I woke up this morning to the news that the alleged perpetrator of the NY car bomb was a Pakistani-American man. If he committed this crime -- a contemptible, cowardly one that I wholeheartedly condemn -- then I am glad he was arrested. But I couldn't help but wish he hadn't been Muslim.
As an American Muslim myself, whenever I hear of a potential terrorist attack, I cannot help falling into a repetitive litany of "Please let it not be Muslims who did this..." My prevalent feeling when I listen to the news these days is dread.
It's somewhat consoling to know that the man who first noticed the smoking Nissan Pathfinder and sought help is also Muslim, a Senegalese immigrant named Alioune Niass. I wonder if he was, as I am, deeply bewildered and infinitely saddened by the violence that's being associated with Islam.
I grew up Muslim in this country, with Muslim friends and non-Muslim friends, and there was very little difference between the two groups. We were all American. We all learned the pledge of allegiance and spoke it with patriotism (yes, it's true). I never felt any conflict between being Muslim and being American.
I know all religions have been, at one time or another, tools for those seeking power or notoriety or revenge. But I don't understand how people like the Christmas Day bomber or this recent car bomber can possibly justify their criminal actions on the basis of Islam. ("Jihad Jane" was clearly a nutcase before she ever "converted" to Islam.) Killing civilians, as well as terrorism, has always been unequivocally prohibited in Islamic law. Violence in the name of Islam these days has many complex, varied causes, most of which have nothing to do with religion. But, living in a country where many people don't know any Muslims personally and see only those in the news, I don't have the luxury of sitting back and allowing people to think that terrorism is Islamic - it's not. Only a fraction of a fraction of a percent of Muslims engage in terrorism.
Terrorists are not "jihadists," though they want you to believe they are. The U.S. government has stopped calling terrorists "jihadists," because so doing legitimizes the terrorists' violent behavior and makes it easier for them to recruit people. This is not political correctness - it's just smart strategy. We correctly don't describe the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups as "Christian holy warriors" (even if they base their actions on the Bible); rather, we dismiss them as fringe extremists, and we don't legitimize their actions by accepting their religious characterization of them.
The Islamic doctrine of jihad means many things, including taking arms in self-defense against an oppressor. Even the British take-over of India was not considered oppression enough to warrant jihad, according to prominent Muslim scholars, for the reason that the British were not actively preventing the practice of Islam. (Though if a foreign power were to take over the United States, I suspect Americans would not calmly submit.) And if, historically, some Muslims have interpreted "self-defense" more broadly to allow them to make war (as people of other religions have, as well), other Muslims have interpreted jihad to mean only nonviolent resistance. A modern example of the latter was Badshah Khan, a Pashtun who led unarmed, nonviolent protests against the British, basing his actions on the Qur'an.
Just today, a non-Muslim friend told me that she attended a conference at which one of the speakers was Muslim. Another man approached her and remarked on what a really nice guy the Muslim speaker was. "And," added this man, "to think that he's a Muslim!"
I hope we can remember the Muslim Senegalese man who raised the alarm about the smoking car, as well as the criminal who put it there. Muslims, like people of all religions, do good things and bad things. Unfortunately, our media highlights the bad and rarely mentions the good. Religious doctrine is not the same as what people do. I hope my fellow Americans remember that -- but in the meantime, let me condemn violence in the name of Islam and offer up another heartfelt prayer for peace.
Sumbul Ali-Karamali is an attorney with an additional degree in Islamic law and author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.