By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
Most of your sins are because of your tongues.
–Prophet Muhammad, upon peace and blessings.
There are frequent calls—from law-enforcement officials, from radio personalities, and from ordinary people—for Muslims in the United States to be “loyal.” It’s not new. The loyalty of many other groups has been questioned: Japanese, Catholics. But what does it mean to be a loyal citizen of the United States, and how can loyalty be fostered?
Loyalty doesn’t mean that you agree to every action taken by your country’s government. As a US citizen, I have some criticism of US foreign policy. But loyalty does mean that I will address this in the public square. I will raise my questions not to attack America, but in a way that will benefit the country. When you’re speaking up as a loyal citizen, you’re speaking openly—you’re not plotting and planning in the shadows.
Loyalty also doesn’t mean staying quiet, or even following every law. It means that you’re speaking and acting with the intent to benefit the greater community. Martin Luther King Jr showed great loyalty to the United States, as did the boxer Muhammad Ali.
When Moses wanted to call out oppression and discrimination, he went and spoke to the Pharaoh. He didn’t hype up people in Midian, because Moses spoke as loyalty speaks. Even in a situation of extreme oppression, he didn’t try to catch the rulers of his society off guard or try to create an unequal power play. He spoke directly and openly to power.
Disloyalty is its opposite: where a citizen in not seeking the benefit of everybody, but is instead seeking power and self-aggrandizement. For instance, in Yemen, there is broad anti-American sentiment. I don’t agree with drone policy in Yemen. But, when I traveled there, it would’ve been wrong for me to play on that by bad-mouthing America.
Terrorist groups hide in the shadows, hyping people up against their own. If you disagree, that’s not disloyalty. But you have to fight the good fight and speak up conscientiously in the public square.
Likewise, there is a broad anti-Muslim sentiment in America.
Civil rights organizations continually collect many cases of hate crimes against Muslims and they are on the rise during election season, even in schools. Recently, a group that calls itself the “Crusaders” made up of three men in Kansas were caught trying to bomb an apartment complex, home to Somali immigrants.
While law enforcement referred to the plot as “domestic terrorism,” the media referred to them as “militia.” There was very little awareness or buzz in the public square regarding this domestic terrorism.
One can disagree with the Muslim community in America on many things. But during every election and this election, it is very wrong and disloyal to play on that anti-Muslim sentiment by bad-mouthing Muslims and asking them to be our ears and eyes for terrorist activities as though terrorism is inherently an Islamic act. It is also wrong and disloyal for public figures to play on this anti-Muslim sentiment and negative stereotypes to gain influence, attention, win votes and elections. It has an impact on our community in all walks of life that communicates fear and shock.
Is the government loyal to us?
When the story broke that US officials had detailed dual Canadian-Syrian citizen Maher Arar during a layover at JFK airport and sent him not to Canada—but to Syria, where he was detained and tortured—Muslim-American citizens had good reason to wonder about their government’s loyalty. It took a year before Arar’s case was properly examined and he was declared innocent by both the Syrian and Canadian governments.
This news came in an environment where federal and local law-enforcement officials were asking the Muslim community to spy on each other and report on themselves. Certainly, I want to protect my community from anyone who is planning violence. But I also want to make sure individuals—who might be innocent, or even those who might be guilty—have their rights protected, too. If I’m being asked to report somebody, and then I hear that person is being tortured, then it makes it difficult for me to do that in the future.
In the attempt to try to be loyal to America, I harmed another human being. Even if he was planning something, everyone deserves a trial and due process.
On the other hand, in July 2009, Minnesota Muslim leaders met with Congressman Keith Ellison to discuss challenges that were facing Muslims in Minnesota. The discussion focused on everything from positive contributions to the growth of the community, including the free Muslim-run health clinics in the Twin Cities, to the missing Somali men and Muslims’ cooperation with law enforcement. Congressman Ellison encouraged everyone to contribute to America and answer President Obama’s call to service. This was the sort of two-way loyalty that everyone present could get behind and stood stark contrast with Senator Joe Lieberman’s refusal to accept an invitation to meet with Minnesota Muslims even though he was leading a terrorism investigation into Minnesota Somali Muslims.
Guilty until proven innocent
The American legal system is meant to be built around the excellent premise that everyone, accused of a crime, is innocent until proven guilty.
Yet according to “Somali Voices,” a coalition of nearly a dozen local Somali organizations, the entire Somali community has been under suspicion and scrutiny for the harmful actions of a handful of men for almost a decade.
In a 2009 press release, Somali Voices stated: “..members of the Somali community have reported being stopped on the streets and in the malls, Somali businesses have been raided, students have been approached by federal agents in campus libraries, community leaders have been denied boarding passes without due process, agents have talked their way into homes without warrants, non-English-speaking Somalis have been interviewed without translators, agents in unmarked cars have staked out in front of Somali mosques, informants have allegedly been sent inside the mosques.”
If anything, things have intensified with Minnesota’s “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program, which launched in three pilot cities in 2014, including Minneapolis. The CVE is administered by the US Department of Justice, and a number of groups have spoken out against it for the way it discriminatorily targets the Muslim and Somali communities, increasing policing and intelligence gathering under the guise of providing social services.
After this many years of intense observation, the community is feeling harassed, transgressed upon, and that they have no rights. Instead of loyalty, this is a breeding ground of mistrust, resentment, and anger.
Somali Muslims in Minnesota are being psychoanalyzed and watched, and there are informants in their mosques. These practices inhibit the kinds of social and emotional growth that connects the Somali community with the greater community. They don’t have space to hear themselves, define themselves, and to make space for beneficial criticism.
Instead of fostering loyalty, an atmosphere of neighbor spying on neighbor fosters the sort of mistrust that drives young people to look for alternative authority figures: gangs and extremist groups among them.
We absolutely shouldn’t be in denial that there are cases of missing Somali youth who have gone to fight with violent, fringe extremist groups. But a fear-based, over-simplistic approach will do nothing but make the problem more expensive and more difficult to solve.
When you want loyalty, you have to promote trust.
What can individuals do to show loyalty to marginalized communities?
In October 2015, Asma Jama was attacked in a Coon Rapids Applebees for speaking Swahili—a 43-year-old woman walked up to Jama and allegedly smashed Jama’s face with a beer mug.
The attack left Jama with a deep gash in her lower lip and cuts across her face. Afterwards, Jama said that, after calling the state home for 15 years, she felt unwanted and unsafe in Minnesota. But after a solidarity gathering to support her, Jama said she changed her mind.
Scores of Minnesotans, including Coon Rapids city officials and social-justice leaders from across the area, met to support Jama, sending a message not just to Jama but to the whole community.
By listening with compassion and pushing back on anger and hatred, we as individuals can help steer the larger society in the right direction and to nurture those with unhealthy sentiments without condemning them.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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