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American Muslims this 9/11

Mahan Mirza | Friday, September 10, 2010

Three events are coming together in relation to Islam on the upcoming anniversary of 9/11: The Koran burning organized by a small Christian congregation in Florida, the ongoing controversy over the Ground Zero mosque and the annual Islamic festival of Eid to mark the culmination of the holy month of Ramadan. Each of these issues warrants a different response from Muslims. With respect to Eid, we should be flexible. Regarding the mosque (which is not really a “mosque”), we should stand firm. As for the Koran burning, we should extend forgiveness.

Eid will fall either on Sept. 10 or 11, depending on how a local community interprets the rules for “moonsighting.” This could lead to the misunderstanding that Muslims are actually celebrating on 9/11. The Islamic year, based on the cycles of the moon, is 10 or 11 days shorter than our regular year, which makes the occurrence of a holiday on the anniversary of 9/11 pure coincidence. Having been overshadowed by the other two controversies, there has been little hullabaloo about this in the media.

In principle, Muslims should plan their celebrations to avoid any perception of conflict with the commemoration of 9/11. If necessary, Muslims should even consider moving public festivities (other than the ritual Eid prayer, of course) to another day. American Muslims often delay their celebrations if Eid falls in the middle of the week. Such a move, therefore, would neither be unprecedented nor out of touch with Islamic teachings. Love of God and neighbor are common elements of the Abrahamic traditions. According to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “None of you truly believes unless you love for your neighbor what you love for youself.” However, Muslims should not be scrutinized above other communities. Here at Notre Dame, 9/11 is also “game day.” Festive mood will abound on an otherwise somber date. We will all commemorate, but “Go Irish!” and “Eid Mubarak!”

Regarding the mosque controversy, let us consider the facts. It is not a mosque, but a cultural center that will be open to members of all faiths. The building is not on Ground Zero proper, but a couple of blocks away. There has been a mosque in the neighborhood serving local Muslims for many years. There are hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in New York, including men and women in uniform, families of 9/11 victims and first responders. The Imam of the proposed center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, represents the US State Department abroad and has a niece in the Army who has served in Iraq.

Opposition to building the cultural center is deeply offensive and hurtful to American Muslims. Like their compatriots, they pay taxes, love their country and live as law abiding citizens. Discourses that speak of Muslims as somehow violating American “sacred space” or conflate mosques with terror and tragedy are extremely troubling. To put it in perspective, some questions that need to be asked of the detractors are: Should the mosque in downtown DC also be moved because of its proximity to the Pentagon? How far is far enough? If the Ground Zero “mosque” would be a front or symbol for terrorism, should mosques be allowed anywhere? Should Lower Manhattan be declared a Muslim-free zone, or should Muslim presence only be tolerated so long as they remain collectively invisible?

Fortunately, there has been a slew of support for Muslims and their right to build cultural centers and houses of worship, starting with the leadership of New York’s (Jewish) mayor Bloomberg, and America’s (Christian) president Obama. Such support, along with the voices of countless interfaith leaders and organizations, is what makes our nation great. Ultimately, what we are witnessing says less about Islam and more about America.

This brings me to the third issue at hand — the Koran burning in Florida. It is heartwarming that many Americans have condemned this deliberately provocative act. Muslims should embrace this outpouring of support and unequivocally reject rash responses that may take place in their name. This is an opportunity for Muslims to fall back on the highest of virtues to be found in their religious tradition. Contrary to popular belief, the Koran exhorts Muslims to respond to provocations with kindness, “so that enmity might transform into loving friendship.” (41:34) The Prophet Muhammad is also reported to have said: “The most virtuous behavior is to engage those who sever relations, to give to those who withhold from you, and to forgive those who wrong you.”

Since the 9/11 attacks, a faulty narrative has prevailed about Islam and the U.S. led war on terror that has tacitly maligned all Muslims as guilty by association. No amount of information or serious analysis has been able to alter this perception. The fact that Muslims have been issuing condemnations of terrorism ad nauseum, or that polls have shown that Muslims (including Saudis and Iranians) are no more likely to justify the killing of innocents than “ordinary Americans,” has done little or nothing to lift the shadow of suspicion from the collective body of Muslims. However, in the face of unprecedented and overwhelming support amidst the recent controversies, there is reason to believe that change is in the air. It is happening with the mainstreaming of Muslims in American society. As we mourn the losses of a decade ago, from the depths of the dark abyss that was 9/11, I see glimmers of hope.

Mahan Mirza is an assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic

studies in the Department of Classics and is also a fellow of the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies. He can be contacted at mmirza@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.