Guilty Until You Show Us Otherwise

Yesterday, amid the still-unfolding aftermath of the atrocity in San Bernardino, the NPR show On Point featured a panel including Yasir Qadhi, an American-born Muslim of Pakistani ancestry who is a Sunni cleric and professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college in Tennessee. Host Jane Clayson asked Qadhi what his first thoughts were, as an American Muslim, upon hearing news of another mass shooting. He said: “Our first thought always is, ‘Please, let it not be a Muslim who did it, let it not be a Muslim, let it not be a Muslim.’” (You can listen here.)

The reason for that desperate plea is the immense weight of suspicion that falls upon adherents in the Muslim diaspora following every jihadi-like attack. Qadhi went on to argue passionately that it is wrong for American Muslims to be questioned about their commitments, or have to show their bona fides, after such dreadful events. Violent lunatics are dispersed among all religions, he pointed out; when a mass murderer who happens to be Christian commits gruesome mayhem, nobody cares about his religion, and no one assails or interrogates other Christians, or seeks to tar them with a taint of suspicion about their allegiances. “Why isn’t the same courtesy extended to American Muslims?” he asked.

His remarks echoed those of Moustafa Bayoumi, a Professor at Brooklyn College and author of This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, on the Colin McEnroe show on Connecticut Public Radio two weeks ago (listen here), days after the attacks in Paris. Bayoumi said that when asked to denounce such events, he refuses—because the very request assumes that his intentions and allegiances are in doubt, and that he might in fact sympathize with such assaults; and that assumption, he insisted, is outrageous. 

The predicament is easy to sympathize with. I certainly wouldn’t like being slandered by association, considered suspect simply because I shared an ethnicity, nationality, or religion with some person or group that committed mass violence. Yet I understand the impulse to ask for the show of bona fides. What if I, an American Christian, were living in a Muslim country, and elsewhere in the world, fanatical fundamentalist American Christians were fomenting mass violence against Muslims, based on the recrudescence of a medieval brand of Christianity? Would I understand it if my host citizens asked what I thought about the issue? The fact is that I would in no way feel even the remotest hint of divided loyalty; my response to that distortion of my religion would be rejection and dismay.

Is the dynamic that simple for diaspora Muslims? In recent decades a stringently traditional Islam, hostile to modernity, has grown rapidly in popularity, altering the political and social course of more than a few nations in the Middle East. The pull of Islamic fundamentalism has been strong; and it is possible to view violent jihadism, with its beheadings and suicide bombings, as the tip of a phenomenon that continues downward through the clamping-down on women, the violent revulsion against art and various other manifestations of secularism, and so on, all the way to the seductive appeal to disaffected youth made via a charismatic cleric in the neighborhood mosque. It is a powerful force, and it seems to be growing—which makes it fair to say that there is truly a cultural, religious, and political struggle going on within Islam. I think what many Americans want to know, even if they don’t know exactly how to express it, is whether American Muslims feel torn when they regard this movement. American Muslims aren’t really being asked, “Do you support murdering masses of people in nightclubs and community centers?” They’re being asked, “How do you view the titanic struggle going on within your religion?”

The very fact that people like Qadhi and Bayoumi are Americans who write academic books and lead intellectual lives should suffice to answer that question; these men would probably be in prison in Saudi Arabia and dead in Isis-land. But most Americans don't have enough context to understand that, alas. (On Colin McEnroe’s show, Professor Bayoumi pointed out, not unkindly, that when he lectures around the U.S.—he grew up in Canada—many people he talks to don’t know the difference between an Arab and a Muslim.) And in Europe, mere long-term residency doesn't seem to guarantee the kind of deep assimilation that Qadhi and Bayoumi represent. Plenty of European Muslims clearly do feel torn.

Now it appears that the couple behind the San Bernardino slaughter had stockpiled weapons, and that their violence likely did have some kind of religious/jihadist cast. So what now? In responding to these acts of terror, how do we walk the tightrope between legitimate prudence and the egregious excesses that characterized the post- 9/11 moment? When does prudence become a cult of preparedness; when does “readiness” feed the deep simmering fear that feeds back into the political organism and causes it to act rashly? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Arab passengers were taken off airplanes because they made other passengers feel uncomfortable—not by their behavior, but by their mere appearance. A Liberian man prompted an evacuation of Penn Station because he was carrying a “suspicious” plastic jug—cooking oil, it turned out. An Sikh gas-station owner, mistaken for an Arab because he was wearing a turban, was murdered by a man who vowed to “go out and shoot some towel-heads.” And thousands of “persons of interest,” nearly all of Arab or Muslim origin, were picked up, charged with routine immigration violations, then held without bond for months, many of them denied access to lawyers and family members. The war on terror, the executive director of the ACLU said at the time, “quickly became a war on immigrants.” Is the atmosphere any better now? One shudders, in a campaign season where leading contenders for the Presidential nomination have already been waxing bellicose about barring Muslims from high office, putting all American Muslims on special government registries, and accepting only Christian refugees, to think about what’s coming.

It is not pleasant to live in a permanent state of being considered guilty until proven innocent. To take a pedestrian example, I happen to drive a VW. It is a non-diesel model, and so not one of the VWs cynically designed to circumvent emissions controls, defraud customers, and get away with polluting the environment. Most VW models are not diesels, yet all VW drivers suffer the stigma of being connected to the brand. You want to affix a huge bumper sticker to the car: NOT ONE OF THE BAD ONES! Now multiply that stigma times one hundred, and you begin perhaps to get an inkling of the plight of Muslims in this country. Americans have no idea what Islam is—to most people it's probably little more than an association with terrorism. Such ignorance makes life hard for the people on the other end of the conversation. It would be as if I lived abroad and all people ever wanted to say, when I told them I was an American, was “Oh, you wiped out the Indians and enslaved Africans. How do you feel about that?” That would get tiresome pretty quickly.

A roundtable discussion in today’s Times takes up aspects of this issue.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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