InsightJuly August 2005

The Silver Lining

Hafiz Hasan Moiz Ansari

The forth anniversary of the horrible attack on United States soil is fast approaching. As this anniversary approaches, we have to look at a few unexplored affects this attack has had.

There is no doubt this was a terrible event that directly took the lives of thousands of innocent people and in the aftermath affected the lives of millions more. Just look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lives of communities all over the world have been affected in one way or another most of which have been negative, if not devastating to thousands of families.

Just as there is a silver lining in any cloud, there is a sliver lining to this cloud and that is what I would like to address today: The actual effect of September 11 on the religion and possible ways to turn this tragedy into a positive public relations campaign for Islam. This could result in the possible conversion of millions in the USA and western world to Islam.

First, we must consider the view from the point of the United States to see the opinion of Islam here in the western world. Unfortunately, this is for the most part, an uninformed western world, especially the people in the United States. Whenever you mention that you are from South Asia, a stereotypical opinion comes to mind. Because of this, I am viewed as someone who walks a few feet ahead of my wife and has a very narrow view of women, basically seeing them as property. I am considered someone who makes my wife (and in most cases harem) wear a veil. The opinion of most Americans is that Islam is a pagan religion, lumped together with 100s of pagan religions within the inner most African jungles.

Christian beliefs in the USA

There are thousands of churches in the USA each one with their own twist on who Jesus is and what the bible says. These groups concentrate on as little as a single verse from the bible on which to base their entire belief system. These Christian groups range from the supremely symbolic and ritualistic Roman Catholics who go thru their weekly ritual symbolically eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood to achieve salvation, to the Baptists who believe Jesus died for their sins so they can do anything they want on earth, as long as they show up at church every Sunday they will go to heaven. To the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have to knock on your door trying to convert you or they will end up in hell themselves, and the Mormons, who claim that after Jesus was crucified in the Middle East he was reincarnated in the USA and gave his blessings to certain men in the USA who he gave an addendum to the bible. There are all of these and every possible variation in between.

There are as many opinions about what Jesus actually said as there are churches. In my search for an answer I have not been able to get the same one answer from two people. Even within the same church, I have not met two people who can tell me exactly what they believe and have them match. I recently met a married couple who go to the same church, together, and listen to the same preacher. Talking to them independently about their theological views, I noticed that each of them believed in completely different things. It seems that most join a church for social reasons more than theological reasons. This particular couple is using the church community to keep the husband from using drugs and alcohol.

I am not talking about the degree to which the laws in the bible are enforced. As an example we Muslims enforce the laws of Allah to different degrees. For example, in some cultures modesty as prescribed by the Quran is interpreted to mean nothing but eyes be visible on a woman in public while in other cultures more can be visible. Both of these are correct. It is a case of what a particular culture accepts as modest.

The only constant I could find within Christian faiths is that Jesus was the son of god. But then again, not all Christian groups even believe that. There are those who believe that Jesus was god incarnate. In short, the Christian faith in America is so confusing with so many versions, that no one actually knows what to believe. Each group pokes fun at the other groups calling themselves real Christians.

This can not be in any way compared to the different sects existing in Islam today. Each and every Islamic sect, even though there are slight differences, do believe and interpret the Holy Quran in the same way. Most of the differences stem from the level of enforcement of laws set by the Holy Qur’an rather than interpretation of the same verses. The major reason for this is that the language of the holy Quran has remained exactly the same while the bible is rewritten every few years to make it “easier” for its followers to read. Hence, the bible has changed over time and lost its true meaning. Now into this mix Islam is thrown and considered another version of the same with a few different beliefs and therefore never really given a second thought.

Religion of most Americans

First of all, it is necessary to see what the American people believe. Here I will give a short synopsis of the different categories people fall into.

