American Muslims


Guests:

Ahmed Al-Rahim
*President of The American Islamic Congress
*Adjunct Professor at the Middle East Center at NYU
*Ph.D. Candidate at Yale University

Hamza Yusuf Hanson
*American Muslim
*Director of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California
Involved with Youth Radio, a non-profit that trains kids in a single-floor storefront

Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki
*Leader of the Dar al-hijra mosque in Virginia

Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)
*Republican representative from the fourth district of Connecticut

Since Sept. 11, fear and guilt have driven many American Muslims to reflect on their social and political roles in the U.S. Now, some are speaking out against hate speech amongst their own — and taking a more active role to define their kind of Islam.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

In the weeks following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American Muslims faced a formidable task. They had to defend themselves against the threat of anti-Muslim backlash, and they had to make it clear that their community in no way condoned the actions which the terrorists took in the name of Islam.

But as the months have passed, many American Muslims have come to realize that they must do more than just defend themselves. Some American Muslim leaders have started to acknowledge that in the past, they have not spoken out strongly enough against those who would wage a war of hatred and violence in the name of religion. Now after more than four months of reflection, fear and guilt, they are speaking out against hate speech and intolerance within their own communities. They're seeking to strengthen their ties to people of other faiths. They're working to further define what it means to be both Muslim and American.

Two months after September 11th, we talked with Muslim American leaders about the role of Islam in American society, and the role of American Muslims in the Islamic world. This hour, we revisit with American Muslim leaders to see how things have changed since then.

If you're Muslim, how do you see your role as a Muslim and as an American? What responsibility do Muslims have as Americans? And for those of you who are not Muslim, do you think you have a better understanding of your Muslim neighbor? Give us a call. Again, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-TALK. That's (800) 989-8255. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Ahmed Al-Rahim joins us now. He is the president of the American Islamic Congress at Yale University. He's with us from our studios at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.

Welcome, Mr. Rahim, to the show.

Professor AHMED AL-RAHIM (American Islamic Congress): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: In a recent editorial in The Boston Globe, you wrote that American Muslims need to regain what you said was control of their destiny, which you also said had been hijacked by fringe elements who seek to impose an extreme view of Islam on Muslims. Can you explain what you meant by that a little bit more for us?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: What I meant by that is that within the Muslim community there are extremist voices, and we have to look at these voices. We have to confront them directly and we have to censure hate speech within our community. We have to look directly at our community and deal with these problems ourselves.

NEARY: Now you're saying--when you refer to the Muslim community, you are referring specifically to the American Muslim community now. That is, those voices exist in American Muslim mosques?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: I would say in some mosques, they do exist. Certainly growing up, I heard some of these voices in the mosques, and after September 11th, I realized that these voices have been going on for far too long and we have to do something about it.

NEARY: Can you tell us how that kind of extremism does manifest itself in the mosques of America?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, I think for a while it has been within some mosques a rhetorical sloganeering against America, against Christians and Jews, statements like `Death to America,' things like this, are used within the mosque. And it's taken for granted. But what we realize after 9/11 is that these things have consequences.

NEARY: Is it something that before 9/11 even American Muslims were aware of, perhaps talked about among themselves but didn't really want to discuss publicly for fear that there would be a backlash even before the terrible attacks of September 11th?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Yes, I think that there were fears. But I have to say that American Muslims were aware of these things but did not respond in a public way. And I think 9/11 has made us do that.

NEARY: Now two months ago, you helped to found the American Islamic Congress. Tell us what that's about and why you felt there was a need for a new Islamic organization in this country.

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, the American Islamic Congress was founded by Muslims like myself, many of whom grew up in this country and, like myself, as I said, heard hate speech within the mosques that we went to. And we feel that it's very important that we come out against hate speech and we show that Americans Muslims are proud American citizens.

NEARY: How is the mission of your organization different from some of the other organizations that are already out there? Such as, for instance, one well-known one, the Islamic Society of North America or the American Muslim Council? Are you a new generation of American Muslims?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: I would say that I don't know a lot about these other organizations. But I would say that our agenda is a proactive one. We want Muslims to be activated. We want them to condemn hate speech within their communities, to begin to build bridges between the various ethnic Muslims communities within this country and to begin to build bridges outward to Christian and Jewish groups. It's very important.

