This past Sunday, I attended an interfaith event at the ADAMS Center in Virginia with Arsalan Iftikhar, a writer and international human rights lawyer. Iftikhar was promoting his new book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era, which he wrote to further his belief in Islam as a socio-political ethos, which embraces non-violence.
In addition to countering the politically motivated demonization of Muslims by Islamophobes, Iftikhar hopes to inspire young Muslim boys and girls with the “audacity of hope” to become contributing members of American society. In doing so, he hopes to help Americans, both Muslims and those of other faiths, recognize that it’s possible to be a good practicing Muslim that embodies the golden rule of “loving thy God and loving thy neighbor” and to also embrace nonviolence. ADAMS Center’s imam, Mohamed Magid, who also serves as the President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) reminded the audience of the need for Americans of every faith tradition to take a stand not only against war but against all types of violence.
Iftikhar notes that much of the current anti-Muslim discourse including the Park 51 and All American Muslim television show controversies and the anti-shariah law movement are a way for right-wing conservatives to “get out the vote.”
In a poll conducted by Newsweek, a staggering 29% of Americans said they believe President Barack Hussein Obama is Muslim. This may be one reason that the president has yet to set foot in a single American mosque knowing such a visit would provide ammunition for his detractors. While politicians and public figures will be censured for overt racism, they can still get away with expressing anti-Muslim sentiment. For Iftikhar, the claim that Obama is a Muslim is just another way for some people to say “he’s black and not like us.”
Arsalan Iftikhar believes American Muslims should embrace the principle of being “our brother’s keeper” recognizing that only by protecting the civil rights of every American, even those with whom we differ, can we also protect the civil rights of all Americans. More than 72% of Americans claim to have never met or interacted with a Muslim so Muslims will have to work even harder to humanize ourselves to our neighbors.
The work of humanizing Muslims to the American public while daunting is far from hopeless as Iftikhar noted the progress made over the last decade by advocates of gay marriage. According to Iftikhar, “no matter how much of a conservative Republican you may be, chances are that you have a gay cousin somewhere” and this helps to humanize people and issues and “lessens the level of toxicity” in discourse.
Each Muslim has a role to play in breaking down stereotypes. Iftikhar says he loves when he gets the opportunity to speak on television or radio about mundane issues like sports or popular culture and not solely about religion or terrorism. When appearing on television, he makes a point of wearing a pink tie or shirt because he knows most people don’t expect to see Muslim man who is “clean-shaven and wearing something colorful.” So that even those who disagree with him can say “I don’t agree with him but I love the terrorist’s tie!” and that in its own way is a small victory.
I bought a copy of the book and am looking forward to reading it soon, insha’Allah.