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Al Jazeera Documentary Shows Muslims Are Accepted in America

Eye on Arab Media

New America Media, Commentary, Jalal Ghazi Posted: Nov 27, 2008

Editor's Note: In opposition to comments by Al Qaeda'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 "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East," and writer of the column Eye on Arab Media for New America Media.

Last week, Al Qaeda'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 "house slaves." 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: "We find it insulting when anyone speaks for our community instead of giving us the dignity and the honor of speaking for ourselves."

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 Jazeera'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.

"I had come to America with my own prejudices and misconceptions," Omaar said on Al Jazeera. "I thought that being Muslim in America is a story of widespread fear of discrimination and stereotyping. But in the short time I've been here, what I'm hearing from Muslims is about opportunity constitutional rights, due process about having a stake in this country and being made to feel that they belong."

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.

"In the European context, what it means to be British or Norwegian is tightly defined," Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., told Al Jazeera. "In America, we come from all cultures, colors and races."

Ellison led Al Jazeera'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 Monticello's Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, writes about Jefferson's Koran on Iranian American web portal Pavyand: "Then a 22-year-old student preparing for his bar exams, Jefferson's favorite legal texts included Samuel Pufendorf's "Of the Law of Nature and Nations," a 1672 classic that cites the Koran as precedent on a wide variety of civil and international legal issues."

Harrop writes that Jefferson's "interest in the Islamic holy book led him to learning about Islam and a sustained study of the Koran's original written language, Arabic."

This founding father's interest is not the only connection to Islamic civilization found in America's capitol. Inside the Supreme Court's courtroom, there is a frieze of the "great lawmakers of history."
Eighteen lawgivers ancient and modern 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.

Some Islamic groups have demanded that the image of Muhammad be removed, saying that Islam bans sculptures and pictures of the prophet. The court however has rejected this demand, and has explained that that the frieze was "a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad."

Omaar agrees. The frieze, he says, is evidence that "America knows it's indebted to Islam for its own citizens' inalienable rights."

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 American 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 Muhammad'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.

"The voices of women have been silenced for 1400 years (in the Middle East)," Bakhtiar, who lives and works in Chicago, told Al Jazeera. "They are not open to women's interpretations."

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.

"Even 20 years ago, maybe we'd have a lot of doubts," Muhammad said. "But in 2008, I don't think that we have much room to doubt that America is the best place for Muslims to establish the life that we want and that God wants us to have.

"America has survived slavery, and it has survived racism," Muhammad told Al Jazeera.

The overwhelming majority of American Muslims share Muhammad'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 country'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.

Standing up for his principles, he was arrested, accused for espionage and even threatened with the death penalty. Yee was held for 76 days at Guantanamo Bay before he was acquitted of all charges and his record wiped clean.

Yee, whose family's history of military service dates back to World War II, told Al Jazeera that his experience made him appreciate America more.

"I'm even more patriotic today," he said, "because I am spending more time and engaged even further in doing what's best for my country: Promoting these certain values. And that's my goal in life that is, to improve the society that I live in."

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