What cartoonists and terrorists have in common—they got Islam all wrong

Shiny happy people.
Shiny happy people.
Image: AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin
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In Paris, the terrorists profaned the name of Islam and Prophet Muhammad by committing indiscriminate violence and killing 12 innocent people for drawing cartoons. But not all Muslims reacted uniformly. Condemnations from Muslim organizations were swift and even those Muslims who saw the cartoons as an inconceivable affront declared that “contesting freedom of speech is not an option.”

Today, Islam is understood through the political turmoil unfurling daily into our living rooms. There is a dangerous void of understanding the complete Islamic cultural experience. A deeply held value of reverence and admiration for all prophets is turned over on its head when Islam’s iconic figure is lampooned.

In these instances and others, Prophet Muhammad was instructed by God to face the ignorance with graciousness and the enmity with love.

At this critical time in Europe, we cannot afford to remain ignorant. We must replace ignorance with deep dialogue and understanding of each other’s cultures. By doing that, we will understand the whole of society and the human activity that springs form it.

Multiculturalism imperative is defined in the Quran as follows:

O humankind, we certainly created you from one male and one female, and fashioned you into tribes and nations so that you might get to know [or celebrate] each other.

This is also the goal of a sane, pluralistic society, which is especially needed in the face of today’s shifting cultures. The biggest question facing humanity today: What kind of world do we want to live in, for ourselves, our children and grandchildren? We have two choices before us: a mono-cultural world which seeks to homogenize human identities by treating minorities as alien to the dominant culture or a multicultural one where layers of identities are nested in a larger sense of identity. These begin with the individual, move on up to the communal, and broaden to a globalized human race.

I am a Muslim, but I am also an American, a woman and an immigrant. I was born in a paradise called Kashmir, India, to a Muslim family. I studied in a Catholic school for 11 years and recited the Lord’s Prayer every day. My teachers were Hindus, I climbed mountains and trees with Sikh girls, bought fresh-water pearls from Buddhists, and I was told that Kashmiris were from the lost tenth tribe of Israel. At 16 years of age, I was sent to America to pursue my education and there I landed in a 99% Jewish neighborhood in New York. My religious education was complete.

During my childhood, I discovered the value of celebrating multiculturalism and honoring all religions but it was in America—the new world that I and many immigrants like me discovered the value of our own religion.

Indeed, as I delved myself deeper into the Quran, I found striking similarities between Islamic ethics and American values. The Quran speaks of humankind as one nation under God, it describes the one creator and insures human equality, Muslim jurists wrote 1,000 years ago about Islamic law protecting of six principles which form the basis for six human rights: the right to life, the right to free exercise of religion, the right to own property, the right to a family, the right to advance one’s intellect … and the right to dignity. How similar to what the American founding fathers wrote, when they declared that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, amongst which are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” Is it any wonder why so many Muslims, perhaps disenfranchised in their homelands by a privileged tiny minority, traverse deserts on foot and cross oceans on rickety boats, seeking these rights in places like France and America yearning for the freedoms and economic empowerment we in the West routinely enjoy.

Then why this lingering question? Is Islam compatible with Western ideals? Can they be modern and be a Muslim? And why can’t Muslims handle a cartoon? These are among the many questions I have wrestled with in various identity formation stages of my life. Now apply them to 28 million Muslims living in the West, some who are struggling to formulate their own layered complex identities and you get the big picture.

When the 9/11 attacks happened, I too was evolving as new kind of Muslim helping shape American Islam imbued with democratic values, constitutional rights, women’s rights and religious tolerance. In this process, I heard one perennial question: “Where are the moderates and why don’t they speak out?”

So as a forward-thinking, moderate, peace-loving Muslim I felt an obligation to step into the arena to amplifying my voice and to redefine what Muslim life in America is going to be. In 2010, nine years after 9/11, we could not think of a better expression to promote the peaceful values of our faiths than creating the Cordoba House, where a coalition of moderates of all faith would form a counter momentum to extremism. A project to honor those whose lives were lost on 9/11, where Muslims could proclaim their commitment to their country and extend their hands to create healing by saying, “Here we are, the Muslim moderates. We open ourselves to you. We are not in hiding. You do not have to fear us.”

But detractors and certain media pundits, instead of amplifying the voice of moderate Muslim, added fuel to the fire by spreading emotional flames of fear, prejudice, and hatred against the project they inaccurately labeled the “Ground Zero Mosque.” It was classic, textbook Islamophobia. If not challenged, Islamophobia can become an accepted form of racism.

Why can’t Muslims stand side-by-side with their neighbors of all ethnicities, races and religions in a single space? I ask again—don’t we have the right to formulate and promote what it means to be a Muslim in the West?

The reality is that shaping religion in America and in Europe has been a daunting task for all religions. We Muslims must learn from our Christian and Jewish predecessors the lessons they learned as they morphed from mainly European churches and synagogues to American expressions of Judaism and Christianity. We Muslims are undergoing the same trials of re-expressing the eternal truths and values of our faith within the cultural modality of Western societies.

The larger question we have to ask ourselves is, what is the basis of our human identity, as Europeans or non-Europeans, as religious or not, as black, white, yellow or brown races? Can we create layers of identity nested in a larger sense of identity: Our religious traditions teach us that every human being is created in the Divine image—the Quran states that God breathed a bit of His Spirit into the clay of Adam, thereby enlivening him. Does this not mean then that we must see ourselves in the faces of others? And that we are—and must live as—one?

Today we urgently need to forge personal bonds and relationships of trust, by building a stronger core across all ethnicities and religions that will make cooperation possible, where priorities and concerns overlap.

We must avoid comparing the ideals of our traditions against the lowest forms of others, falsely enhance the values of one viewpoint and cause them to come off as seeming superior. When there is a perception that our values are at odds, Muslims must de-polarize the Muslim/West divide by using Islamic ethical imperative to transform hatred into compassion by increased dialogue. Dialogue opens our hearts to one another as human beings, reveals what is common among us, and deepens our quests for enduring truth. This is so because the “higher power” does speak to us through the “other.”

There is no doubt that there is a dilemma, a real struggle and tension between artistic freedom and social responsibility. The need is to draw upon our rich cultural heritages to inform both private ethics and public discourse by giving a platform to interlocutors between the immigrant Muslim communities and larger European society—to act as bridge-builders

I have inherited the traditions of my faith, a faith that has inspired positive social change for more than 1,400 years. Within me are two separate cultures. Yet precisely because of interfaith dialogue in my very home, by my teachers, and in my circle, I am a thriving, American Muslim. I am proof of what I preach and it is my obligation to keep building bridges, to say that our solution lies in the merger of our rich cultures, our philosophical commonalities, and our shared human values.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Quartz’s full coverage of the attack in Paris can be found here.