Muslim Family Values

Many Muslim people were hoping the Boston bombers didn't share their religion. However, the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is indeed Muslim, according to family members. Host Michel Martin speaks to Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds about the conversations they're having at dinner tables and in their neighborhoods.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, this might be something you're dealing with. Millions of Americans do have paid work but they want to work more and they can't get the job or the hours. We'll talk about why working part-time has become permanent for so many Americans. That's coming up later in the program.

But first we want to take a closer look at some of the discussions touched off by the Boston Marathon bombings. And not the ones on news programs or on Capitol Hill, but those happening at dinner tables in many American homes. You might have heard that even before the authorities named Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev as suspects, there were social media tirades assuming Muslims were responsible.

And as well, there were many people writing and expressing the hope that the perpetrators were not followers of Islam. And much of that was fear of backlash or further stoking the kinds of suspicions and hostility that was stoked by 9/11. So now that the authorities think that they do know who did this and are finding that there is a connection to Islam, we wondered what conversations American Muslims are having now.

Especially with their families, friends, and fellow congregants. What kind of conversations do they wish for? We've called three thoughtful people to speak with us about this. Dalia Mogahed is the co-author of the book "Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think." Asra Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She's the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam."

She's also a frequent contributor to our parenting roundtable. Also with us, Congressman Andre Carson. He represents Indiana's seventh district in the U.S. House of Representatives. That includes the city of Indianapolis. He's also one of two Muslims serving in Congress right now. And they're all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. I'm delighted to welcome you all. Thank you all so much for taking the time to speak with us.

DALIA MOGAHED: Thank you.

REPRESENTATIVE ANDRE CARSON: What an honor.

ASRA NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So I'd like to start with some of the conversations that went on around your dinner tables after the bombing and after it came out that the suspects were two young men who do claim Islam. So Congressman Carson, I have to ask, what were your first thoughts?

CARSON: Well...

MARTIN: Was it oh no?

CARSON: Always. You know, it kind of reminds me of what the African-American community has gone through historically, particularly decades ago when a liquor store was robbed or a bank was robbed. You're like praying that the person is not African-American. In this instance, we have a similar kind of anxiety and tension in hoping that the person isn't Muslim. Unfortunately.

MARTIN: Why do you - why is it that? Is it because you assume that there will be some kind of collective indictment of the whole community?

CARSON: Precisely. Historically, I think that has been the case. You know, first of all, what happened in Boston was a terrible tragedy. I come from law enforcement. I worked in counterterrorism and counterintelligence. And I am acutely aware of how critical Muslims have been in our efforts to thwart terrorist activities. We've done so on a daily basis and folks will never know about it.

MARTIN: Dalia, what about you? What were your first thoughts? And did you feel you needed to talk to your boys about it? You have two young boys.

MOGAHED: Yeah. My first thoughts were, oh no, not again. I was so angry about what had happened in Boston and it felt like another punch in the stomach when we found out who had done it. And I did feel a need to talk to my older boy because I was concerned about possible bullying in school. He's in middle school. He's of Arab descent, a Muslim American male.

And it's hard right now for young Muslim males and women because of - there is this sense of collective guilt that's sometimes assigned to our community when these terrible things happen.

MARTIN: Did he experience any of those things?

MOGAHED: No. And it was wonderful that he hadn't. But I am concerned about what it's doing to his self-esteem and to his identity to hear what we hear in the media about the Muslim community.

MARTIN: And, well, I'm going to ask you what you mean by the media - after that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But do you want to just tell me briefly what you mean?

MOGAHED: Present company excluded, of course. But what I mean is there are voices in some news programs that are assigning collective community guilt, despite the fact that these suspected terrorists were really outside of the local community. They weren't radicalized in the mosque. In fact, they were in conflict with the local mosque's message of pluralism.

MARTIN: Asra, what about you? You were telling us that you had an interesting reaction from your son, especially when the photographs were finally made available of the people who had been identified as suspects.

NOMANI: Yeah. My son Shibley(ph) is 10 years old and he looked at the image of the younger boy and he said that looks like me. He looks like me. And I felt that. I felt in his innocent eyes of the younger photo, the curly hair, he could've been my son. And he is all of our sons. And I really felt as a mother and as a citizen of this country that we do have a collective responsibility, in fact, and that I think that this idea of collective guilt actually avoids the responsibility that we have. And it's actually my son Shibley who brought me this lesson. Because he brought home an assignment a couple years ago on what it means to own up. And I believe that inside of our Muslim community we haven't completely owned up to the real issues of extremism that is laying claim to our young boys.

MARTIN: What would that look like? I mean, what would that owning up look like?

NOMANI: To me that means, in fact, acknowledging that we do have ideologues and we have websites and we have awful, awful indoctrination campaigns inside of our communities, well funded, that lay claim to these boys. It's not enough to say they're outside of our community. They are part of us. And we have to take ownership over that. Just as African-American community has had to confront the issue of gangs, we have ideological gangs in our community.

