Courtesy New America Media, Jalal Ghazi
Editorâ€™s Note: In opposition to comments by Al Qaedaâ€™s second-in-command Ayman as-Zawahiri maligning president-elect Barack Obama and America, a recent Al Jazeera documentary series argues that Muslim Americans have more freedom than in most parts of the world. Jalal Ghazi is the associate producer of the Peabody Award-winning show â€œMosaic: World News from the Middle East,â€ and writer of the column Eye on Arab Media for New America Media.
Last week, Al Qaedaâ€™s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri unfavorably compared U.S. president-elect Barack Obama to assassinated civil rights leader Malcolm X and referred to Obama and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as â€œhouse slaves.â€ The edited video clip, featuring images of Malcolm X praying and Barack Obama with Jewish leaders, generated a wave of condemnation by the Muslim American community.
Muslim American leaders released a statement, read during a news conference at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center, stating: â€œWe find it insulting when anyone speaks for our community instead of giving us the dignity and the honor of speaking for ourselves.â€
The outrage by Muslim Americans mainly stems from the misrepresentation of their faith by al Zawahiri. Listening to his diatribe, one might be misled into thinking that there are irreconcilable differences between America and Islam. In reality, however the opposite is true. According to a recent documentary series aired on al-Jazeera, many Muslims in America feel that they have more freedom and acceptance than in most of the world.
In his two-part documentary, The American Crescent and Islamic Stars & Stripes, Al Jazeeraâ€™s Rageh Omaar surveyed the views of American Muslims across the country about America and what it means to them.
Muslim Americans made a number of surprising revelations, even to Omaar.
â€œI had come to America with my own prejudices and misconceptions,â€ Omaar said on Al Jazeera. â€œI thought that being Muslim in America is a story of widespread fear of discrimination and stereotyping. But in the short time Iâ€™ve been here, what Iâ€™m hearing from Muslims is about opportunity â€“ constitutional rights, due process â€“ about having a stake in this country and being made to feel that they belong.â€
One Muslim American after another told Al Jazeera that, despite negative perceptions of Muslims since 2001, they still feel that they can live and practice their religion more freely in the United States than they can in Europe and, ironically, in many Muslim countries.
The first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress had some thoughts as to why Muslims are assimilated more easily in the United States than they are in many other Western countries.
â€œIn the European context, what it means to be British or Norwegian is tightly defined,â€ Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., told Al Jazeera. â€œIn America, we come from all cultures, colors and races.â€
Ellison led Al Jazeeraâ€™s camera crew to the Library of Congress to see the Koran he held when he was sworn into office two years ago. The copy, now more than 200 years old, once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Scott Harrop, a recent Jefferson fellow at Monticelloâ€™s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, writes about Jeffersonâ€™s Koran on Iranian American web portal Pavyand: â€œThen a 22-year-old student preparing for his bar exams, Jeffersonâ€™s favorite legal texts included Samuel Pufendorfâ€™s â€œOf the Law of Nature and Nations,â€ a 1672 classic that cites the Koran as precedent on a wide variety of civil and international legal issues.â€
Harrop writes that Jeffersonâ€™s â€œinterest in the Islamic holy book led him to learning about Islam and a sustained study of the Koranâ€™s original written language, Arabic.â€
This founding fatherâ€™s interest is not the only connection to Islamic civilization found in Americaâ€™s capitol. Inside the Supreme Courtâ€™s courtroom, there is a frieze of the â€œgreat lawmakers of history.â€
18 lawgiversâ€“ancient and modernâ€“are included in the piece, which was finished in 1932. Moses, Confucius, Charlemagne and Justinian are among the stone sculptures, as is the prophet of Islam: Muhammad (s).
Some Muslim groups have demanded that the image of Muhammad (s) be removed, saying Islam bans such depictions. The court however has rejected this demand, and has explained that that the frieze was â€œa well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad.â€ (s)
Omaar agrees. The frieze, he says, is evidence that â€œAmerica knows itâ€™s indebted to Islam for its own citizensâ€™ inalienable rights.â€
Muslims recognize the similarities between fundamental freedoms guaranteed under Islamic law and American governing values, especially pertaining to religious tolerance, justice and equality. Omaar believes this is why Muslim Americans love and admire the US Constitution.
America also offers Muslims an opportunity that Muslims abroad do not always have; the right to dissent in the way one interprets the Koran and Hadith (the oral traditions relating the Prophet Muhammadâ€™s words and deeds). As a result American Islam is developing more progressively.
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, a classical Arabic scholar and author of 30 books on Islam, has published reinterpretations of the Koran and Hadith that would not be allowed in some Islamic countries.
â€œThe voices of women have been silenced for 1400 years (in the Middle East),â€ Bakhtiar, who lives and works in Chicago, told Al Jazeera. â€œThey are not open to womenâ€™s interpretations.â€
The freedom to dissent in America is also deeply appreciated by another Muslim in Chicago: Wallace Deen Muhammad, the son of Nation of Islam supreme minister and black separatist leader Elijah Muhammad.
In 1975, when W.D. Muhammad assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam, he played a key role in persuading most of the membership of the Nation of Islam to turn to mainstream Islam and abandon the extreme ideologies advocated by his father.
â€œEven 20 years ago, maybe weâ€™d have a lot of doubts,â€ Muhammad said. â€œBut in 2008, I donâ€™t think that we have much room to doubt that America is the best place â€¦ for Muslims to establish the life that we want and that God wants us to have.
â€œAmerica has survived slavery, and it has survived racism,â€ Muhammad told Al Jazeera.
The overwhelming majority of American Muslims share Muhammadâ€™s hope. The American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections released a poll on November 7, reporting that 89 percent of respondents voted for Obama, versus 2 percent for McCain. This was a turning point, especially when considering that the countryâ€™s 8 million Muslims have traditionally voted Republican.
But what about the hundreds of Muslims that the U.S. military and intelligence have detained without due process? What about Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, or the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?
How can Muslim Americans overlook these grave violations of Muslim human rights?
Muslim Americans told Al Jazeera that these violations are un-American, pure and simple.
Former U.S. Army Chaplain James Yee, a Muslim, said that he decided to speak out against the mistreatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in order to defend the American values which he holds dear.
Yee, whose familyâ€™s history of military service dates back to World War II, told Al Jazeera that his experience made him appreciate America more.
â€œIâ€™m even more patriotic today,â€ he said, â€œbecause I am spending more time and engaged even further in doing whatâ€™s best for my country: Promoting these certain values. And thatâ€™s my goal in life â€“ that is, to improve the society that I live in.â€