NEARY: When you talk about fighting hate speech within the Muslim community itself, what do you recommend? What kind of advice are you giving to American Muslims regarding how they should deal with that if they hear it in their mosque or in their Muslim community?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, we've developed a guide, a citizen's guide to hate speech. You can find that on our Web site, aicongress.org. And this guide basically identifies what hate speech is. This is hate speech that's targeted against religious and ethnic groups. And we give examples of how awful it could be, how awful it is. And then we suggest ways of dealing with it: talking to the person directly; asking questions; disagreeing in public; writing letters. These are different ways of dealing with hate speech.

NEARY: How are American Muslims reacting to this? I'm just wondering if there's been in the past a concern about representing themselves in a certain kind of way to the outer world, to non-Muslims. Is there still something of a defensiveness or a fear about perhaps letting the rest of the country know that there may be differences within the community about how they discuss certain, for instance, foreign policy issues?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, look, the Muslim community is a diverse community, like any other community. And there is no reason to assume that we have one view on anything. In fact, I think debate and differences of opinion is a very healthy sign that the American Muslim community is a vibrant one.

NEARY: OK. My guest is Ahmed Al-Rahim. He's the president of the American Islamic Congress. And let's take a call from Blake in San Francisco. Hello, Blake.

BLAKE (Caller): Hi. Well, I was gonna say something in contrast, but actually it sounds like now I'm going to say something in sympathy to what your panelist is saying. And that is that the biggest--the starting point for this discussion is that there is a huge misrepresentation and a misperception of what it is to be an American Muslim. Somehow there's always the perception that these people, this community comes from a different homeland in contrast to the US and represents a different or particular segment in American society. And these images are stereotypes that are created by the media and members of the Muslim community that try to speak for the rest.

I, myself, am a member of a group of Sufis known as the International Association of Sufism. And my perception in traveling across the US to our different symposiums and things like this is that this particular group is growing very widely and it represents every segment of society: people very poor, different races, different religious backgrounds. And so real Islam can be attractive and be adopted by people of all different segments of American society and practiced that way. So that strips out the political element that seems to be a major problem for Islam in the US.

NEARY: Mr. Rahim, would you like to respond to Blake?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, I would agree that what American Muslims need to do is begin to just separate between Islam and politics. I think for far too long there has been a connection, which I think has been very confusing to both Muslim Americans and Americans in general. And I think it's very important that we make that distinction and that we get back to an Islam that is a private religion between the individual and God.

BLAKE: It is an ...(unintelligible) that religion is slated as the source and the cause of the problems throughout the world. Islam is not the problem. It's power and it's property. Islam is the scapegoat, and it's really a shame that Islam, among other religions, is slanted this way, both in the US and abroad.

NEARY: Thanks very much for your call, Blake.

Let me ask you something. You said that it's time for Islam to get back to being a private religion, to take politics out of Islam. And I think maybe you need to give us a little history lesson, a little background. How did politics get so intertwined with Islam? And let's speak specifically now with Islam in this country, because I've spoken to American Muslims, some of whom have converted to Islam. And one of the things that I've been told is that what they liked about it is the fact that Islam guides you in all areas of life, and that would include the political. And I think that's where it becomes confusing for people. And I wonder if you could help us sort that out.

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, what I would say is that I'm not an expert on how Islam came to be connected with politics in the modern sense. But what I would say is that for far too long, it has been. And it's very important that we begin to make this distinction between the two things, because I think many American Muslims see their faith as a private faith, as a faith that connects them to a tradition, to a culture. And it's very important that they begin identifying with it in that sense and that people like Osama bin Laden and some of these extremist groups, they don't represent us and they're not our spokespersons.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call. Nedal(ph) in Oakland, California. Hello?

NEDAL (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

NEDAL: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good.

NEDAL: I just want to say that I am a Muslim, Palestinian Muslim, and my wife was a Jewish American and now she is Muslim. This is point one. Point two, I want to say that the ideal of Islam as a religion and the goals it attempts to accomplish, such as justice for all and equality and fairness, is not contradictory to the American ideal in the Constitution. But the only difference is that the American system, as I see it, lacks the methodology of achieving its ideal. Whereas Islam has the rules and the regulations of how we can reach our goals. But technically speaking, there is no contradiction in the two systems with their ideals.

The second point I want to make, that it's not clear that the Muslims are responsible for the terrorist attack. And it is not correct to say 'a Muslim terrorist,' because there is contradiction in term when you say 'a Muslim terrorist,' because a Muslim means a peaceful person. So you cannot say a peaceful terrorist.

