Islamic art represents God, or Allah, through swirling jewel-toned patterns infinitely looping themselves around gold-brushed Arabic calligraphy. To untrained eyes, such patterns resemble random squiggles. But for practicing Muslims, the seemingly abstract patterns are sacred words and names of the prophet Muhammad, as printed in the Qur'an.
Following the decline of Communism, Western democracies have characterized Muslim culture as the next most serious threat to freedom and civilization. Plenty of Americans believe Islam inspires its followers toward violent passion and fanaticism. Western feminists question its treatment of women and consider the practice of veiling symbolic of female oppression. What its critics often leave out, however, is everything pure and beautiful that truly constitutes Islam as a major world religion.
After last weeks' terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Arab Americans are already experiencing the double burden that accompanies being an ethnic 'other' in the United States. Tuesday left all Americans not only disgusted and afraid, but it also left Arab Americans increasingly vulnerable as targets for misguided disgust and fear.
The New York Times reports that a firebomb damaged the Islamic Society of Denton's mosque in North Texas. Gasoline-filled bottles set fire to the Guru Sikh temple in Cleveland, Ohio. Over 100 demonstrators chanted "U.S.A.!" outside a Chicago mosque to protest foreign nationals. A spokesperson from the permanent mission of Afghanistan in New York - which doesn't represent the Taliban government, but the Islamic State of Afghanistan - received death threats, including one telephone caller who declared that "every Muslim shall be killed."
Such acts and threats are unwarranted, because whoever executed the attacks - whether they are from the Middle East or not - are definitely not Muslim.
Ahmad ibn Ashir, practicioner of Sufi Islam from Morocco, said, "Knowledge without practice is like a tree without fruit." Muslim practice includes the five pillars of Islam. The first pillar is the profession of faith to one God, and the acceptance of Muhammad as God's messenger. The second pillar is to pray five times a day, facing toward the Great Mosque in Mecca. The third pillar includes giving alms, or charity. The fourth pillar is to observe a month-long fast, which serves as a purification and sacrificial act. The fifth pillar is to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Sufism is a branch of Islam, which entails a more mystical and personal engagement with divinity, through private experience of the inner meaning of Islamic practice. Jihad for example, though often cited as an Islamic-inspired holy war that Muslim terrorists use to justify and mobilize violence, actually denotes an internal struggle against personal vices.
Sufism also contributes to the diversity of Muslim culture's poetry, music and dance - all artistic expressions that testify to a long tradition of tolerance and non-violence. Many Muslims for instance, revere a well-quoted phrase by a 14th century Muslim saint from India: "Every community has a right path, right religion and right direction of prayer." Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, "If sorrow raises armies to shed the blood of lovers, I'll join with the wine bearer so we can overthrow them."
This is clearly why many Muslim Americans take offense when the media uses "Muslim" or "Islam" in the same breath as "terrorism." To label violent criminals by religious affiliation grossly misrepresents an entire culture, which has been historically misrepresented and underrepresented in politics and society. Images of Palestinian children and teen-agers clapping their hands and passing out sweets in celebration of the attacks compound popular suspicion toward Muslims. The media took those images out of context and placed them in a vacuum.
While speaking against the Vietnam War, Rev. Martin Luther King said, "it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves." In this case, the enemy includes not only the true threat to Americans and democracy - the actual terrorist networks - but also the mythic enemy of a misunderstood culture. King continues, "And if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called 'the opposition.'"