March 9, 2015
President Obama’s recent State of the Union address inevitably met with controversy. Particularly, the lack of applause on the part of Congress when the President stated, “It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims- the vast majority of who share our commitment to peace.” I will concede that applause stopped towards the end of that statement. However, I heard applause that was left over from the statement about speaking out against anti-Semitism. It wasn’t silent though, as some articles have contended. As a matter of fact, Vice President Joe Biden was clapping behind him as he was talking. Further, Obama talked about closing Gitmo. He went so far as to say,”… I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are. It’s time to close Gitmo.” Some members of Congress stood up and applauded that statement. We all know that the majority of prisoners in Gitmo are Muslim. So, let’s not split hairs on what was applauded and what wasn’t. Exaggerating minor issues is counterproductive to the real issue of destroying the stigma around being Muslim. Granted, the point some are trying to make is that our elected officials don’t seem to care about the Muslim population in this country. I say it is the job of the moderate and progressive Muslims and a responsible media to make them care.
Muslims are a marginalized group in this country at the moment; it is our job to take responsibility for our own image from within and make our elected officials and government care about us. We are for the most part newly arrived in this country, and for many of our families, it was a question of survival in America. Having a voice and position in society at large was on the backburner for many people. Hence pre 9/11, although Muslims were present in America, most people knew very little about them. When I was in school, I told a classmate I didn’t celebrate Christmas, and he immediately asked me if I was Jewish. He never heard of Islam and was still baffled when I explained it. Luckily, most people knew who Gandhi was and lumped us in with him. While I don’t want to be stereotyped at all, I can live with that. I would rather be associated with a peaceful, non-violent force for change than violent extremists.
Post 9/11, everybody brown was Muslim and a terrorist. Of course, the media will jump on that because it’s intriguing and draws people in. Lately with ISIS attracting morbid curiosity and feeding Islamophobic hysteria, the focus is drawn away from Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafsai and Muslim clerics worldwide who publicly denounce Islamic extremism. “Muslim terrorist” instead of “Muslim peace activist” is a far more provocative headline that will attract an audience.
What the mainstream media chooses to ignore is that there are people who want to know the reality of a situation. The reality is that the extremists make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. Different factions and different levels of practice are prevalent, just like any other religion. Within those factions, the majority of Muslims just want to be free to live their lives, like anyone else.
However, it is not just the media’s job to show who Muslims really are. It is the job of Muslims ourselves. We need to focus the spotlight on ourselves. We need to be involved in our communities and not sit quietly in our esoteric bubbles. The newly arrived need to stop looking down on American culture and try to keep their children away from its corrupting influence. If you’re going to live in America, be a part of the American experience. Recently, I have seen younger people who embrace their Muslimness and have American friends who are not Muslim and do what other American kids do. They go to the mosque and play with their friends, regardless of religion. We need to keep being positive, visible forces within our communities.
Other communities in this country have achieved success raising their positions in society. In the 60’s, African-Americans changed the trajectory of their journey in this country by actively claiming their civil rights as citizens and as human beings. Legal, social, and institutional racism barred their path. Yet while this country is far from perfect where the racial divide is concerned, African-Americans are more affluent than they have ever been, comprising a large percentage of the middle class and holding a large percentage of white collar jobs. An African-American president is an undeniable sign of progress. The Muslim community doesn’t have the same impediments. Undeniably, iniquities and injustices have been perpetrated against Muslims. Obama promised in 2008 to close Gitmo and did not. Officials in the Bush administration who authorized torture at Gitmo will never be prosecuted. Foreign policy, drones, and the “War on Terror” have killed countless Muslims. Even with those unapologetically detrimental events, we have to follow in the steps of the path that was laid out before us and change our trajectory in this country.
Elevating ourselves from the margins of society and history is not an easy task. The Muslim community needs to educate ourselves related to issues that affect us to become active members of American society. We must actively take our own destinies into our own hands and rewrite our own story.
Until next time… look behind and beyond the veil…
Sameena K. Mughal, Author, Freelance Writer