In the city of Ground Zero, what are Muslims saying about cartoons? When I ask the question to Muslim friends, they tell me stories I wish more people could hear. Muslims in New York seem remarkably unconsumed by the cartoons, because well before 9/11 they understood the need to be self-critical and work with the larger community to be part of our shared civic life. Of course they are concerned, just not consumed. Work goes on, some of which involves partnerships across religious lines, and such camaraderie is precious. As an interfaith organizer who happens to be Jewish, I probably miss a dark side of opinion. But the following three stories are noteworthy.
Three Muslim Stories
The day before the anti-cartoon rally in front of the Danish Mission, Sheikh Musa Drammeh, the president of a Muslim school in the Bronx, was interviewing a candidate for a teaching position. He offered her a job and told her to start the next day. She was taken aback, and said she would be at the rally; wouldn’t he be there too? Drammeh replied that teaching children to be good citizens was more important than complaining about a cartoon. You and I know that Muhammad did not wear bombs in his head, he explained to her Our children need to know it. If you want a job, come tomorrow. She started at 8:30 a.m. the next day.
The day after the rally, Imam Shamsi Ali, the leader of a large mosque in Queens, explained to a group of Christian seminarians from Union Theological Seminary that he had been at the rally. He helped organize it, because a peaceful protest was a way to show patriotism, tolerance and concern. It was also a way to educate his community. Muslims are forbidden to depict the prophet, but the cartoons were drawn by non-Muslims. No Islamic law was broken. Besides, we have an example of how to react to unwarranted criticism. When an old lady threw garbage at Muhammad, he only smiled and walked away. Still, Shamsi continued, the moral principle of freedom of speech should be held in tension with another moral principle: civility to your neighbor. Indeed, does any moral religious tradition advocate freedom for the sake of being offensive?
Adem Carroll, a Muslim human rights worker, was too busy gathering signatures that called for the release of Jill Carroll (no relative) in Iraq to spend much time thinking about cartoons, except to say that he wished there were better local Muslim newspapers to cover a wider range of opinions. As a Muslim community advocate, Carroll focuses on local issues. Yet such international situations cannot be ignored. He and his colleagues have organized numerous programs around this case, yet his success is regularly overlooked by the mainstream media.
The strategy of waving good examples as a defense or excuse for general bad behavior is rightly criticized, so I want to make clear that these leaders are not anti-Muslim Muslims, or Muslims who live a Jekyll and Hyde existence. Drammeh, for example, is socially conservative on women’s issues and sexual orientation. Shamsi Ali is progressive on women’s issues, yet does not advocate that women serve as imams. I mention these points to ensure that these leaders are not seen as ideal examples from the left. If they were, they would have less potential for our larger community. Instead, they defy such simplified and polarized camps. They and other Muslims have the ability to be self-critical social critics, using their faith’s teachings and their own conscience to navigate our shared situation on the ground.
The Value of Interaction
How did such Muslims get this way? To begin with, they all interact regularly with non-Muslims. Interaction with the larger community facilitates their self-reflection and shapes the larger community discourse as well. Sheikh Drummeh understood when he opened his school in the Bronx that knowing his neighbors was critical to long-term success. Yes, they wanted to make good Muslims, and this meant a Muslim school, but it also meant neighborliness. We reached out to the Jewish and Christian leaders right away, he explained. The more we make friends, the less likely we are to shed blood. For Shamsi Ali, coming to the United States and living in Queens radically altered his understanding of religion’s role in civic participation, and how he, as a Muslim, should think about and interact with other faiths. Carroll’s work is directed toward the Muslim community, but like any good social service advocate, he helps whoever needs help. This builds bonds between Muslims and outsiders.
The collective experience of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, plays a role here as well. Muslim leaders bonded with religious leaders of other faiths who called for tolerance toward their community and invited Muslims to speak in their synagogues and churches. Likewise, Muslim leaders condemned the attacks outright in every venue possible. The Interfaith Center of New York hosted a press conference that included over a dozen Muslim leaders and an equal number of other religious leaders. The experience taught many Muslims and others the need for humanizing social bonds across religious lines.
Strengthening the Muslim Community
In every case, relating to people other than themselves has strengthened the Muslim community, built their sense of civic participation and shaped a Muslim reaction that is different from what can be found elsewhere. African-American Muslims, rooted in the experience of the civil rights movement, are the most social-justice oriented Muslims in America, and arguably the progenitor of larger Muslim involvement in interfaith and civic participation. Freedom of speech is foundational, yet so is the power of civility and partnership.
The point is that many Muslim leaders in New York City have their heads on straight. They are not more liberal in their religious beliefs. They do not dismiss the need for freedom of speech, but remind themselves and us that civility is also a fundamental moral principle. They think the violent reaction to 9/11 has been bad for Muslims and want to focus their attention on education, calling for tolerance and reflection by the larger community. Such leaders and the interfaith forums that cultivate them need to be fostered, not dismissed, and not idealized. This is no laughing matter.