As the race for the White House picks up momentum in America, so, too, are rising in prominence the issues which intersect the Muslim community with US politics.
A forum was convened on precisely this topic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where this scribe was the keynote speaker. It was here at Johns Hopkins University Hospital (America’s No 1 rated hospital) where the decent former Pakistani prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, spent his last days 15 years ago.
One indicator of a deep disquiet on-campus over the Bush administration’s policies was a banner outside a building next to the venue of the forum, proclaiming that the US was spending $720 million a day in Iraq. Included in the panel and in the audience were young Muslim professionals serving in the US State Department and in the US Congress. The discussion centred on the bigness of the challenge confronting the 7.5 million US Muslims and the smallness of the response to it. As a learned Maulana pointed out, that if competent and well-educated Muslims choose the option of sitting quiet, rather than standing up and speaking out, then others will fill the gap and define the Muslims, as it is currently being done with labels of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.
The factor of fear was cited as a key element behind Muslim hesitancy in public involvement. Fear of being noticed, targeted, singled out, hauled up, and being persecuted. So, while living in a free country, there is little freedom from fear.
Predatory preachers are already preying on this fear. Most prominently, the Reverend Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus has, in effect, called for a new Crusade to eradicate Islam. To cite his exact words, Parsley states, “Islam is responsible for more pain, more bloodshed, and more devastation than nearly any other force on earth at this moment.” John McCain, the Republican Presidential nominee, has already publicly proclaimed Parsley as his “spiritual guide”.
In contrast to hate, however, there are significant voices of hope, too, like that of former President Jimmy Carter, who favours engaging Hamas, and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is a fierce critic of the Bush administration’s confrontational stance in the Muslim world. Carter’s initiative once again underlines the centrality of the smouldering Palestinian issue to Muslim-West tensions and global well-being.
But there is uneven and unsatisfactory interaction between Muslims and the broader society.
The infection of injustice has spread well beyond the confines of the justice concerns of the Muslim community. After 9/11, the first victim of a hate crime resulting in a homicide was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh who was shot dead in mid-September 2001 in Arizona – John McCain’s home state. Recently, in Washington, DC, there was a screening event of a movie-documentary, “A Dream in Doubt”, which detailed the harrowing nightmare experienced by members of the turbaned and bearded Sikh community in the wake of 9/11, after being misidentified – in a climate of fear and xenophobia – as followers of Osama bin Laden. Many of the Sikhs had escaped the fire of religious persecution in India in the 1980’s, only to land up in the frying pan of ignorant prejudice in the US.
Meanwhile, the group which glimpsed this opening and encashed the opportunity has been the Hindu community which has now made major inroads into media, academia, and government. Its influx and prominence in key areas in American life is one of the relatively untold stories here. It is one of the unintended consequences of the incapacity of the much-larger and more affluent Muslim community to match its resources to the requirements of the big occasion.
What to expect next?
Western policy-makers will continue to pressure Muslim nation-states, especially Pakistan, to take ownership of the ‘war on terror’ while simultaneously allowing the West the luxury and liberty to lash out at Muslim beliefs via the Danish cartoons or the Dutch film.
The unwillingness of Western elites to recognise the legitimacy of core Muslim grievances and to re-examine Western attitudes is at the heart of the increasing polarization.
Source: The Nation, 17/4/2008