Zahra N. Jamal, Ph.D.: To Be a Good Muslim is to Be a Good Citizen
The Quranic imperative is to help to those in need; the religion of the beneficiary does not matter. Voluntarism is thus integral to the daily lives of many Muslims, both in Muslim societies and in Western societies. From Ramadan food drives in local mosques in Boston, to volunteering with the police force in Mumbai, to giving toys to orphans in Beirut, to raising money in Abu Dhabi for Darfur victims, Muslims are serving others in numerous ways. Muslim Americans also volunteer avidly in their local communities — in Boy/Girl Scouts, PTAs and homeless shelters, as well as globally with the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Doctors without Borders and the Aga Khan Development Network.
Yet, surrounding the range of desires among American Muslims to participate in American civic life is an ambiguous discourse on Islam in the American public sphere. One the one hand, there have been beautiful gestures of celebrating diversity including interfaith gatherings to read one another’s scriptures everywhere from Lansing, Mich., to New York City to Houston, Texas; the Interfaith Youth Core’s service-learning events on college campuses across America; and President Obama’s appointment of a Muslim woman, Farah Pandith, to the new State Department position called “Special Representative to Muslim Communities.” On the other hand, controversy over the Park51 Community Center, “Quran Burning Day,” various state legislatures fear of sharia law and the Rep. King Muslim radicalization hearings indicate a failure often to really listen to one another.
While a number of leaders within the American ummah (community) have declared the current Islamophobic climate in America to be a targeted witch-hunt and the reinstatement of McCarthyism, a quieter majority of Muslim Americans has continued to address the difficult climate through an age old tradition: volunteering.
Growing numbers of Muslim Americans are becoming more engaged in civic work after 9/11. Many of them see their giving practices, including gifts of time, knowledge, and monetary and other resources, as acts of faith and as acts of citizenship. They explain that the American and Islamic value systems uphold common values of generosity, compassion and sharing and respect for life. By giving back to society to leave the world improved enables them to return to the Divine origin and to do so as patriots. As Usman, a middle-aged Muslim American businessman in Texas who became active in his Democratic precinct after 9/11, explained: To be a “good Muslim” means that one should necessarily be a “good citizen.”
Through dialogue, understanding and service, individuals like Usman seek to enact Islamic values of compassion, sharing and pluralism. Pluralism, or the celebration of our differences, is a skill set to be learned; it is not innate. Indeed, the Quran says that God, in an act of beneficence, made peoples different so that they may know one another and vie with one another in good works.
Perhaps we can view the current Islamophobic climate as an opportunity to get to know one another by taking a course on Islam at a local university, breaking bread with our Muslim neighbors, volunteering in interfaith service activities or reading about Muslims’ lives in their own words, such as in I Speak for Myself, a volume of autobiographical experiences of Muslim American women. In so doing, perhaps we can come to see ourselves in the “other” and discover that we are fellow patriots and fellow seekers of truth.