An American Muslim on 'Muslim Rage'

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MuslimRage.pngGawker had a powerful response to Newsweek's "Muslim Rage" story; it is worth checking out both the original story and the reply. In the "evolution of journalism" chronicles, it must signify something that the proudly tabloidish and amoral Gawker is positioning itself as conscience-of-the-industry in this case.

Just for the record, and because I found it interesting, below and after the jump is a long message from a young Muslim-American reader on how the turmoil in the Middle East, and U.S. coverage of the uprisings, seem from his perspective. One big implicit message involves the ways America's absorption and recognition of its growing Muslim population differ at the moment from its attitudes toward other minority groups. More on this later on.

I'm struck in reading much of the discussion regarding the state of Muslim 'rage' towards the United States that few outlets are asking what a Muslim American may think of the United States and its relationship with the Muslim world.

It would seem to me that this would be the ideal place to start, but instead the only narrative that is being consistently advanced is that of disaffected Egyptians and such, who, absolutely, are an important (and right now, more politically challenging) and boisterous aspect of the Islamic world. But as much as those transparently anti-American chants may provide shock-value for readers and advance the narrative of the unreasonable, hypersensitive Muslim, all we see in political commentary is an empty, half-hearted admission that 'not all Muslims think like this,' even if no one bothers then to ask what the 'other' Muslims think.
 
There aren't any prominent Muslim American political voices in this country, either in actual leadership roles (Keith Ellison notwitstanding) or even in the journalistic or blogging world (the three pillars of civil society, but of course). And part of this I think speaks to a problem in which Muslims continue to be accepted, with the caveat that they never really broadcast any of their 'Muslimness.'
 
And perhaps I'm as bad a culprit as any. I grew up in Maryland as a child of Muslim immigrants from India, in a religious household in which I went to Sunday school run by one of the many large Islamic congregations that existed in the suburbs of Washington, DC. I was schooled in my parents' religion in such a benign way that, post 9/11, when cultural commentators started cherry-picking particular quotes from the Qu'ran to advance the thesis of the bloodlusting, uncompromising Muslim, I half had to wonder whether I myself had been duped. I grew up as a Muslim American who was taught mostly to understand that many of the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were purely superficial. That doesn't mean that I wasn't also taught that, for example, creating an image of the prophet Muhammed was an unforgivable act.
 
Like many kids from my generation, Christian, Jew, Hindu, or Muslim, as I got older, and moved both physicaly and mentally away from my parents' influence, I became more secular. Today, I consider myself a Muslim as more of an ethnic identifier than I do a spiritual one. I still feel solidarity with Muslim Americans and I also know that even if I don't pray, fast, or do much of anything related to being a good Muslim, I'm still going to be considered one.
 
Even as an earnest, 20-something liberal with generally uncontroversial politics, I'm aware that there are certain lines that I or other Muslims have to avoid crossing in a public sphere. We are allowed to be Muslims for as long as we don't tread on any danger lines. Our critiques of American foreign policy can easily be turned right back on us as accusations that we're no different than the rest, that we might also want the destruction of Israel if we sympathize with Palestine (even if many white Americans also hold that view), and the fact that we may have a different perspective on the affects of American foreign policy with the Muslim world, most directly by perhaps knowing people in that mystical 'Muslim world.' None of those questions are asked, because if we speak too loudly, we make ourselves targets for ridicule. All it takes is one sentence here or there and an honest American opinion becomes incendiary Islamist garbage.
It may sound like paranoia, but looking at the sheer lack of Muslim American perspective existing in the public sphere when some of the vexing domestic and foreign policy dilemmas that face us today are the possibilities of homegrown, radicalized Muslim Americans and our relationship with Muslims abroad as well, I have to wonder if perhaps there is a line that we are constantly treading right up against, simply by nature of the religion we were born in. When I went on reddit this past week and posted in some of the threads popping up regarding the unrest in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, I was horrified by how quickly my qualfied defense of Muslims as a whole (not the radicals who were hell bent on destroying things because of a Youtube video), was waved off by many, how easy it was for people to simply shout back that people like me who take responsibility for a gentler strand of Islam are somehow anomalies or, even worse, liars playing the long con. And this is reddit, mind you, where 97% of the community is probably an Obama supporter. The possibility that there are Muslims out there who can be insulted by that horrific video without feeling any urges to go out and burn things seems lost on some people. Only the worst of us get a seat at the table.
 
We do, after all, live in a world where around a quarter of the country mistakenly believes that President Obama is a Muslim, and barely anyone bothers to ask the natural follow-up question, "And if he was a Muslim, so what?"

We are either threats to America or background examples of the possibilities of the moderate Muslim in America. But regardless of who is speaking on behalf of us, we are almost never really represented in the public conversation.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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