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Challenges Facing American Muslims

Leading Republican candidate Donald Trump made headlines again when he called for a complete ban of Muslims entering the United States in light of recent acts of terror associated with ISIS on the home front.  Critics have called this proposal a “ratcheting up of the rhetoric aimed at American fears about members of the Islamic faith.”

“This would be hilarious if it was not so sickening and dangerous to the fabric of American society,” says Pittsburgh Muslim leader Safdar Khwaja. Khwaja recently wrote an article for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette called “They are not Islamic. They are not a state. They are Dae’sh,” in which he highlighted the often misunderstood differences between traditional Islam and the so-called Islamic State.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or, ISIS followers are neither Islamic, nor are they a state, and are simply killers masqueraded as believers, according to Khwaja.

Khwaja is president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States.  He describes Trump’s proposal as “hateful,” “ignorant,” and “un-American,” and calls for non-Muslim citizens to try and understand the true concepts of Islam.

“It seemed like a horror show.  I could not believe that in modern-day America, someone could talk like this,” Khwaja says.  He denounced Trumps rhetoric, calling it a “bugaboo,” and saying it was only used to rile up crowds. 

“These are not American values.  We cherish our values and we cherish our civilized society based on intelligence, based on full knowledge, based on a deep understanding of things, and then we take action.”

Khwaja explains Muslims have inhabited North America since the times of Christopher Columbus, and that this phenomenon of “radical Islam” is fairly new. He adds that many of the slaves who were forcibly brought from Africa to work on plantations in the United States were Muslim, including the characters of the famous book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The extreme rhetoric coming from overseas, Khwaja says, is relatively new and the fear surrounding it is only heightened by people like Trump and candidate Ben Carson.

“This would be hilarious if this was not so sickening and so dangerous to the fabric of American society,” Khwaja said.

Most of what people generally know about Islam is in regards to the five pillars, but Khwaja says that those are practices, and not the essence and core of Islam.  Rather, the Islamic faith teaches mercy, gaining knowledge, and respecting all humanity as God’s creations. These elements contradict those the Islamic State seeks to perpetuate.  

“When there is a very loud and shouting conversation, the essence never surfaces.”

Khwaja explains that while ISIS leaders claim to follow the teachings of Muhammad, the interpretations of those teachings have been completely twisted.  The first thing to look at, he suggests, is the letter by Islamic leaders to ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi.  This document, which is signed by about 145 authorities, delineates the perversion of ISIS’s understanding of Islam and provides refutations to specific concepts.  For example, the preciousness of human life is one steadfast tenant of Islam, especially if the person is innocent or unarmed.

“If you’ve killed one person, you’ve essentially killed all of humanity,” Kwhaja explains. “The magnitude of that crime is so large.”

This example is only one of the many misinterpretations of ISIS, according to Kwhaja.  He cites the term “Dae’sh,” which is a local Arabic acronym (D.A.E.SH) for ISIS, much like in English.  The acronym, however, matches two Arabic words with two very negative meanings. The first translates to “you’re sowing discord” and the other “you should be crushed under foot.”  Both, says Kwhaja are insults in the vernacular.

Khwaja says that Muslims themselves have been most victimized by ISIS because of this now altered view of Islam by mainstream media. He suggests that the Muslim community begin a series of counter-narrative messages to combat radical behavior and recruitment messages by extremists.

“Muslims have to be part of the solution.”

Educating the young Muslim population is what Khwaja suggests will be most beneficial in putting a halt to these warped teachings  in which ISIS claims that those who kill will be rewarded in the afterlife.  He suggests that non-Muslims wishing to learn more about the religion should visit a local Mosque or ask Islamic community groups to talk to their own organizations about their faith.  This, Khwaja ensures, will help weed out truth from fiction in regards to the Islamic religion.

As far as Pittsburgh is concerned, Khwaja says that there has been no outcry of violence or destruction of Mosques like there has been in other cities. He credits this to Pittsburgh’s historic sense of work ethic and caring nature, which makes it easier to accept different cultures. 

In Chief McLay’s forming of an alliance between the Pittsburgh Police and the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, Khwaja believes that Pittsburgh leaders have taken a step in the right direction. He is thankful for work by McLay and the Peduto administration as well as faith groups from across the city, who have offered their support for the Islamic Center.

“Pittsburgh has been an island of calm and understanding.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be  heard here.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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