The Common Good
June 2011

Beyond Guilt by Association

by Eboo Patel | June 2011

Mainstream Muslims detest the infection of radicalization far more than do other people.

Are American Muslims doing enough to combat radicalization within our own communities?

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That's the question at the center of hearings called by Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the first set of which were held in March. The opening session featured, among others, two families in which young men -- a son and a nephew -- had been radicalized, a Muslim doctor from Arizona whose testimony echoed King's concerns, and the head of the nation's largest sheriff department, Los Angeles' Lee Baca, whose testimony affirmed that Muslims are strong partners in our common battle against extremists.

But the most powerful testimony came from Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. He broke down in tears when telling the story of Salman Hamdani, a Muslim-American paramedic who, upon hearing of the attacks, rushed to the site of the World Trade Center to help his fellow Americans and died there in the crumbling buildings.

I have heard this question a million times: Why don’t Muslims denounce terrorism more? This question is a little like asking a person, "When did you stop kicking your dog?" The very setup assumes complicity and criminality on the part of the questioned. The truth is, mainstream Muslims detest the infection of radicalization far more than do other people, and are just as frequently the targets of terrorists who call themselves Muslim as other Americans.

Second, all life is precious to Muslims, so the loss of life anywhere is something to be grieved. It is anathema to hear Arabic prayer as the soundtrack to heinous murder.

Finally, my family is just as likely to be strolling through Times Square or at a Portland Christmas tree lighting as any other, and therefore just as likely to be victims of a random terrorist attack. Moreover, by dint of being Muslim, we could well be caught in the prejudicial backlash that paints all Muslims with a broad brush of "terrorists" or "complicit in terrorism." In fact, given the number of times I show up on hate blogs, I've already been caught up in this.

I remember being in Kansas City a few years back when the question "Why don’t Muslims stand up more strongly against terrorism?" came up several times after my speech. At last, barely hiding my frustration, I answered, "What if the only thing I knew about Kansas City was the first minute of the evening news for the last month? As my plane was landing, I would have thought, 'This is a city full of thugs and murders, and I better be very careful.'"

Obviously, the first minute of the local news is not representative of the great people who make up the population of Kansas City or of the U.S. as a whole. By definition, it often tells only the stories of the thugs and murders, and it would be ignorant and illogical for me to generalize this to the whole community. And while I denounce terrorism plenty, as do other mainstream Muslims, this is the heart of the reason that we would much rather tell you what Islam stands for -- mercy, pluralism, service, compassion -- than continue to shine the spotlight on the terrorists that twist our faith.

Peter King has more hearings planned. But I hope that when you see the news, read the articles, and follow the testimony, you remember the story Keith Ellison told of that young Muslim who gave his life serving his fellow Americans in the name of his faith. Know that he represents tens of thousands of American Muslims who are trying to do the same, in their own way, every day.

Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

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