren't Muslims speaking out more publicly against these people?"
My sister's text was an earnest message from a reasonable American. Despite the stereotypes of living in rural Oregon, she has come to the defense of Muslims when an in-law claimed that "Muslims want to kill us (Americans)." She is not an Islamophobe. However, when the crosshairs of violent extremism finds you, the fear breeds both confusion and anger. Why aren't more Muslims speaking out against terrorism?
The fact is, many are, both in America and abroad. Virtually every prominent imam and Muslim organization has issued statements condemning terrorism at every point possible. New leaders speaking out against terrorism are mobilizing, including Dr. Ali Shehata from al-Maghrib Institute. The Fiqr Council of North America issued a fatwa against terrorism. Even in the days following the Portland incident, my friend and fellow Huffington Post contributor Harris Zafar handed out "peace fliers" explaining how Islam is against extremism, and speaking out against the attack on any press who would listen, including MSNBC and Fox News. Abroad, many have also joined the fight against extremism. A British Imam issued a detailed, 600-page fatwa against terrorism, while millions of Muslim Indians protested the Mumbai attacks, canceling the Eid celebrations.
The point is, many Muslims do protest and mobilize against extremism. However, if you haven't heard any of the previous examples, it's because the media didn't cover it with anywhere near the same zeal with which they covered the attacks themselves.
Many Muslim Americans, born and raised in the States, have been vehemently denouncing terrorism on deaf ears for nine years, and have grown tired of it. Whether religious or non-observant, many young Muslims, with much more in common with all American youth than foreign extremists, are frustrated that their names single them out for bullying, ridicule and suspicion. As one friend told me, "I don't ask you to apologize for the Srebenica massacre, even though you are Christian. Why should I as a Muslim constantly have to prove my innocence from terrorism when I have nothing; not nationality, language, ethnicity, denomination or life experiences, in common with these unislamic violent extremists?"
Still, others who despise violence in all forms are shy to demonstrate. Rather than doing anything that draws attention to themselves, they'd rather work hard, study hard and pursue the American dream. Others fear from doing any public demonstration for fear of retribution, from either extremists or Islamophobes.
As I head back to Portland to spend Christmas with my father, I wonder how we can change this narrative of violence in an otherwise peaceful city in the Pacific Northwest. In particular, how can reasonable people like my sister get answers to their questions and fears, and a chance to engage with Muslim Americans who hate terrorism and love America?
There are many organizations and people who are engaging this issue on various levels, such as Fareed Zakaria's eloquent rebuttal of misinformation, local Muslims speaking out against violence like Harris Zafar, and organizations engaging in the issue locally and nationally, such as the Interfaith Youth Core, the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland, and even World Faith and Religious Freedom USA, projects in which I hold leadership roles. However, the interfaith movement must move central to the debate to counter the narrative of conflict on media. Muslim Americans, if they have the patience to persevere, may soon have the ability to speak to eager ears. Will we listen?