Recently, a small group of Muslims descended upon The Daily Gazette’s offices because it published a cartoon that they felt insulted their religious sensibilities. Happily, this is not a story about murder. The offending cartoon depicted an image that, unbeknownst to the newspaper editors, was hurtful to Muslims.
The men and women from the local Islamic community explained what the cartoon meant to them. The newspaper listened respectfully, and everyone agreed that the Muslim community should be able to express those concerns in the form of an op-ed in their own voice.
This was how free speech won in Schenectady without anger, humiliation, marginalization or threats. We all know that that is a very different story than that of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
After the Paris massacre, there was the usual chorus of “Where are the Muslim condemnations?” This perpetual query was recently voiced by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Despite the fact that every major Muslim voice in America has condemned these attacks, this same tired question is repeated every so often, much to the amazement of the Muslims themselves.
Not just because the selective deafness of those who ask the question is mystifying, but also because it is hurtful to question the decency of a faith community by posing this question to begin with.
Comedian Jon Stewart has called for “Muslim condemnologists” as a tongue-in-cheek response to the tired urban legend of Western Muslims not condemning the horrific acts carried out by sociopathic men with Muslim names anywhere in the world.
The events of 9/11 have cast a long shadow on all Americans, Muslims or not. American Muslims also suffered losses of loved ones on that tragic day.
However, unlike their friends and neighbors, they had to live with the knowledge that the attackers professed to be Muslims.
From the very beginning, their mourning was suspect, as Salman Hamdani’s mother had to learn firsthand when her son, a first responder who died at the Twin Towers, was widely accused of being a terrorist.
To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, its not easy being a Muslim. But in the Capital District, Muslims have been embraced by a warm interfaith community.
This was on display recently when a diverse group of people of different faiths welcomed new Catholic Bishop Edward Scharfenberger to the Muslim Community Center and listened as he addressed the Muslim congregation.
That celebratory mood was gone when I attended the Friday service at the center soon after the Paris massacre. The imam became emotional as he described to the Muslims in attendance Quranic injunctions against the kind of mayhem perpetrated in Paris.
When outsiders demand that everyday-Muslims in communities like ours verbally ‘condemn’ the actions of extremists, as if to prove that we, ourselves, are not secret supporters of the likes of the Kouachi brothers, they demean us to demand a meaningless action.
What will be considered enough proof of our loyalty? Should Muslims stand outside the Muslim Community Center with banners saying “Je Suis Charlie”? Should they be forced to eat the humble pie by having to hold up the degrading cartoons of a man they consider too holy for depiction in images, or the Charlie Hebdo cover depicting abducted girls in Nigeria with exaggerated lips as pregnant African welfare queens?
Despite my anger at the three men who hijacked legitimate discourse about hurtful speech through their violence, I hope that I won’t have to see the “Je Suis Charlie” signs in the hands of Muslims. Maybe “Je Suis Ahmed,” for Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer who died defending the Charlie Hebdo staff, or Je Suis Lassana, for Lassana Bathily who protected innocent people in the Paris kosher market. But not Je Suis Charlie.
While there is room for most speech, reasonable people won’t support hateful speech that one could find anti-Semitic, Islamophobic or racist. This does not mean that publications should have to censor out of fear.
Intolerance is a major problem within the Muslim world. Raif Badawi is being flogged and imprisoned for questioning Saudi Arabia’s rigid version of Islam. And mobs have killed people in Pakistan for the crime of ‘blasphemy’.
Yet, American Muslims are not the government of Saudi Arabia, nor are they a mob in Pakistan.
In order to see where local Muslims stand on the issue, do not demand repetitive verbalization of condemnations, nor an impossible claim of responsibility for the actions of more than a billion Muslims worldwide.
We do not fit in the clash-of-civilizations narrative being pushed by ambitious politicians and media pundits.
When Muslims of the Capital District reached out to their local newspaper for dialogue and were received with respect, those actions defined them and the community they call home, far more than any verbal condemnation.
Dr. Aliya Saeed is a resident of Cohoes.