Keeping America Great: The Importance of Public Service


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


In August 2014, African American citizens and police officers were locked in conflict in Ferguson, Missouri. People across the nation watched, wondering what to do. The physicians of the American Muslim community of St. Louis and congregants of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Ferguson weren’t wondering what to do. They were already collaborating to provide free health care in the over policed yet under protected community. They knew what to do.

The folks at St. Peter’s and a group of American Muslim doctors had teamed up to start the Salam Clinic years before the shooting of Michael Brown. These Muslim and Christian leaders recognized the medical needs of the underserved residents of Ferguson, and they joined together to do something about it. They took initiative to address community needs.

The American Muslim community that was criticized before September 11, 2001, became demonized after the acts of violence against the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and United Flight 93. After 9/11, the assaults, misrepresentation in the media, and acts of discrimination against American Muslims increased. Many American Muslims felt like persecuted minorities. They feared for their families and some considered leaving the United States.

The American Muslim doctors at the Salam Clinic in Ferguson didn’t retreat from providing health care.

They remained engaged, showing that they were part of the community. Through participation, they made friends with their neighbors, diminished stereotypes, and countered the narrative of al-Qaeda and Daesh. They provided a positive rejoinder to the extreme perspective that Muslims don’t belong in America.

Muslims have been an integral part of American society since the first slave ships arrived on its shores. The oldest surviving mosque in America is in Iowa, where the Muslim community actively engages with their fellow Americans. American Muslims are running for office, volunteering at food shelters, writing books about the environment, and engaging in many other pursuits. American Muslims like Linda Sarsour are providing leadership to important social movements, such as March2Justice and the Justice League in New York City, which marched from New York to Washington, DC, to protest police brutality and surveillance. Young labor movement leaders like Maimuna Syed are leading the fight for a $15 minimum wage in California and around the nation.

In Minnesota, Muslims are fully part of the social fabric of our state and communities. American Muslim professors, doctors, elected officials, business owners, and civic leaders work throughout the state. The 5th Congressional District I represent is home to many American Muslim non-profits that work for civil rights, environmental justice, and women’s rights. Leaders here have organized a lobby at the state legislature to help shape policy. Last year, Muslim and Jewish youth started the first annual Jewish-Muslim Youth lobby day. Although we have made progress in Minnesota, we are still working to ensure that the talents and gifts of residents of all backgrounds are fully respected and accepted in our community.

American Muslims who engage with their communities are doing something incredibly important. They discredit Daesh and all “jihadist” narratives. These terrorist recruiters hope to drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors. They search out the vulnerable, angry, and naive, and promote a message that says, “America is at war with Islam”; “There is no place for Muslims in America”; “us versus them”; and “don’t be friends with the non-believers.”

As Muslims engage, they are accepted. Like other communities, American Muslims have agency and power over their own lives. As they continue to engage, they will find common ground with diverse groups in the community. If unity becomes the mainstream message, then Daesh cannot recruit successfully.

American Muslims lead the way in civic engagement and serve their community because that is what their faith asks of them. Community service and giving to the poor is a core principle of Islam, as it is for most faiths. When I asked a Muslim doctor at the Salam Clinic why he was volunteering his Saturdays to see patients for free, he answered, “for the pleasure of Allah.”

Today, there are more than 30 health clinics in the United States founded by American Muslims. The largest, Umma Clinic in South Central Los Angeles, was started by Muslim medical students after the closure of Martin Luther King Hospital and the Rodney King riots in 1991. Many other clinics started following the Umma Clinic model.

Some forces still represent barriers to American Muslim civic engagement. For example, bigotry, discrimination, and hateful rhetoric fueled by a small number of members of the media and a few public officials can discourage Muslims from engaging. Religious profiling and other forms of government overreach can also discourage engagement.

Civic engagement is one of the best tools available to counter extremist groups because it relies on the initiative of the community. The most effective approaches to counter violent extremism come from the civic engagement of community members. Civic engagement is the process of American Muslims taking action. That includes voting and running for office within the larger community. The main idea is to come out of the mosques and Muslim centers and engage in improving the community in partnership with people of all faiths.

Daesh wants governments to overreact, and it uses bigotry and misrepresentations of Islam. The best defense against violent extremism is to adhere to our values. We need to ensure that our homeland is safe and in this pursuit, we should not sacrifice our principles embodied in the First and Fourth Amendments. We are safer when people have confidence that our system of justice is fair.

America needs what its Muslim leaders have to offer. After all, the terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration are attempting to recruit in Muslimcommunities. They are using language familiar to faithful Muslims, and distorting the meaning and the message of the Qur’an. Terrorism emerges from every part of the globe, from every ethnic and religious group, and from every ideology, but a disproportionate number of victims of terrorism live in Muslim-majority states, and a portion of the perpetrators claim Islam as their inspiration.

Muslims everywhere should look to the American Muslim doctors in Ferguson as their example. They have shown that through civic engagement, misrepresentations can diminish and discriminatory mind-sets can come tumbling down. Those experiences can permeate neighborhoods and communities, which will help Muslims who have a strong stake in defeating terrorists who operate under the veneer of Islamic rhetoric.