The people in power

Most Americans are Judeo-Christian in their beliefs. They have never been exposed to other religions and fall into a few different categories. Please understand that I am not talking about self proclaimed conduits of Jesus on earth such as preachers Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart, not to forget the current president of the USA, George W. Bush. These people have quite a bit of knowledge about other religions or at least access to it, but knowingly hide the facts in order to propagate their versions of Christianity and gain financial or political benefit there from.

These people have one main goal…to keep people ignorant, making sure the truth is twisted as much as possible, so they can extract every last penny from the uninformed average person. These people have made an art of media manipulation. Hundreds of times they have made contradictory statements knowing they can manipulate the media to their advantage. Each one of these people have been caught numerous times doing and or saying the exact opposite of what their image represents but have the media in their pockets and count on the short memories of the public. This works especially well since the ordinary person is bombarded with this supposed pristine image by their well financed media personnel.

American laws, although based loosely on the Puritan regulation of early American settlers, have incorporated these into the culture and religious beliefs calling them Christianity.

Who do not believe in god?

Without going into great detail, these are the people who call themselves non believers / agnostics or atheists. These people have only been exposed to these superficial concepts within the Judeo-Christian faiths and have questioned but not found logical and convincing answers. They have questioned the bible or the Torah and been punished, reprimanded or threatened with eternal consequences for asking questions.

These people have been told that it is not for you to question and by doing so you will incur the wrath of god. Just believe! When these people refused to ?just believe?, they drifted away from religion into a religious no mans land where they would rather spend time in worldly entertainment than waste it with another preacher (without having an option of a real different point of view available). They basically give up on the concept of god to some extent and live their lives for the day, not worried about the soul.

The people who believe but do not practice

These people have accepted the word of the neighborhood preacher, believing that god sent his son to die on the cross and all they have to do is believe in that one fact and they will have a wonderful life. As with most Americans, they are more concerned with the weekly sports scores than the salvation of their soul.

The people who practice Christianity

In my conversations with quite a number of Preachers from different flavors of Christianity one thing is very clear, the religious culture is strictly that of, “JUST BELIEVE AND DO NOT QUESTION”.

Recently, in a discussion with a “Born Again Christian” (a term used by Christians, meaning they have had a change of heart and started following the teachings of the Christian Bible), the woman told me, “Ours is a faith and we do not try to prove it with facts and / or logic. We really do not question what the preacher tells us. We just follow what he tells us to.”

I was surprised to find that these people did not even know that John, Jacob and Jesus are anglicized versions of the real names of those people. When I tell them there was no person with the name of Jesus, and that his mother did not write JESUS when sending him a letter, they are shocked.

The majority of Christians do not even know that the only language Jesus spoke was Aramaic. He was not familiar with Latin or Greek as he was a common carpenter in a small village and did not have the need to learn the language of the conquerors. When they can not make sense of this they decide that there is no god or they do not know. There is a very big vacuum of information. Once you do not believe what the bible preaches you can identify yourself in this group.

To tell you the truth, most of these Christians do not care that the bible they read was coined by Emperor Constantine in a fifty day period in the fourth century of the Christian era and, as is the norm with the roman system of beliefs, that they incorporated traits of the gods and deities of the conquered people into their own gods and deities. The Romanized version of Jesus had all the traits of the previous roman gods rolled into one.

“In my heart I believe”

On a number of occasions, in my conversations with the Christian community, I have shown them the hundreds of issues with the bible. At this point most of them say that it does not matter what is written in the bible or what is not. It does not matter if the timelines match or who actually wrote the bible. None of these facts matter. The standard answer from most of the Christians I have talked to is, ?In my heart I believe that Jesus was the son of god and that?s what is important?.

The average Americans opinion of Islam

In the past two decades in America I have had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of average Americans. From people who have not finished high school to students who have completed their post graduate work to professionals, businessmen and of course preachers.

Islam is considered just another one of a thousand religions out there. Most Americans have put it in the same category with the pagan Hindu religions from Asia and their strange beliefs and rituals. This is not even taking into account the negative image the Jewish controlled media has made. This image is basically that Muslims are pagans who treat their women badly, marry more than one wife cannot eat pork and of course, murder innocent Jews in the Middle East who are just trying to live in peace.