The third point, I want to say that who represents us is not people. What represents the Muslims is the Quran, and that is the principle that we are to follow.

NEARY: OK.

NEDAL: But as people, we all have shortcomings and we all have weaknesses, and we are only responsible for it regardless of who we are.

NEARY: OK. Thanks so much for your call, Nedal.

Mr. Rahim, I just have to follow up on one thing that he just said, and that is he said, 'You can't say that there are Muslim terrorists.' We do know this terrorism was carried out in the name of Islam. You need to respond to that, because that's the kind of remark that other Americans might hear and just dismiss all the good you're trying to do, saying, 'Well, they're just denying it.'

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Look, I think we have problems within the Muslim community, and we have to address those problems face-on. We have extremism. We have Muslims, whether we want to regard them as Muslims or not, but we have Muslims who are extreme and who call for the death of America and who call for the death of Christians and Jews. And we have to condemn them. We have to come out strongly and condemn them and say that we do not accept what you do and we reject it.

NEARY: Why is there a reluctance to do that, if there is a reluctance to do that?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: I'm not sure what the reluctance is. But I think that it needs to be done. And my group and myself, we want to do it.

NEARY: Do you see this as a new era is beginning for Muslims in this country?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Perhaps. I think that American Muslims are coming out and they're speaking up, and there's dialogue and conversation within the community. And this is a very positive thing.

NEARY: We're talking with Muslim American leaders about how some Muslim American groups are becoming more vocal against hate speech within their communities and are seeking to define what it means to be an American Muslim. You can send us an e-mail at totn@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

We're talking about what it means to be Muslim in America and how some Muslim Americans are starting to speak out against hate speech within their own communities since September 11th. Our guest is Ahmed Al-Rahim, president of the American Islamic Congress. If you're Muslim, what do you think your responsibilities are as an American? And for those who are not Muslim, has your perception of Muslim Americans changed in the last four months? You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us now is Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson. He is one of the leading Muslim American leaders in the United States. He's also director of Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California. And he joins us from the studios of Youth Radio in Berkeley, California.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Imam HAMZA YUSUF HANSON (Director, Zaytuna Institute): Thank you.

NEARY: Let me ask you first about your own background, because you were born in this country. I believe you were born to a Christian family but later embraced Islam. I know you've studied extensively with Islamic scholars overseas. Do you think that gives you something of a different perspective on what it means to be an American Muslim than many Muslims who have immigrated to this country from other nations?

Imam HANSON: I think that the majority of Muslims in this country actually are born in the United States. Some of them are first-generation daughters and sons of immigrants, but many of them, in fact, are from the African-American community and they've been here for several centuries. And I, myself, come from a multigenerational American family. So I think it does give me a certain perspective that might not exist within the immigrant community, no doubt.

NEARY: Is part of the complexity when you're talking about what it means to be an American Muslim the fact that there is so much diversity in that community? As you just mentioned, there are people like yourself, African-Americans who have become Muslims, people from all over the world coming to this country, brought up in countries that were largely Islamic and now living in a country where they're the minority.

Imam HANSON: Definitely. I think the minority status of Muslims in this country certainly colors the perspective of Muslims being in this country, because like other communities that are minority communities, particularly religious communities such as the Jews--the Jews have always struggled with assimilation in this country. Certainly, the Orthodox and more committed Jewish adherents. So assimilation is certainly, I think, a major issue amongst the immigrant community coming from largely majority Muslim countries to America.

NEARY: We're focusing here a lot on what's happening within the American Muslim community since September 11th, and I want to ask you specifically about your own experience, because some remarks that you made a couple of days before September 11th have been widely quoted in the media. In a speech, you said that America stands condemned and faces a very terrible fate. And now since then, you've said that you would not have made such remarks after September 11th. I'm wondering how you can explain that change of heart. Is it that you don't believe what you said before then, or is it a matter of toning down rhetoric?

Imam HANSON: No, I think that, as you know, this country prides itself on freedom of speech. Certainly, it's in the Bill of Rights, in the First Amendment, that we have freedom of speech. Thomas Jefferson said, 'I shudder for my nation when I remember that God is just,' and he was speaking about slavery. So I think that remarks like the remark that I happened to make two days before--it was not a timely remark in that way, and certainly within the freedom of speech within this country, we have the idea of clear and present danger. And this comes from Holmes and other distinguished jurists that when there is clear and present danger, then rhetoric needs to be examined in a different light.

