Yet again, Muslims are finding themselves forced to publicly defend their community and their faith, asking their fellow citizens not to find them guilty by association.
“The troubling report of a U.S. soldier launching grenades into the tents of his own brigade in Kuwait has disturbed all Americans,” said a press release by the American Muslim Public Affairs Council. “We warn against exploiting this incident and making sweeping generalizations about others of the same race, ethnicity, or religion of the suspect. We find no excuses, or acceptable motives, that can justify such a reprehensible act.”
The MPAC release was referring to the arrest of suspect, Sgt. Asan Akbar, a black American Muslim.
At a time when American Muslims are trying to win back some public sympathy, the grenade incident has raised once again the ugly spectre of all Muslims being regarded as guilty by association for the 9/11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S.
“I don’t agree with what he did,” said an American Muslim officer, referring to Sgt. Akbar, when asked about the incident by a Canadian journalist. “If he wanted to protest the war, he should have done it differently. He’s a traitor now. He is an American soldier, and when you’re a soldier, you got to follow orders from your commanding officer.”
They are more than 15,000 Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces and they do so by choice. If a Muslim suspect is found guilty, this could have serious future consequences. Will Muslim soldiers be encouraged to leave the army? Will recruitment policies be changed to discourage Muslim applicants? And what about those who convert to Islam while in the services? Will they dare to “come out of the closet”? Will they also be pushed to resign, or perhaps be issued dishonourable discharges indicating their patriotism is in question?
The foregoing questions may seem rhetorical or hypothetical at the moment, but they are very serious ones, not only to Muslims serving in the American army but also for numerous Muslim civilians living on either side of the Canada-U.S. border.
Just before the war in Afghanistan began, Imam Muhammed Abdulrashed, the most senior Muslim cleric in the United States Army, tried to find out what Islam teaches on the question of whether Muslim soldiers can continue to serve in a war which they believe to be unjust. It was bold move by the Imam to pose such a controversial question publicly. For if the answer had been in the negative (that they should not serve in an unjust war), a mass resignation of American Muslim soldiers could have had them all labelled as “traitors,” and might have led to a general perception that future Muslim applicants could not be trusted.
On October 8, 2001 — one day after the American bombing of Afghanistan started — Imam Abdulrashed had cause to be relieved. A group of Muslim scholars led by Prof. Youssef Al-Qaradawi issued a position paper saying that American Muslims serving with the army of their homeland in time of war must fulfill their obligations and follow the orders of their superiors. This position paper was widely circulated among American, Canadian and European Muslims.
The paper by Prof. Youssef Al-Qaradawi and his colleagues documented at length the theological and historical aspects of the issue. For months afterward, it was attacked by some, but soon supported by an overwhelming majority of the Muslim community at home and abroad. Those who supported it stressed that the American army is a volunteer organization and that people who serve in it know what the job entails, including following orders. Those who attacked the position paper noted that Muslims can ask for non-combat duties, citing religious reasons, when they join up.
So I firmly believe that Muslims should not jump in fear and paranoia whenever a Muslim suspect is arrested for allegedly committing a crime. Responding immediately with an alarmist “please-do-not-blame-us-all” message can only aggravate the situation further and even affect our future.
The case of American spy Jonathan Jay Pollard is a case in point. Pollard, a Jewish U.S. navy civilian analyst, was convicted in 1986 of spying for Israeli intelligence. He is now serving a life sentence.
Pollard caused enormous damage to American national security. He gave Israel top-secret U.S. military intelligence and diplomatic codes; the names of U.S. agents active in the Mideast; national security code-breaking techniques and targets; intercepts of foreign communications; and U.S. war-fighting plans for the Mideast.
Pollard’s treason exposed American Jews to hate-mongering and accusations of doubtful loyalty. Fortunately, reason and rationality eventually prevailed. Even when Israel in 1999 renewed pressure on the Clinton administration to free the man they call “the Jewish Dreyfus” after serving 13 years of his sentence, many American Jews objected. Israel claimed Pollard was — like the French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 — a victim of anti-Semitism in the military and maintains he was “only” spying for a friendly country, motivated solely by concern for Israel’s security.
Thus criminal activities, even outright treason, are not confined to people of any particular religious stream, or to those of no religion at all. A criminal is just that — a criminal — whatever justification his or her supporters may claim.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.