Far from being harassment, Rep. Peter King’s upcoming hearings are a chance for U.S. Muslims to acknowledge the local extremism that has caused some young men to go fight in Somalia, writes Asra Q. Nomani, herself a Muslim.
In recent days, Rep. Peter King has been accused of starting a “witch hunt” by holding hearings, starting this Thursday, called “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response.” As an American Muslim woman who has lived in this country for 42 years, I firmly believe the hearings on Muslim radicalization are not a witch hunt and King is no Joe McCarthy, the senator who led hearings on communism in America. Our worst enemies in America, I would argue, are Muslim interest groups and leaders, who do more to deny the problem than defeat it, thus furthering frustrations with the Muslim community. We need to acknowledge that there is a problem.
We have seen the encroachment of extremist interpretations of Islam into our American Muslim community, and as a community we have largely sat on the fence about these very serious issues. I know because, for most of my life, I sat on the fence, calculating, like many in our community, that it was just easier to look the other way than confront difficult truths. Starting in the 1970s, I saw puritanical, intolerant ideologies creep into my community. I also watched as many moderate Muslims simply cowered or walked away, intimidated into thinking they were less pious or faithful—or concluding it wasn’t worth the bother. I was among them. Social ostracism was one weapon in silencing dissent. Sept. 11, 2001, was my wakeup call.
In the years since, our community has launched obtuse PR campaigns that don’t address issues of radicalism head-on. We live in a culture of denial. Muslim communities, like so many, are largely shame-based societies, and they don’t take easily to admitting their problems. From my vantage point, we have to shake off the fear of shame and own the problems inside our community. In a sense, we need to be shameless. We have to realize that neither our community nor Islam has to be defined by criminals such as Maj. Nidal Hassan and Faisal Shahzad, but they will be if we don’t disavow these men and their ideologies. Muslim communities may have legitimate grievances about U.S. foreign policy, but those grievances, too often, become excuses for avoiding the ugly truths about radicalization in our communities.
We live in a culture of denial. Muslim communities, like so many, are largely shame-based societies, and they don’t take easily to admitting their problems.
Our community heroes should be folks such as Zuhdi Jasser, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy who battles ideologues at mosques in Phoenix and nationwide, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali-American who has challenged extremism in the Minneapolis community that has led to so many Somali-American youths going to their native country to fight for the Muslim extremist group al-Shabaab. Both have challenged extremism in their communities, but they have done so at great personal cost. They realize, I believe, that we have a greater imperative to right wrongs than be silenced by fear of shame. Both are slated to testify Thursday.
There is a Quranic verse that reminds us of our divine imperative to testify to the truths of problems inside our community:
Oh ye who believe! Stand out firmly For justice, as witnesses To God, even if it may be against Yourselves, or your parents Or your kin
—“Al-Nisa” (The Women), Quran, 4: 135
It’s never easy to speak honestly about the “dirty laundry” in any community. In 2003, when I wrote about sexism and intolerance at my local mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, a moderate young Egyptian-American attorney met me at the local Panera Bread. He told me that he supported me but he said, “Stop writing.” His rationalization: “You are shaming the community,” he said.
Two of my personal heroes won’t testify at the hearings, but they could, because they chose truth-telling over worries about shame. They are my father, Zafar Nomani, 75, and my mother, Sajida Nomani, who is sixty-something. My father was one of the founders of our local mosque and lost his position on the board when he stood with me for women’s rights and tolerance. He also lost his friends. My mother prayed with me in the men’s section of the mosque, and she stopped getting invitations to potluck dinners. What they remind me always is that, beyond board positions, potluck dinners, and fear of shame, it is our duty, as Muslims, to testify to the truth even if it is against our “kin.”
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. firstname.lastname@example.org