And I think post-September 11th, I think all of the Muslims speaking in mosques and in other places have to recognize that there is a clear and present danger. And so I think it's important that we not lose the voice that we have, the concern for social justice and other things. But I think it's important that that voice is modified in order that it does not become a voice of hate, but rather a voice of truth.

NEARY: Something that I think may be difficult for the Muslim community is the fact that many American Muslims do view American foreign policy different than the majority of this country and, some of them, from experience of having lived in the countries that may be affected by American foreign policy. So how do American Muslims like yourself then speak honestly, forthrightly, exercise your right to free speech about some of these issues at the same time that you're trying to make people understand more about the American Muslim community and without fear of a backlash against it?

Imam HANSON: Well, I think the idea that Americans and somehow Muslim Americans have a different view of foreign policy, I think that perhaps many Muslim Americans are more informed about American foreign policy simply because they're interested in foreign affairs. Many Americans are not particularly concerned about it prior to 9/11. Only 7 percent of our news dealt with international news. The majority of news that we find in our newspapers and things deal with local and national news. So I think generally Americans have, prior to 9/11, been less interested in what goes on for a number of reasons.

So I think that American Muslims, and particularly immigrants--I think it's important to remember that when immigrants do come to this country, for the first time in their lives they're often confronted with the fact that they can actually speak freely without fear of reprisal. And, unfortunately, that does not exist in many Muslim countries. So, in a sense, there's a type of ventilation that goes on. They begin to ventilate their grievances and their anger about what goes on in other parts of the world. And, unfortunately, America is associated with certain things that are going on, particularly in the Middle East and in other countries, our foreign policy is associated with certain things that have distressed Muslims both in the United States and Muslims outside, and other Americans as well.

NEARY: We're discussing what it means to be American and Muslim. If you'd like to join us, the number is (800) 989-8255. And let's go to Jamila(ph) in New Haven, Connecticut. Hello.

JAMILA (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JAMILA: How are you?

NEARY: Good.

JAMILA: I'm calling--you know, I'm listening to the program and I just wanted to make a couple of comments. I'm an American, an American of African background, African-American background, and I was born in this country. And I was semi raised as a Christian. So when I accepted Islam, what I found in Islam was a fairness in that there wasn't the racial divide based on what God, Allah, has told us. And as you grow into understanding Islam and you start seeing the disparities in this country when it comes to treatment of people of color vs. people who are of Caucasian race in this country, you start to understand that Islam has a leveling there.

So when your speaker sits there and discusses things about hate speech being made in the naschit(ph), I'm concerned because now he is saying in a sense that this type of speech is going on in naschits where Muslims are, heightening the awareness among people who might want to come and infiltrate, sit amongst the Muslims and if you say one word that is not in agreement with what the president of this country says or his new policies on terrorism say, then your name is given to someone and all of a sudden you're under suspect. And that is a concern I have with your speaker ...(unintelligible).

NEARY: Ahmed Al-Rahim, can you respond to this listener's concern?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: When I talk about hate speech, I'm simply talking about statements like `death to America,' `God support us against the Christians and Jews,' `Death to Christians and Jews.' These kinds of statements are not appropriate. Those are simply the kinds of statements I'm talking about in describing this hate speech.

JAMILA: OK. But can I just say before you--I've been waiting a long time to speak. But the point is that when you state that these kind of things are being said, you have to understand that that is not part of Islam. OK.

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Oh, I understand.

JAMILA: And you may have someone who comes in the mastrid(ph), who may not be sincerely interested in Islam but may be trying to raise up some hate and hard feelings in people, which will implicate someone who might agree with them. So the point is that instead of saying people are saying `Death to America' or `Death to the Jews,' etc., you didn't just say that. You said, `This is hate speech that's done in the mosque,' OK. That...

NEARY: OK, Jamila, I'm going to let our guests--OK. I'm going to let our guests respond. Imam Hamza Yusuf, do you have a response to the concerns being raised here?

