By Kamal Nawash, President, Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism
I will never forget the morning of September 11, 2001. My sister was living with me and I had just walked into the living room after getting dressed. My sister was watching the news and she said it appears a plane hit one of the towers. I saw a fire from one of the towers but the event was yet to be dramatic. I walked to the kitchen to make coffee and seconds later I heard my sister scream “oh my God a plane just hit the second tower.” I immediately sat down as if I became paralyzed. Minutes later, my building shook. I live near the Pentagon in the tallest residential building in the Washington DC area. We were all scared. I remember climbing down 26 floors for fear of getting into the elevators. The shaking was the third plane striking the Pentagon.
At that time I was the first Muslim and Arab American to be nominated by the Republican Party to run for public office in Virginia. Initially, I was not sure who committed the terrorist act but I knew Muslim and Arab organization needed to respond immediately with condemnation.
After I got myself together, I ran over to the offices of one of the American Muslim organizations. I wanted them to contact the other Muslim organizations and ask them to come out with a strong condemnation of the terror attacks. I offered to write them a press release.
I started calling other Muslim organization to ask that they offer strong condemnation and some angrily refused. They asked me why were I assuming that Muslims did the attack? Others argued that even if Muslims did the 9/11 attacks it would not reflect on the general Muslim population. Well, as it turned out, Muslims did perpetrate 9-11.
As to my political career, I suspected it was over and my suspicions were confirmed when all my volunteers quit and never showed up again. I was left by myself in my campaign office with campaign stickers and signs but no campaign.
Prior to September 11, my routine included going house to house knocking on doors asking people to vote for me. This was particularly difficult because I am naturally shy and I needed someone with me. I recall that two or three days after the attacks, a 17 year girl named Aisha called me up saying she wanted to help me and after I explained my routine she said that she would knock on doors with me. I said Great, please come over. What showed up was an ultra orthodox Muslim girl from Pakistan who covered her hair and wore a black robe. When I saw her, I thought “oh my God, that is all I need.” I used every excuse in the book not to go with her and later she figured it out and even offered to take off her scarf.
By the third day, I said to myself “I can’t just sit here in fear feeling sorry for myself.” I decided to go out knocking on doors again. I was surprised when people treated me so kindly. They felt compassion for me. I remember receiving a call from the Speaker of the House of Delegates, Vance Wilkins, who offered to help me in any way he could and he did. I will always hold him in the highest regard.
Several days later, I was scheduled to attend an event for the Fairfax County Republican Committee where all the candidates were to be introduced. I became nervous while waiting for my turn as one candidate after the other was called to the podium. Finally the chairman said “from the 46th District, Kamal Nawash.” I began walking and for a few seconds there was absolute silence in the room. Suddenly one person started clapping and then the entire room of approximately 200 stood up and began clapping. On that day, I felt proud to be an American and I felt genuinely loved.
As to the Muslim leadership and their response to September 11, I watched in horror as one Muslim leader after the other went on TV and made an ass of himself and in the process gave the impression that Muslims were insensitive and cruel. The truth is, most Muslims don’t belong to any Muslim organization and are not even aware that most of the Muslim organizations exist. Most Muslims are busy paying their bills and raising their kids.
At the time of 9-11, most Muslim organizations in Washington, D.C. were managed by unsophisticated immigrants who simply did not understand American culture nor did they know how to communicate to the media. Prior to 9-11, most leaders of Muslim organizations in Washington belonged to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood which seeks to establish utopian theocratic “Islamic” governments in the Muslim countries. They believe that such governments would eliminate most of the developmental problems in the Muslim world and help propel the Muslim world forward. The reality is they have accomplished nothing other than to convince women to cover their hair and men to grow beards. They are an unsophisticated bunch of ideologues who dream of the glory of the past rather than the possibilities of the future.
The Muslim organizations’ lack of sophistication did not matter before 911 because very few of them appeared in the news. Their ability to cause damage was limited to the people they communicated with personally. After 911, every news agency wanted to talk to them and the average Muslims paid the price for their “leaders'” ideology and lack of sophistication. For example, rather than condemn terrorism in no uncertain terms, they would say “well…we need to look at why those people committed the violent acts.” This standard response gave Americans the impression that Muslims justified the attacks or implied that the attacks were justifiable. The average Muslim paid a heavy price for their bearded “leaders'” stupidity.
As for me, 911 had a deep psychological impact. I was horrified to see people jump to a certain death in order to save themselves from the agony of being burned. I developed a fear of flying and I became extremely angry with all Islamist movements and their ideology. For two years I approached various Muslim organizations about changing their rhetoric and their response was that they knew better. Finally, two years after 9-11, I realized that a new Muslim organization was needed to say the right things, to represent average Muslims and to reduce the number of TV appearances made by the traditional Islamist organizations. The idea of creating the Free Muslims Coalition Against Terrorism was born in 2003 and formalized in 2004.
The plan worked. By 2004, the Free Muslims were making TV appearances every other day and showing Americans that Muslims were divers, sophisticated, patriotic and sensitive. Soon others followed with organizations such as the Islamic Forum for Democracy taking a leading role in challenging the archaic traditional Muslim organizations. Some traditional organizations went out of business and those who remained had to change their ways and became more sophisticated.
However, the damage was already done and many Americans now view common Muslims negatively or with suspicion. The Average Arab or Muslim became the target of attacks from hundreds of talk show hosts and politicians wanting to make a name for themselves. Arabs and Muslims became the untouchables of the United States.
Many Muslims became reclusive and refused to cooperate with law enforcement because of the perception that law enforcement was out to get them.
Nevertheless, many terrorist suspects, who were arrested in th
e United States, were arrested with the help of other Muslims who contacted the FBI. But Muslims continue to be demonized. Any Muslim who wants to achieve any position of prominence is usually attacked by groups who do nothing but attack Muslims and Arabs over unfounded allegations and paranoia.
The demonization of Muslims and Arabs must stop. The average Muslim and Arab does not support the Islamist organizations in Washington DC nor does he want to create an “Islamic state.” The Islamist message is dying out and the world is better off.
There is a new dawn and reason for hope. For years, the Islamists who supported the Muslim Brotherhood believed that if only the countries of the Muslim world became democracies, people would choose “Islamic” governments or religious based governments. Well, the world has watched as the “Arab Spring” replaced four long time leaders. In those countries where people have a choice no one has demonstrated for a Binladen or jihadist type government. And while it is premature to make a final conclusion on the outcome of the Arab Spring, there appears to be significant opposition to any government based on religion.
As to the role of the new Muslim organizations, they need to focus on countering the message that religion and state must be mixed. There is ample religious justification for arguing that Islam supports the separation of religion and state. Muslims are not extreme. It is the ideology that mixes government and religion that produces outrageous results. The same happened when Europe mixed religion and state and in fact that period is called the dark ages.
In the mean time, Americans should not view Arabs or Muslims with suspicion. Arabs and Muslims are good neighbors to have and are necessary to fighting and catching extremists.
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