As part of the 9/11 commemoration series, Hyphen brings you a crosspost from our newest content partner, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding: a research organization and think tank for issues of US foreign policy, national security, the economy, and public health, relating to American Muslims and Muslim communities around the world.
This piece was originally published on May 14, 2011, at ISPU.
For far too many Americans, the mere mention of the word Islam elicits negative imagery of long bearded men with suicide belts who delight in the slaughter of innocent people. The stereotypical portrayal has become the accepted norm. Muslims are perceived as backwards, inherently violent, and misogynic in their treatment of women. No one has contributed more to the perpetuation of these stereotypes than Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
I was in New York on 9-11. As a graduate student at Columbia University, I along with other students went to the top of the School of International and Public Affairs building and saw the New York skyline change in front of my eyes. For me, it took weeks for the primal feelings of fear and horror to subside. The memories of that day have been rekindled with the recent killing of bin Laden.
His death provides much needed closure for some people. For others, justice has finally been done. And then there are those who rejoice and find psychological comfort knowing that the last thing that he saw was the rifle scope of an American Navy Seal. For me, it serves as an opportunity to reflect on the good that exists in the world.
The reality is that most people are inherently good. Most people use knives to cut meat and vegetables. Some use knives to cut other human beings. Most people use fire to cook and heat their homes. Some people use fire to burn others. Likewise, most Muslims are inherently peaceful and are guided by the same Abrahamic principles as Christians and Jews. The Quran says, “If anyone saves one person it is as if he has saved all of humanity. And if anyone kills one innocent person it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
Perhaps it is human nature to gravitate to the bad and grotesque. This may be why we stop to see a car accident on the side of a road. The radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to talk of a newspaper that only published good news. “This man and this woman have been married for over 50 years” or “this person is doing charitable work in his community” would comprise the content of this newspaper. It went bankrupt in six weeks. The fact is that most Muslims do not have any unique insight on why people become suicide bombers or join terrorist organizations. The issues that preoccupy their attention are the same as anyone else. Children’s education, a decent means of livelihood, paying bills and clearing debt, planning vacations, enjoying the company of good friends, are a part of their daily routine. But none of this is news worthy.
The clinging to easy stereotypes is a reflexive response to a traumatic event. But to be governed by such preconceived notions and monochromatic generalizations leads to xenophobia and a distorted reality. Inter-marriages between Muslims, Christians, and Jews are commonplace in the Muslim world, and there are sizeable Christian populations throughout the Middle East that have lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors for generations. But we hear and see only the violent images, and this misperception shapes our worldview. Consider another example. Over the past 25 years, Muslim majorities have elected five women as heads of state in the Muslim world (Tansu Ciller in Turkey, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia). Notwithstanding our verbiage of female empowerment and liberation, we have yet to elect a single woman as president in the US. The Quran is the only sacred text that devotes an entire chapter to the rights of women. In fact, women in Europe could not inherit property independent of their husbands up until the 18th century. Islam over 1,400 years ago gave women the rights of inheritance, work, and hold public office. But the misperception of a Muslim woman that is veiled and oppressed guides our thinking.
Again, it is the violent extremists that set the agenda for the rest of us and we become beholden to their vile impulses and snapshot. The death of Osama bin Laden should inspire us to see the world not from his lens but from a sophisticated vantage point that comes from seeing others as we see ourselves. All faith traditions ultimately teach that evil does not erase evil, but rather, goodness erases evil.
* * *
Dr. Ali M. Nizamuddin is a ISPU Fellow and an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.