Imam HANSON: I think her concern is a valid concern, because I think overall, the mosques in the United States certainly don't reflect that. I think that that actually has occurred, when it has occurred, more in a conference-type setting, usually related to Middle Eastern politics. And so I think that actually in the mosques and the people preaching in the mosques, I personally have not been exposed to that type of thing. I think that there has been unfortunately, because of the very muddled existence of the Middle Eastern situation, certainly within Palestine and Israeli conflict, that that has led to a certain type of polarization, certainly within the Muslim community, of those who are very vociferously opposed to Israel. And what it ends up being sometimes is it ends up translating into a type of hate message, and I think that's unfortunate, and that does need to change because it certainly is not reflective of the teaching of Islam. Muslims--we had the Palestinian who married a Jewish woman. Muslims--they're able to marry from the Christian and Jewish religions, and they can live with a Jewish woman or a Christian woman, and I think that's indicative of the fact that Islam does not have a type of anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic sentiment in the tradition.

But unfortunately, I think Middle Eastern politics has certainly clouded that matter, and I think when Palestinians come to this country, and for the first time, they really do have this feeling of freedom, and they do tend to ventilate some of the grievances that they have, and that can translate into something that I think we need to be very careful about how it's perceived and how we articulate our grievances.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Shane in Alexandria, Virginia. Hello, Shane.

SHANE (Caller): Yes. I'm here.

NEARY: Go ahead.

SHANE: OK. When you're talking about rethinking certain things and looking at things differently in the Muslim community, does that extend to the fatwa placed against Salman Rushdie back in the '80s? And the reason I ask is because the 9/11 tragedy was terrible. I don't really think it reflects on Muslims. It was just a bunch of madmen with bombs, as horrible as that was. But the thing that terrified me about the Salman Rushdie thing is I had Muslim friends and neighbors at the time, and all of them agreed--they were Americans, they opposed the death penalty, they believed in freedom of speech, but they believed very strongly that he should be put to death. And that affected my outlook on Islam, I mean, tragically. For years, you know, I associated them with this horrible death sentence. And since 9/11, I've talked to Muslims who agree still that he deserves to die, that he should be put to death.

Imam HANSON: Right.

SHANE: And that's a very frightening thing for me. The 9/11 thing, that's just a bunch of madmen, but the fact that they were so--no Muslim voices that I saw or heard protesting the fatwa against Rushdie was more frightening, I think, as far as this whole Islam and are they fanatics or not thing than the 9/11 attack.

NEARY: OK.

Imam HANSON: I think that's a really good point that is being brought up. Can I say something?

NEARY: Yeah. Go ahead. Go ahead. Yes.

Imam HANSON: Yeah. I would just say that, one, unfortunately, there is a great deal of ignorance in the Muslim community about Islamic law and how it is enacted. A fatwa is a non-binding legal opinion. It's actually an opinion, and that was actually much more a political act than it was anything else. I think the love that the Muslims have for the prophet Muhammad is so deep that they still take very seriously if anything's said about the prophet Muhammad. But in Islamic law, Salman Rushdie would not have been condemned to death, living in a non-Muslim land, saying what he said, and certainly there have been people that have said much worse things in the Muslim lands, but it was a very politicized event. And I think that Muslims still have not come to terms with living in a secular society and what that means and how we respond to these type of things within a civil discourse that is necessary for us. So I think that is still a serious problem within the Muslim community, and I think it's a valid point.

NEARY: We're talking about what it means to be Muslim in this country. The number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. On Thursdays, we offer you a chance for a follow-up question with one of our guests, so if you have a question that came to mind after we're off the air, you can send us an e-mail with your question. Type `follow-up' in the subject line, and please include a daytime phone number so we can call you if you are selected.

Let's go to Jerry in Baltimore, Maryland. Hello, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hi, Lynn. I'm a fourth-generation American who is Jewish, who spent 33 years in the armed services and retired as a military person, so I have always felt that I paid my dues and can exercise my First Amendment rights. What we are facing here is religious extremism. This is what Tom Friedman says is the root of the problem. And this problem exists in all religions. It exists in my own. There are certain people who put clearly their own view of Judaism above their country. Now they don't ever say that, and many Jews would be ashamed to publicly say that. But the fact is when you have a moral crisis within your religion, I consider it is an obligation as a Jew to speak out.

Let's take Israel. I have condemned--in addition to Arafat, who's a terrorist, I have called Sharon a butcher. And I am concerned about the fate of my religion. And when people front for it, represent a sizeable minority, which it is within Judaism, I have an obligation to denounce it. And very frankly, Lynn, I have been very disappointed in the Muslim community leadership.

