Danger In Conflation: Separating Islam From Acts Of Terror

Host Jacki Lyden talks to Omid Safi, professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Safi has blogged about the Tsarnaev brothers, the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, and what it means to the American Islamic community that the brothers are Muslim.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's blogged about the Boston Marathon bombing and what it means to the American Muslim community and all Americans. Omid Safi, thanks for joining us.

OMID SAFI: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

LYDEN: Now, when the news first broke about the Boston Marathon bombings, there were people who had the reaction, please, do not let it be a bomber who is a Muslim. What were your thoughts when it was confirmed that the Tsarnaev brothers were Muslim?

SAFI: You know, I think when I think back to Monday's horrific events, my first thoughts were actually to pause and to sit in grief. As it became clear that there were two suspects - and it's important to say that there are still suspects, that they have not yet been found guilty in a court of law, which is something that everyone deserves an opportunity in this country - that the two suspects are Muslims of Chechen background living in America, one of them apparently an American citizen, I think there were a lot of people in the Muslim community who were afraid and fearful that this would trigger somehow another wave of backlash against American Muslims.

And, in fact, you know, we did see that those fears were not unfounded. There was a Bangladeshi man in Bronx who was beaten up by people who called him an effing Arab, apparently confusing Arabs and Bangladeshis and Chechens. There was a woman, a mother, a Syrian-American doctor in Massachusetts, who was walking her daughter in a stroller to a play date, and someone came up and punched her in the shoulder and said: Eff you. Eff you, Muslims. You're terrorists. You're the ones who made the Boston explosion.

So, you know, we see the danger that there is once we come to conflate crimes committed by two people with an entire block of humanity.

LYDEN: What about the condemnations of these bombings by mosques like the Islamic Center of Boston, which asked people for sympathy for the victims, people with information to come forward. Has this kind of outreach helped?

SAFI: I hope that the Muslim condemnation of these atrocities have helped. I hope that they allow people to see that American Muslims are just as repulsed by these types of actions, as indeed all Americans are.

We saw Muslims in Boston, Muslims all over this country condemn these attacks from Monday. And even today, we're seeing many mosques in Boston say that the brother who was killed, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, will not be buried in Muslim cemeteries in Boston because he's not one of us.

And I think that - I hope that these kinds of actions will go a long ways towards demonstrating to Americans that American (unintelligible) the same types of values about the sanctity of human life that all Americans do.

LYDEN: Do you think that we've learned anything from the racial profiling that occurred after September 11th?

SAFI: So I would say that actually we have not learned anything, unfortunately. And one of the signs that we have not is that we still hear conversations about racially profiling Muslims as if Muslims somehow represent a race or an ethnicity. That just portrays a complete lack of awareness that first of all, that's illegal. In this country, we identify actions and crimes, and we hold people responsible for their crimes, not for their ethnicity and not for their religion.

And second of all, whom exactly are we supposed to be profiling and using what criteria? The two brothers that we are talking about in this case are from the Caucasus region. They are white, for all practical purposes. Some Muslims, such as myself, are brown. And about a third of the Muslims in America are African-American.

So unless we're just going to racially profile everybody, the whole idea of racially profiling Muslims is absurd, and furthermore, it should be illegal.

LYDEN: Well, one of the things you point out in that blog is that in some of the other horrific incidents we've had of mass violence, if the perpetrator has happened to be white, there hasn't been a compulsion or a feeling that white people should try to distance themselves from an act of horror on the basis of race.

SAFI: Yeah. And I think, you know, that's a kind of white privilege that when we have a situation like Adam Lanza or the...

LYDEN: James Holmes in Aurora.

SAFI: That's right. That's right. You know, we don't feel a need to necessarily identify all people who come from that same ethnicity as issuing collective statements condemning that attack. We simply call those people deranged, perhaps suffering from mental illness or what have you. Whereas in the cases where the suspects are Muslim or people of color, somehow there's this rush to expect all Muslims or Muslim organizations and institutions to come out and collectively condemn the attacks, which they indeed did.

I'm deeply saddened that our religious faiths, which are designed to help us get closer to God, can be and have been and are twisted by some people to cause such an atrocious violence and hatred towards one another and to lead to violence. The Islamic tradition clearly and unequivocally condemns the shedding of civilian blood. Those types of prohibitions go back to the very teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran.

So Muslim terrorists should be studied. But to depict them as somehow embodying the essence of Islam, which is exactly what Islamaphobic websites are doing today, is actually to grant the Muslim terrorists the very legitimacy that they crave. And they don't possess this legitimacy, and they don't deserve it, and we should not confer it upon them.

LYDEN: Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

SAFI: Thank you. It's been a pleasure being with you.

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