November 5, 2002

Diplomacy... and other means

"Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart and that is the weakest of faith." —the Prophet Muhammad

With the Muslim holiday of Ramadan starting tomorrow, I thought I'd return to the War on Terrorism. Overseas, things are looking good. We've smashed al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan, and while we've suffered some serious mid-range attacks, al Qaeda has not been able to topple a single Middle Eastern government or mount another assault on our homeland. Unfortunately, while the battles on the international front are going well, we're losing the battle for our hearts and minds.

According to a recent ABC News poll, 33 percent of Americans now feel unfavorably about Islam (up from 24 percent in January). In addition, 35 percent of Americans believe that Islam "doesn't teach respect for other faiths," (up from 22 percent) and 73 percent of Americans "do not feel they have a good basic understanding of its beliefs and tenets" (up from 61 percent).

This polling data is probably accurate; it indicates that more Americans distrust Islam and Muslims than in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Based on the people I've talked to, that's probably an understatement. This trend is most evident in the increasingly brazen attacks on Islam by a growing number of Evangelical Christians. These include the descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile" from Jerry Vines and a "terrorist," according to Jerry Falwell, as well as the Reverend Franklin Graham's demand that U.S. Muslims pay compensation to the families of September 11 victims.

Worse still is the muted response from the White House. Last fall, President Bush made a point of distinguishing mainstream Islam from terrorism in his address to Congress. He also held several public meetings with prominent U.S. Muslims, including hosting a Ramadan dinner in the White House. This fall, he has been curiously subdued in the face of these attacks.

If there is hostility towards the U.S. Muslim community, it must recognize the reasons for this. The only Muslim figures in the news are not positive role models. Examples include the al Qaeda sympathizers arrested in Buffalo and Portland and the medical students in Florida who thought it would be hilarious to pretend they were plotting a terrorist bombing, not to mention the D.C. snipers who happened to be Muslims. Ask an American to name a famous American convert to Islam. You're more likely to hear the name John Walker Lindh or Jose Padilla than Yusuf Islam (singer Cat Stevens) or boxer Muhammad Ali.

Most Muslims are smart enough to recognize al Qaeda for what it is and any hesitation is more likely a disapproval of U.S. foreign policy. Consequently, when asked about the War on Terrorism, one of my Muslim friends said that he hated Osama bin Laden and then launched into a scathing critique on our support for Israel. Normally, there's nothing wrong with such dissent, but in this case it's totally inappropriate. Without some countervailing actions, it can all-too-easily be interpreted as a tacit approval of Islamic terrorism. President Bush best caught the mood when he said, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

An historical illustration of where this may disastrously lead is the 1941 case of Yoshio Harada. Harada was a Japanese-American living on the Hawaiian island of Niihau in 1941. On December 7, one of the Japanese planes that had just bombed Pearl Harbor crashed in the ocean off of Niihau. The pilot made it ashore and convinced Harada to help him. The two of them proceeded to terrorize the island for several days before being killed by local Hawaiians. To a nation reeling from the shock of a surprise attack, Harada only seemed to confirm the worst fears that there were fifth columnists living among us. His treachery played no small part in fueling the subsequent anti-Japanese backlash in the United States.

That this poisonous attitude did not survive the war was largely due to the subsequent demonstration of exceptional patriotism by the Japanese-American community. Despite their hostile treatment by the American government and public, by the end of the war they had signed up in droves for military service and earned more than 18,000 medals for valor. Their units, most notably the 442nd Regiment and the 100th Combat Battalion, were renowned for their ability to suffer devastating casualties and continue to fight hard. With their blood they dispelled any doubts about their loyalty and permanently silenced all their detractors. One may wonder whether, if the Japanese-Americans had not let their public image be hijacked by extremists and traitors at the start of the war, the infamous internment camps would not have become a reality.

There is a valuable lesson here: U.S. Muslims don't need to spill their blood on behalf of the nation, but it would help their image to be more overt in supporting the nation's fight against terrorism. Operation TIPS and the Citizen Corps are good ways to report suspicious activities and help out in time of crisis. There cannot be any more cases of al Qaeda agents blending into the local community, and the community must be seen as eager to police its own house. The CIA and the FBI are also desperately short of people with a working knowledge of Arabic, as is the U.S. military.

Last summer Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading Islamic scholar, wrote a scathing condemnation of the Muslim community's response to September 11. He said it should "dedicate a considerable amount of money and effort" to helping the government with the war on terrorism, specifically providing "information and assistance" to catch sleeper agents and prevent future attacks. Like Dr. Abou El Fadl, I share the belief that a Muslim cannot just stop at condemning terrorism but must treat it like a cancer and work tirelessly every day to eradicate it.

To echo the words of the late President John F. Kennedy, the time has come for U.S. Muslims need to stop asking what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.