Muslims and American Politics: Creating Unity from the Inside Out 5

American Muslims have the opportunity to serve as models for Muslims of the world. It is likely that a mainstream American Muslim will be elected to national office some time in America’s future. However, that Muslim will have to resolve himself or her¬self to having a multi-faceted identity within a diverse and some¬what divided community, especially if we continue to define ourselves politically from the outside in.
Will American Muslims need an event like the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in order to unify, to see what we have in common? We can’t count on that. We should all take off our holidays—Eid al-Udha and Eid al-Fitr—until they are recog¬nized as official holidays. Like African-Americans did for Martin Luther King’s birthday, we should stage a quiet protest against working and going to school on our important days for community¬building until recognized. We should realize what we can teach Americans—greater understanding, tolerance, acceptance—by being unified.
Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, the American Flag, and Islam
In one of the few times Islam made the nightly news it was not about Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, but about a situation that made American Muslims look pretty bad anyway. Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, then point guard for the basketball team the Denver Nuggets, had spent most of the season sitting out the National Anthem in the locker room. When the National Basketball Association (NBA) finally did question him about this (and the conspiracy theorist in me says the NBA chose to bring up this issue at a crucial point in the season for the Nuggets, who were then trying to qualify for the playoffs), a media frenzy was set off.
For good reason too. Rauf cited a variety of reasons for not wanting to stand for the National Anthem and salute the American flag, the most overlooked of which was that he felt it was un-Islamic for him to worship anything besides God. The media and others focused on his next statements—he also did not want to stand for the flag because it represented, to him, the racism of America, that had held African-Americans down. Suddenly, everyone was talking about freedom of speech and freedom of religion and what it meant to be a Muslim in America, an African-American Muslim. I was thrilled, to say the least! My friends and I tuned in to Peter Jennings, who was actually talk¬ing about how American Muslims feel about the United States. Religious freedom in America, particularly American Muslims’ ability to exercise freedom of religion, was the topic on everyone’s mind; the subject had its fifteen minutes of fame.
Though legal analysts thought Raufs case was strong, both under the First Amendment and the employment law (as his contract with the NBA may have been unconstitutional in requiring that he stand for the National Anthem), many Americans were vexed that Rauf could call the flag racist yet receive a salary of hundreds of thousands of American dollars with no qualms. “If we’re such a racist country,” people must have thought, “then don’t take our money!” Veterans were mad that Rauf didn’t see the flag as representing the battles for free¬dom America has participated in, making the debacle reminis¬cent of another African-American Muslim athlete’s objections to American policy. World Champion boxer Muhammad Ali was arrested for refusing to comply with the draft for Vietnam, citing his Islamic beliefs and conscientious objector status.
I worried for a few minutes about the repercussions, espe¬cially on campus amongst my friends. Would people once and for all declare that Muslims are nuts? It’s one thing to have a suicide Muslim bomber far away in another country. But here we were in the United States with a Muslim showing strong anti- American feeling. As a fellow Muslim and a fan, I wanted to sup¬port Rauf in the way that you want to support your brother or sister to those outside your family, even if you know they are wrong. I also knew that I never had a problem, as a Muslim, with standing for the flag and singing the National Anthem. I even remembered reading somewhere in the Qur’an that a good Muslim will follow the laws of his country because that is what God would want. I thought of Jesus’ saying “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”
I was confused reading my school’s computer bulletin, where students had already delved into the topic. I had prepared myself for the worst. My fellow students were probably going to say something mean about American Muslims being no better than the horrid world Muslims. Imagine my shock when I read opin¬ions from students of all sorts of backgrounds saying they thought Rauf had the right, as an American citizen, not to stand for the flag or the National Anthem. Some even said they empathized with Raufs image of the flag as waving in the back¬ground of a lynching of African-Americans after the Civil War. Though it was far from a Rauf love fest, I was again surprised by my fellow Americans’ ability to understand other opinions. “I’m with Mahmoud on this,” wrote my friend Simi on Wellesley’s Pro- Sports computer bulletin, citing his constitutional right to free¬dom of expression.
What American Muslims had trouble with was Raufs inter¬pretation of Islam. I would say many other American Muslims believe in the American flag as representative of Americans’ struggle (you could even say Americans’ jihad) for freedom and democracy in personal lives and around the world. Other Muslim athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabar called Rauf, as did American Muslim leaders, and eventually persuaded him to stand during the Anthem, while he said an Islamic prayer to himself. That way, he was not being pulled away from focusing on Allah by singing to the flag.
From a national perspective, you could say that the Rauf sit¬uation was a public relations disaster for Muslims. While other events involving negative acts perpetrated by Muslims could be explained, here was one of our own, an African-American convert to Islam, making us look bad. When I’m feeling down anyway about Americans’ image of Muslims, I think that way. In truth though, I think American Muslims actually came out on top in the end.

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