Between Hope and Despair: Living as a Muslim in the United States

Religion News Service, USA
May 21, 2003

by Akbar Ahmed

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published by Polity Press.)

If you appear in the U.S. media with a Muslim name like mine, you live suspended between hope and despair, compassion and anger, acceptance and prejudice, inclusion and exclusion. You are blindly associated with the actions of Muslims all over the world, and your religion itself appears to be on trial.

Some letters sent by strangers in late April and early May illustrate this unfortunate reality. I select four examples to make my point. The letters represent two distinct responses to the debate around Islam. Their sentiments were deeply felt and although I did not agree with everything they wrote, I appreciated their frankness.

The first letter writer is a cleric at a church in Charlotte, N.C.:
"Thank you for your rational, liberal and humanistic article. ... We sure need more scholars like you in the world. Please keep pushing for that open-minded, peace-loving dialogue with your peers and the people of the world."

The second writer is also a clergyman. He had seen my BBC TV series "Living Islam," based on my book "Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society" and had written to me introducing himself briefly. When I replied, he was moved to write:
"Thank you for responding. I have read the material you sent, and have found a new sense of hope for America and our world. I have been quite agitated by all that's been happening in recent years, and have developed a pessimism that disturbs me. I assure you that I won't besiege you with contacts, but let me take this opportunity to say that I admire you and your work. Your erudition, piety and passionate commitment to engage the (non-Muslim) world in dialogue are inspiring to me as a nonsecularist, nonrelativist, `Byzantine' Christian. I often found myself unexpectedly in tears while watching your films.

"I have just returned to America after living nine years with my family in Romania, and learning to see the world through very different eyes. I arrived there as a 40-year-old evangelical Protestant pastor, and left as a Romanian Orthodox priest. You can probably imagine the upheavals that meant. But I think my present task of learning what it means to live meaningfully as a minority in my own homeland is the greatest challenge of my life.

"I never expected to find inspiration in a Muslim scholar, nor did I expect to find so much to admire in Islam. Forgive me. May God have mercy on America, and may he teach us not only to respect, but to trust one another in this ever so interdependent world. Thank you again."

Taking a different position altogether, another letter writer also reading my column saw me as a lightning rod for my religion, Islam:

"Mr. Ahmed ... Your Muslim culture is no longer a mystery to this country. And we fully understand why ALL Muslims hate us. This country has a 200-plus-year history of being a safe haven for those who yearn for freedom and the opportunity to better themselves. We have assimilated countless cultures into our American culture to the betterment of our country – our culture respects the right of people to practice the religion or belief of their choice. However, we are NOT obsessed with religion.

"America is faced with a new phenomena in that for the first time immigrants from the Middle East of the Islamic persuasion come here, build beautiful mosques, and preach hate right here in America. They raise funds to send back to Muslim terrorist organizations to bring people here to kill us! We have seen your `culture' fly into our buildings, your `culture' has blown up our embassies, your `culture' preys on women and children, and etc. Does your culture BUILD anything, or just blow things up? We have examined the Muslim culture and find it without visible redeeming value."

The fourth letter was written apparently after the writer saw me on C-SPAN with the distinguished Israeli writer Michael Oren on the Middle East panel at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in April. This letter fuses Islamophobia and anti-Semitism:

"It matters little to me whether the pope, various imams, rabbis, Jewish statesmen like Netanyahu and Sharon are burned alive or simply peacefully exterminated. Rest assured that we know how to do it. A few presidents may lack the integrity and courage to begin the process, but this one doesn't.

"Since your pompous, dishonest book was written, we have totally humiliated a couple of your dirty countries without even touching our power to exterminate all who believe in Islam or the Arabs on Dearborn Avenue in Michigan.

"You look and act like the Jews to whom you are related and your suicidal program is intensified by your self-pity, arrogance and lack of the ability to kill creatively. Therefore us secular types will have to destroy you."

The first two letters hint at pain and tears, love and compassion, the second two at anger and confrontation. Together they reflect the different shades of the human condition.

Reading these letters, I was once again reminded of how complicated and dangerously divided our world is, and how the debate around Islam is as much about Muslims as it is about Jews and Christians; that we are all suspended between hope and despair.

Copyright 2003 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission.

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