The news today is that Uncle Ruslan, one of the uncles to these boys, says that there was a man named Misha who had indoctrinated the older son. And he was a man known inside the community. We have these Mishas in too many of our communities and we need to make sure that they stop taking over our boys' minds.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about reaction to the Boston bombings in American Muslim households. Now, we're not saying that our guests represent all Muslim Americans, but we are saying that they are three thoughtful people who think a lot about these issues, both personally and for the entire community.

We are speaking with Asra Nomani. That's who was speaking just now. Dalia Mogahed. Also with us Congressman Andre Carson. What about that, Congressman? And I'm also curious about if you feel a special responsibility to, you know, denounce something like this. I mean, I know we got, you know, press releases from a lot of people in the wake of something like this offering their perspective.

Do you feel, as a Muslim American, that you have to have a special responsibility to step to the head of the line and denounce this? And if so, you know, why? And to what end?

CARSON: In some ways, yes, because I think there is an expectation there. There's this ongoing debate about Muslims not responding en masse to these kinds of attacks because most Muslims don't have anything to do with these kinds of attacks. But I think as an elected leader, I think in some ways it presents an opportunity to educate the public. Though that's not my job. I'm not a theologian. I'm not a religious scholar. I'm an elected official. But being one of two Muslims in the country, I still feel an obligation to denounce these kinds of extremist activities and to speak clearly about what Islam stands for.

MARTIN: Dalia, what do you think about this? I understand that you, if I'm characterizing your views appropriately, you don't feel this sense of collective responsibility is something that people should really embrace. Do you want to talk more about that?

MOGAHED: Yeah. I think there is a difference between collective responsibility and collective guilt. And I do want to draw that contrast. I think that the biggest victims of extremism are Muslims themselves. I mean, just statistically around the world, they are the primary victims of violent extremism. And it is our young boys that are being preyed on and exploited to carry out these acts.

So we are - we have to care about this and we have to do everything we can to get rid of this terrible problem. But I draw the line between that and collective guilt. The community as a whole is not responsible for these actions. We can't be asked to condemn or apologize for something we simply didn't do and we are, in fact, the primary victims of.

MARTIN: Wait. Let me ask you though, if I may, to respond to Asra's point, though. Her point is that this is very similar to strains in the African-American community, and frankly, other communities where you find - yes, there are - you could say, yes, there are social ills. Yes, there's racism. Yes, there's oppression. But there are also personal behaviors that people need to take responsibility for that are individual, but that can really only be fought with a community-wide response, which is why you see things like the Million Man March or why you see people like Bill Cosby speaking out and saying - whether you agree with him or not - saying, you know what? We have to take responsibility for this. Is she wrong?

MOGAHED: I don't think she's wrong, but I think that that is happening. I think it's happening at a mass scale. What I have an issue with is when my son, who also looks a lot like the now living primary suspect, has to feel sort of a piece of that guilt. That's completely something we have to fight. It's a little like the fact that 56 percent of domestic terror is actually conducted by right-wing anti-government groups, and for mainstream Republicans to have to apologize every time something like that happens. It's as ridiculous as to ask mainstream Muslims, who are the primary victims of these acts and are totally in disagreement with them, to be expected to condemn them, lest be suspected of agreeing. We don't afford Muslims the same presumption of innocence.

MARTIN: Asra?

NOMANI: I think that that is the kind of walking on eggshells that has condemned our community to a lot of mistrust over these last 12 years. On Friday, I was standing in front of the home of the uncle, Uncle Ruslan, as he's now called. And when he spoke, he spoke of how his nephews had shamed him and he was taking on the responsibility as a member of the community that I think each one of us has, and his voice resonated in this country because he was able to accomplish in just a few minutes something that the national Muslim organizations have not been able to do in 12 years of this walking on eggshells.

And what he did was he owned up to the fact that we have an issue inside of our community. That means simply that we take responsibility. To me, the fear that people might have of Muslims then is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't own up, people will be afraid of you.

MARTIN: What should people like Dalia do? I mean, what should Dalia do, for example?

NOMANI: I think...

MARTIN: What should she do? I mean, one of the things that you noted, that Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle, walked over to his neighbor, for example, and said, look...

NOMANI: Yes.

MARTIN: ...I'm sorry for all this ruckus in your front lawn. I mean, but do you think that individual Muslims should go - I mean, what should they do? What should that owning up look like?

NOMANI: I think that means identifying and clearly stating that we have ideologies that are called Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism that are indoctrinating our kids and our communities, that we have Uncle Mishas inside of our communities, and we all know who they are and we need to point at them - and they are just like the gang leaders in neighborhoods who take the hearts of young boys - and we need to isolate them. And that is how then the entire Muslim community will not be judged, because they will see that we are cleaning up our own community, and that is our responsibility, I believe, as citizens of this country and this world.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation with three thoughtful Muslim Americans in response to the bombings in Boston last week.

Our guests are writer Asra Nomani, author Dalia Mogahed, Congressman Andre Carson. I'm going to ask them all to stay with us as we take a short break. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I hope you'll stay with us.

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