Once the average American gets past these stereotypes, usually after they meet a Muslim they feel comfortable with and are sure they will not get offended by their questions considering them a raciest, they do not have a problem asking questions.

Consumption of pork

Once someone learns I am a Muslim the first question they ask is, “why do you keep your women in veils?” and the next, which seems to have mesmerized quite a few Americans, is “why don’t you eat pork?” They are shocked by the fact that I would not consume something most Americans consider a very tasty treat.

In 100s of conversations, the first thing they talk about is the consumption of the Pig. This should tell you the level of understanding the Average American has of Islam and their own Christian religions, as in a number of places right there in the bible it clearly states that pork is forbidden.

The easiest way for me to tackle this has been not to indulge in a deep theological discussion but rather compare the subject of pork with something of similar status in American culture. This would be a Dog. Most Americans would not consider eating dog. Some will ask if I was starving would I have a problem eating dog? This is the same case with pork. In case of starvation, Islam does allow eating pig for sustenance.

The impression of the religion

The limited knowledge of most Americans on the theological aspects of Islam leads them to believe that we consider Mohammad our god, (na auzobillah) and put him at the same status as the Christian version of Jesus. This is the second largest issue I have had to tackle, explaining to them that Mohammad was not a god. He was a human selected by the SAME GOD as the Christians and Jews to be a Prophet and messiah, conveying the word of Allah to us.

The Name of God

To most Americans the name of god is pretty important. They have the impression that Our god is named Allah, like the Buddhists god is named Buddha and the Hindu god is named Ram. At best, the image of Islam in the mind of the American is a very violent version of hare Krishna cult members who pass out flowers at airports around the country, a group which is to be laughed at and made fun of and then forgotten.

Some Christians identify god as Jehovah, saying the name of god is Jehovah and then try to easily explain this away by saying that the Arabic word for the same god is Allah. I usually do not get into a confrontation on this subject as it only leads to the end of the conversation.

Women’s Rights

This is one issue that has been hammered home by American media more than any other. Unfortunately, the Saudi Wahabi influence has not helped in this matter. The Saudis, with their money, have done everything in their power to reinforce the opinion that a women’s status in an Islamic household is equal to that of a chair or table. The Saudis have spent million if not billions of dollars propagating their version of Islam as the real Islam and have 1000s of preachers around the country working endlessly declaring anyone not following their version, non-Muslims. In my experience and opinion, within the USA the propagation of Wahabism has done more harm to Islam than a thousand planes slamming into a thousand buildings on a single day would do.

Americans have been given a fixation that there is a religion out there which will allow you to marry more than one wife and are unable to see past the cultural aspects of that law in the USA. There are the Mormons who are allowed to marry a number of wives and read this from the same bible as the rest of the Christians.

Effects of 9/11

After discussing these few concepts of the religion, with most Americans the conversation comes to an end as their knowledge about the religion has come to an end. The media has done everything in its power to reinforce these beliefs. Quite a bit of this is intentional defamation of the religion, but mostly the media is looking for a human interest angle to keep the attention of the public. Describing the religion in detail on a channel will not keep the average American watching that channel. However if they show a burka clad woman hunting for food, the person will stop his channel surfing to view this curiosity.

Changes since September 11th 2001.

The short term changes

September 11th 2001 was a turning point for Islam in the USA in more than one way. It is common knowledge and played up by media worldwide, with some truth, that Christian America has declared war on Islam. The war in Iraq, the unlimited internment of thousands of people without trial or due process around the world, the no fly list, the implementation of the Patriot act, the internment of hundreds at American bases around the world all bare striking similarities to the treatment of Japanese Americans during the second world war and the Jewish treatment by the German Christians along with scores of other examples from history.

