American Muslim leaders don’t dissent enough—the type of constructive, peaceful engagement of ideas and opinions necessary for living in a liberal democracy, which thrives off dissent. There has been a natural incentive for Muslims, already widely perceived to be a “fifth column,” not to articulate dissenting views and much of this has evolved over the past decade in this country. There remains a vital need to offer differing, even critical views, about all issues pertinent to American Muslims while creating a platform for these voices to be heard broadly.
Social media was on fire recently when a notable American Muslim figure posted that American Muslims should protest attending any iftars hosted by the Government. He, and others who agreed with him, cited certain policies, such as drone strikes, advanced by the Obama administration and argued that boycotting the event would be an effective way to promote change. They also perceived the annual dinners as an effort to pacify the American Muslim community without necessarily creating the proper channels for discussions between the government and American Muslims. Many Muslims actively engaged with the government and other notable American Muslim leaders counter-argued that a lack of presence in Washington and at events like these is self-defeating, and will set the community back in efforts to make positive and perhaps realistic change.
The fact that this debate took place so publicly is significant. One outcome of 9/11 was that Muslims became reticent to publicly dissent from American policies and actions domestically and abroad. In particular, Muslim leaders had to defend the faith in rather hostile circles. Expressions of patriotism became the norm, the idea that there was no conflict between one’s identity as an American and as a Muslim was promulgated throughout the community presumably in an effort to convince the broader community that fear of Muslims in America was unwarranted. As a result, serious public criticism of US policies that are viewed as odious by many across the Muslim world was often ignored or side-stepped by American Muslim groups.
Dissenting voices did not disappear after 9/11, but were dramatically curtailed. In the 1990s, Muslim groups took part in a broad range of civic protests—some may have been driven more by issues overseas—yet the Muslim public narrative was never shy to criticize America, including its policies or culture. After 2001, however, these protests quickly dwindled. According to statistics and reports, there was a real drop in donations to Islamic charities, and less outward criticism of American policies amid increasingly widespread rumored reports of American Muslims being deported, held without charge or facing visits from the FBI.
There was a palpable fear of being labeled an “extremist” or “fundamentalist.” Anti-Islamic thinkers and institutes proliferated along with “native informants,” who articulated the same anti-Islamic view but came from Muslim backgrounds. The “Good Muslim,” a concept thoughtfully analyzed and deconstructed by Mahmood Mamdani, was what the larger American community wanted. The expression of dissent carried with it the threat of falling victim to right-wing bloggers, FBI monitoring, or, in the worst-case scenario, deportation or incarceration. As a result, the voice of dissent became so marginalized that no one was willing to criticize anything, but particularly American Muslims leaders and scholars.
However, the reality is that as a superpower in a world of nation-states, America takes complicated, and to some, highly problematic actions around the world to preserve its power. Articulating this reality does not necessarily make one any less American, or patriotic – “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” – is a famous quote often attributed to to Thomas Jefferson. Yet, without proper channels of expression, over the past decade a generation of American Muslim youth have come of age fully cognizant of America’s controversial actions, such as drone strikes, without feeling their concerns expressed publicly by their anointed leaders. Whereas protest may have been a normative part of the community a generation before, the generation after witnessed a different kind of narrative. For such youth, finding the voice of dissent could lead them outside the community and even outside Islam, toward radical or extremist views that articulated criticism in a way the mainstream community was not open to.
Take Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. The young “promising” student (in the words of Rolling Stone) had a kind of dual personality—he appeared to be an all-American kid, yet apparently experienced an intense internal struggle expressed through his alleged writings in the boat where he was captured: “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians. I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all. Stop killing our innocent people, we will stop.”
Any psychologist or mental health professional could tell you that at the heart of anger is typically a feeling of not being heard. The past decade has seen the community not actively creating the spaces in the public discussion for meaningful dissent, coupled with high level government officials being inaccessible to allow for such engagement and meaningful outreach and discussions. The community needs to agree to disagree and allow for critical and principled debate on issues that may be uncomfortable or controversial. This space must also be informed by the faith in a way that disallows discussion of action or violence outside the bounds of Islam. We can either be ahead of the problem or allow it to catch up to us.
If the mainstream American Muslim community allows for legitimate critique without marginalizing these voices, then extremists may not look as attractive.
Protesting the White House iftar is an important step in allowing for healthy dissenting opinions and debate to emerge. The voice of dissent can and should become mainstream. Dissent will always exist. It is impossible to say whether the Tsarnaev brothers could have been swayed from their alleged bombing if they felt their concerns were fairly addressed in the Muslim public discourse. However, for many Muslim youth across America who harbor feelings of helplessness and outrage over certain policies of the United States in Muslim majority countries, it behooves us to find a place where their concerns can be vented and directed in positive ways. We are witnessing an era of dissent from even the most outwardly patriotic Americans about American policies. American Muslims must feel the space to also dissent without having their patriotism questioned.