NEARY: All right. Well, let's hear from the Muslim community leadership right now, Jerry, because we have a couple of people here. And he's talking about the moral obligation for people within a specific religion to speak out when they think that wrong things are being said or are being done, particularly in the name of that religion. Hamza Yusuf Hanson.

Imam HANSON: Well, I think he's absolutely right in that Muslim voices have to be voices that are voices of conscience, that we have to speak the truth, and speaking the truth to authority is not only in the Judaic tradition, but very much in the Islamic tradition, but also speaking out against the actions of our own people. The Koran says, for instance, `Oh, you who believe, be upright and just and be witnesses for God, even if it's against yourselves,' and that's an actual verse in the Koran to be witnesses unto humanity, even if it's against yourselves. And so I think the fact that there's so much denial in the Muslim community is a tragic indication of the distance that we have from the precepts of the Koran.

But I agree that the Muslim community needs to really step up and speak the truth and reject these type of extremist elements that exist within our community. They are from our community. We can't excommunicate people in the same way that, say, the Catholic Church can. So the idea earlier about Muslim terrorists and things like that--there are Muslims that do things that are wrong. They murder. They do things that are wrong, and we have to condemn it when we see it.

NEARY: Ahmed Al-Rahim, would you like to respond to that call?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, I agree with those statements, and I think we do have to come out against extremism within our own community, and I think we also have to get away from defining the religion in one specific way, saying Islam is this way or Islam is that way, and `We're not as bad as you say we are' and so on; these kinds of sort of defensive posturing. I think we need to be proactive, take responsibility and look for new solutions for problems within our community ourselves.

NEARY: Ahmed Al-Rahim is the president of the American Islamic Congress, and Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an American Muslim and director of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California. Thanks very much for joining us, Hamza Yusuf Hanson.

Imam HANSON: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: We're talking about what it means to be Muslim in America and how some Muslim Americans are beginning to speak out against hate speech within their own communities. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. Tomorrow we'll be talking about an upcoming gay cable TV channel and the increasing acceptance of gay characters on television networks.

Today we're talking about the role of Muslims in America since September 11th. My guest is Ahmed Al-Rahim. He is president of the American Islamic Congress, and he is joining us from studios at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Joining me now is Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki. Mr. Al-Awlaki is leader of the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. It's one of the largest Muslim congregations in the nation. I think we might be having a technical problem. Let me see if Mr. Al-Awlaki is there. Hello, Mr. Al-Awlaki?

Imam ANWAR AL-AWLAKI (Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque): Yes, hello.

NEARY: Hi. Thanks so much for joining us. I know that you spoke with Neal Conan a couple of months ago about the effects of September 11th on the community at your mosque, and we're just wondering, first of all, if you can give us a sense of how have things been since then? How have things changed in the interim time?

Imam AL-AWLAKI: One of the areas where I think there's more of a change compared to prior to September 11th is that there's more dialogue, there's more interaction with the general community. Our congregation, the majority is immigrant Muslim. We also have a sizeable African-American Muslim congregation. But overall, in terms of the immigrant community, since they are recent immigration, there hasn't been a lot of interaction with the community at large, and I think that that has changed since September 11th. There's more of a dialogue going on with different religious groups, with different political groups, and I think that's a positive sign.

NEARY: So you're saying that you feel members of your community are more willing to speak openly about their differences or speak openly with other people in the community surrounding the mosque?

Imam AL-AWLAKI: Yes. I mean, if one would look at the lives of some of the Muslim immigrants who immigrated recently--I mean, it's kind of comfortable to live in a cocoon and to live in a cultural setting that is similar to the one that I might have in my original country. And so it's more of a comfort zone. But now I think because of what has happened, first of all, there's a feeling that, as an American Muslim community, we have not fulfilled our role in educating the community around us about Islam, number one, and number two, participating in the general activities of the American public, and that is why I see a change happening.

NEARY: Are you aware of the efforts of this new reformed American Islamic Congress, some of what we've been talking to today with Ahmed Al-Rahim, some of the efforts they're making to tell American Muslims to be less hesitant to speak out against hate speech? And if so, what is your reaction to that?