This time it is just more severe and has hit home because this is the first time American mainland has been attacked by a band of non military combatants. Ordinary people who hid in civilian clothing, moved freely around the country and even got their training in the USA. At this point, anyone who looks similar to those nineteen is seen as a terrorist and therefore guilty until proven innocent.

From an ordinary Americans point of view it is completely understandable. Everyone fears the unknown and the religion of Islam is a very big unknown. This coupled with the political designs of the leader of the conservative right, has been drastically exaggerated. The country has been placed on a war footing at a level not seen since world war two.

The Preachers and Conservative Right wing extremists, the same people who worked tirelessly to win Bush his second term, are in heaven. They have not seen this much support ever and are doing everything in their power to exploit the situation. Unlimited money is pouring into the coffers of these right wing groups, especially the televangelists who thrive on “Scare and grab” money tactics. These people are easy pray.

Anyone who saw the horror of the 9/11 attacks live on TV has personally been affected by this tragedy and is willing and ready to sacrifice a bit to feel secure. And yes, the preachers do promise security both in this world through their “direct” communication with Jesus. Of course this is only if the person will send in a small amount of money to cover expenses. All forms of payment are accepted, just call the number at the bottom of the screen

The present administration, at all levels, has done everything in their power to fuel this fear for their own political gain. A good example is that before the election in 2004 the American public was put on terror alert at least once every 3 weeks. Now, suddenly these terror alerts have stopped because Bush does not need to keep the public scared. He has achieved his goal and been re-elected.

Islamic organizations have been closed down by the dozens. The police, FBI, and hundreds of other “security” agencies have been given free reign. I do not have to repeat what we are all reading in the newspapers on a daily basis. It is open season on Islam within all levels of government. I have never seen the Right wing so vocal against Islam.

Long term Changes

You must keep in mind that these are short term measures taken by a nation that has been attacked and is scared. I will not discuss the reasoning for these attacks as that is a whole different subject, but the measures taken currently are that of a scared people and will end, most likely after the current president’s term in office has ended. Sane minds will prevail as this country has proven over and over again throughout its history. A sense of normalcy and common sense will return. The discriminatory laws on the books at this time will be repealed or put aside. Apologies will be made and life will be a little better for the Muslim and non white population in the USA. This war footing cannot, and will not last indefinitely.

I have heard it said a hundred times, the American people are unaware of the rest of the world. It is true to some extent as the average American does not really need to know where a small third world country is located. It just will not make much difference in their lives. The information is available to them in case they need to know, all they have to do is look it up. They have their lives, very active and full lives and are happy with that. They would rather watch TV and concentrate on their sports than worry about some country half a world away or the physical relationship of Pakistan to Indonesia.

Like most people around the world, the American public has a mob mentality. They follow along with the majority as the ordinary person always wants to be on the winning side. Most American elections are won or lost based on weekly sampling polls published by the major news organizations. The public would rather cast their vote for someone they do not like but has a better chance of winning than for the best choice in their own opinion. Again, the average American would rather concentrate on college football scores than spend hours determining who the best candidate is. Minds are usually made up based on political commercials, debates and more often from the synopsis of the debates afterwards. The news media has a lot of power and can turn the opinion of the people in any given direction.

Weekly polls are one thing that the American voting public will read, even before the sports scores (when near election time) and then vote according to who is ahead in those polls. I have no doubt that the 2% difference in the last election was decided because Bush had a slight lead in the polls going into Election Day.

This is exactly what the preachers and evangelists in the USA look at as well, the polls, and how to market their brand of religion. And yes, I do mean market. Religion is marketed and advertised the same as any other product. The public is manipulated very easily by mass media advertising pomp and show. American preachers work day in and day out on new marketing techniques. With a hollow religion like Christianity in present day America, this is the only way they can fill their churches and subsequently their coffers… by employing a very tactful marketing technique.

As I stated previously, the American population has only been exposed to Judeo – Christian beliefs and this is the way the right wing and the preachers want to keep it.

They do not care what “flavor” of Christianity you believe in so long as it is Christianity. Naturally this means a lot less work on their part to get your donation dollars, and yes, it is ALL a matter of donations, money and things for these preachers.

