Muslims under investigation

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The House of Representives begins its inquiry into Muslim extremism today, upsetting many. It's unfairly targeting one group, rather than examining religious extremism in general, some Muslims and their interfaith allies argue, likening the hearings to McCarthyism. It will only incite more fear and hatred, they say.

At least one Muslim, however, has a different perspective. I recently followed up with Akbar Ahmed to hear what he had to say about these most recent developments. Our full interview on Muslims in America, which explores many of the issues that will surely be discussed in Congress, will appear in the May issue of U.S. Catholic. As a preview of the Q&A, I will let Ahmed, author of Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, speak for himself. Here's what he said when I asked him whether the hearing should take place:

It’s tempting to say no because of the poisonous atmosphere. We know of all the attacks on mosques and women in hijab, and schoolchildren who are called terrorists because they have Muslim names. Even if there are just a few incidents, we need to do everything possible to dampen that atmosphere of distrust and hatred. Initially I had some reservations because some of the panelists are very hostile to Islam.

As it turns out, there are at least three very strong candidates on the panel that I think will do a great job of explaining Islam. These are Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a Muslim himself; Sheriff Lee Baca, who knows the Muslim community very well and has been to Pakistan; and Denis McDonough, the White House representative and Deputy National Security Advisor. I’ve been in meetings with him, and he’s a very impressive civil servant. I think they’re more than capable of handling any kind of false or distorted ideas that emerge in the discussion.

If you remove these three voices, you’ll have nothing. Muslims in the media are rarely heard; they’re rarely given a voice. Invariably there are going to be non-Muslim who are hostile to Islam on the panel. The very fact that you have three substantial Americans talking in positive ways about Islam, however, I think is a positive. These hearings can become what I hope they can be: a teaching moment.

Muslims have responded with hostility, fear, anger. There have been marches, protests. I appreciate their sentiment. I know where they are coming from. I’m part of their community. I feel sad, I feel upset, I feel hurt when people abuse our faith, as would any person of faith. At the same time I’m aware that this is America. This is a democracy. It has certain institutions and we need to respect them as Muslims.

I think Muslims should take full opportunity and accept this as a challenge: Participate, write letters to the editor, write articles, be in the media, and explain Islam—explain the richness, the sophistication of their culture.

Now the question is why should they be doing it and not any other religion, but that is the reality of living in the United States of America post-9/11. We cannot pretend that 9/11 did not happen. We cannot pretend that there isn’t a generalized Islamophobia. A lot of well meaning, sensible Americans really don’t know anything about Islam. And by sulking or becoming angry or rejecting the hearings, Muslims are again feeding into the sense that well these Muslims aren’t really “good, proper Americans.”