Imam AL-AWLAKI: Well, I'm not aware of it. I just heard about the organization on the show. I would like to say that, in general, I think that maybe the guest has given an impression that there's a lot of this hate speech somehow going on in the mosques. I've been an imam for six years. I've been around mosques in the country, and I can attest to the fact that that's blown out of proportion. There is hate speech that could happen in any particular religious group and any particular religious congregation, but to give the impression that somehow, among the Muslim Americans, there's all of these slogans of `Death to America,' that's simply blown out of proportion.

NEARY: Mr. Rahim, can you respond to that?

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, I mean, I would respond by saying what my statements were, that this is found in some segments of the Muslim community. And it has to be condemned and censured. We're not responsible for other communities. We're responsible for our own communities, and I know that in the mosque that I grew up in, for example, that I went to as a kid, I would hear it very often. So I'm not saying that this is a general thing. I'm just saying that this has been my experience, and this is one of the reasons that I was involved in forming this organization and in coming out against hate speech of this kind.

NEARY: We're discussing Islam in America and what it means to be an American Muslim. The number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Amina(ph) in Berkeley, California. Hello.

AMINA (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead, Amina.

AMINA: OK. What I'm calling to say is that I think some of the hesitation on the part of American Muslims in coming out and condemning--or as Bush put it, `You're either with us or against us'--is that it silences the true and the right of Americans to question some of the foreign policy actions of this country abroad. And I think there needs to be a clear understanding that there should be a distinction between supporting terrorism and supporting the rights of human beings throughout the world to look forward to the same rights that we enjoy in this country--the right to democracy, the rights to learning, the rights to food, medicine--which American Muslims, I think, with some reason, fear are sometimes not treated the same way that the rights of other people throughout the world are. And I think this kind of adds to the hesitation that Muslims feel; if they join the chorus, this may be used against them. It is not a true internal kind of review of their own actions or beliefs, but rather, it's become politicized.

NEARY: Are you Muslim?

AMINA: Yes.

NEARY: You are Muslim.

AMINA: Yes, I am.

NEARY: And so you think that there's a fear that people--do you think people are afraid to discuss it because they are afraid of how others might perceive any kind of discussion of that type?

AMINA: Or that it may be used against Muslims; that if you speak against terrorism, you're then encouraging the bombing of Afghanistan or, tomorrow, maybe Iraq, or the next day, Somalia, which affects Muslim civilians in doing so. And so if there was a way to either join one group or the other--we're neither with bin Laden, nor are we totally agreeing with everything that American foreign policy undertakes, which--I think that is our right as citizens of this country to engage in that discourse, and that is really the beauty and the freedom that this country stands for, and I don't think that should be modified in any way because of fear that we are somehow then supporting terrorism. So I think that distinction is very important for all Americans.

NEARY: Well, I'd like our guests to respond to that because I think that's a very interesting point that Amina is raising here in terms of the dilemma that American Muslims may find themselves in.

Prof. AL-RAHIM: Well, if I may respond, I feel that it's very important for American Muslims to begin working towards ensuring civil liberties in the Muslim world, to begin to come out against hate speech coming out of the Muslim world, to protect minority rights within the Muslim world. These are very important issues, and I feel that we can do that by calling our congressmen, our senators, and asking them to protect civil liberties in countries in the Muslim world where they're not being protected, so that liberties and these economic disparities there don't lead to extremism, because that's clearly part of the problem why there is extremism. It's not the whole problem.

NEARY: Imam Al-Awlaki.

Imam AL-AWLAKI: I think what sister Amina is saying is right. There might be some reluctance on behalf of the American Muslim community, and I would actually say that the reason is, lately, the victims of American foreign policy have mostly been Muslim countries. So that's why many times, whenever the Muslims would express opinions that relate to foreign policy, sometimes they might not be in line with the official position, and that would be interpreted as not being loyal to the United States, and sometimes it could even be interpreted as hate speech.

NEARY: Let me ask you something...

Imam AL-AWLAKI: Now the issue here is that--the reason is because it's a reaction to some of the foreign policy issues. I mean, if you go down the list, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or some other countries--plus, a lot of the oppression that is happening in the Muslim world is from governments in the Muslim world that are allies of the United States. So it's quite natural to have a level of anti-American foreign policy among the Muslim community simply because the victims or the ones who are affected are Muslim countries.

NEARY: All right. Well, thank you both for joining us this afternoon. Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki is leader of the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, and he spoke with us from his home in Virginia. And earlier, we were speaking with Ahmed Al-Rahim. He's president of the American Islamic Congress, and he joined us from studios at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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