By Ismail Royer
Originally posted on ATrueWord.com in February 2003.
It’s time for us to reassess our strategy. The shortsightedness of Islamic public policy organizations in the United States is glaring in light of the consequences of September 11, 2001: public suspicion of Muslims, the rise of a tyrannical Justice Department, and emboldened anti-Muslim bigotry.
It’s a testimony to Americans’ tolerance that Muslims in the United States aren’t suffering a broader backlash in a post-terrorist attack climate juiced up by the constant drumbeat of anti-Muslim messages on Fox News, the most popular news network in America, and omnipresent far-right media commentators.
For a large segment of Americans who remain unconvinced that Muslims mean them only good, the strategies of our public representatives do little to convince them otherwise. The methodology of promoting our agenda through political correctness is now ineffective. The realities of terrorism, however statistically insignificant the number of its supporters, have rendered the PC sledgehammer weightless: no longer can it be wielded to club the misinformed and bigoted into silence.
In fact, political correctness was never an appropriate tool, since victimology fosters resentment and sublimation of bigotry, not healthy dialogue. It promotes begging rather than honor and dignity. It both depends on and guarantees outsider status and marginalization. The political favors Muslims gained were ephemeral and insubstantial, crumbs swept off the table by patronizing politicians rather than real clout earned with respect. Who today remembers Bush Jr.’s promises of abolishing secret evidence?
It’s not that Muslims have nothing to complain about; it’s just that complaining should be relegated to about ten percent of our efforts. Dale Carnegie said that you can make more friends by spending two months caring about other people than you can in two years trying to get other people to care about you. Americans don’t need guilt trips to be convinced of Muslims’ good intentions–they need human contact. The elderly woman watching “The 700 Club” next door would dismiss Pat Robertson’s rants if her Muslim neighbor was visiting her regularly, bringing her hot meals and sharing coffee and conversation.
People instinctively know that moral beliefs have moral results. What are the moral results of our activism? Can anything of substance realistically come from our current course? Actions speak louder than words, and, for all the potential for good that Muslims hold, the action that Americans are most familiar with is the terrorism in New York and Virginia. We’ve failed thus far to place anything of substance in the counterbalance; instead, our agenda comes off as introverted and self-serving.
The Qur’an tells Muslims that they are the best of mankind, not because they are the “chosen people,” not because of their faith alone, but because they believe and “enjoin the right and forbid the evil.” This verse is repeated frequently but our behavior thus far suggests it has not taken root in our hearts. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, visited his Jewish neighbor when he was sick, even though that neighbor would throw trash on him as he passed. This is our way, our history, not cynical political calculation.
And yet, but for notable exceptions, this teaching has not manifested in our actions–especially with respect to national Muslim organizations. These groups should look to the efforts of Muslims at Howard University in Washington, who provide dinners for homeless women, or the work of Chicago’s Inner City Muslim Action Network, which, among its other activities, operates a free medical clinic. The Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs is in the trenches with Habitat for Humanity and other service organizations. Heroes like these toil in relative obscurity while the lack of vision of most national groups means their resources are devoted to poorly planned, uncoordinated schemes that hold little chance of advancing Islam’s values and Muslim interests.
From a public policy perspective, Muslims have a built-in advantage in that we believe passionately in issues that span the political spectrum, from left to right. Our morality might be translated into American political vocabulary as a “progressive conservatism,” a principled centrism quite reflective of the values of Middle America. This sets the stage for broad-based coalition building; local experience shows that a range of allies stand ready and eager to help us implement a moral program that will benefit us and our countrymen, and demonstrate Islamic values in action. We are frittering away an immense pool of political capital.
Muslims must not be beaten into retreat from this mission by bigots, pro-Israel zealots, and an out-of-control Justice Department. We must not remain introverted and selfish, slaves to the 9/11 syndrome, for we will answer to our Creator for what we did with our time and resources. We no longer have the luxury of simply lying back and complaining, even justifiably, that we are mistreated. The central goal of Muslims should be to put Islam into action and make a contribution, a lasting impact on this nation. The alternative is compounded political and social weakness, public ill will and suspicion, and ultimate obscurity.