The parishioners all have the same basic beliefs that Jesus is the son of god, a conclusion arrived at one way or another. They believe that Jesus died for the sins of humanity starting with the first sin committed by Adam and Eve and that for which women suffer during childbirth.

It is quite easy to convince someone that a certain verse of the bible actually means something other then they thought and in the process convert him bringing him into their flock of followers. This is exactly what the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Baptists thrive on. They practice arguments, focusing on obscure verses of the bible that can be interpreted ten different ways. They then modify those verses and provide arguments to their favor.

A number of times, these groups have come knocking on my door and been left speechless when I told them I am a Muslim. They do not have a single argument available for me especially when I tell them not to quote the bible as I do not consider that an authentic work and question anything quoted from that book. Once you tell them you do not believe in the bible, their years of training are useless. Next, they try to give you some literature explaining their interpretation of the bible and leave.

Even if there are non believers, most of the work has already been done by society and exposure to the Christian way of life. Someone who claims they are not Christian will still go to church to get married. The couple I mentioned previously, claim that he was not a Christian until “Jesus came into his heart”, but, if you look at his wedding pictures from fifteen years ago, it was in a church, in front of a preacher with a bible in his hands.

America is after all a Christian based society. Americans celebrate Christmas and Easter and everyone is exposed to it.

On the other hand, Islam is given as much attention as someone from South Asia would give the Religion of the Hutu Tribe of Rwanda.

Then 9/11 happened and the world looked on in horror as the pride and joy, the symbol of American financial might, the icons of American ingenuity in New York City were attacked. Not only attacked, but attacked on live TV at the start of an ordinary day.

To get a feel for what New York City represents to Americans, it is commonly referred to as the “Big Apple” and a common saying is “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere”.

Within days the news was everywhere. 19 Muslims had hijacked those four planes and they were Islamic terrorists. The words Muslim, Islamic, Jihadists, Osama bin Laden and of course Qu’ran were placed into the American Lexicon. In the short term we have seen the reaction of the people. These words have become synonymous with murder, terror and killing, especially by the right wing media. They have even quoted verse after verse of the Qu’ran, out of context of course, exactly as they do with the bible, to prove their points.

What we do not see is that away from the mob, the American people are very educated. No one in the world reads more than the average American. No other country has more schools, colleges, universities and libraries than the United States. In fact, there are more institutions of learning in the United States per person than the rest of the world combined.

Even towns with a population of a thousand will boast a decent sized library, with access to knowledge contained in any book anywhere in the country, if not the world. These books are available within a week of a request being made. Recently I requested a book with a total publication of 500, published in India in 1928. It took the local public library just 8 days to locate a copy and then call me notifying me of its arrival. At home, the average American will even have a membership to the book of the month club. More fiction and non-fiction books are sold in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

Away from the mob, the preachers, televangelists, militant right wingers and biased press, Americans are a curious nation. They love to find out “stuff” and when in doubt, head to the book store, library or these days the internet. With all sorts of information available on the internet, they have been exposed to the holy book of those terrorists, those Jihadists, and people have started reading the Holy Qur’an.

Now the American public has turned their attention to finding out what this religion, Islam, is all about. For the first time, there was that spark of curiosity. Quite a few even went out of their way, postponing their golf game, to read up on this religion… putting to use that ever present library card in their wallet. Public libraries across the country have reported an exponential increase in loans of books related with Islam.

Books about Islam have been flying off the shelves of libraries and book stores. I have tried to purchase copies of the most commonly available translations in everyday book stores, like the translation by Mohammad Marmaduk Pikhtall, which I had noticed in all the chain book stores around the country. I did not notice that translation on the shelf upon my next visit to the store, so I asked the clerk. His answer surprised me, “oh, we can not keep that book in stock, as soon as we order them they are sold out!”

There are usually some books available, but in a corner on a small shelf which is completely understandable. The book store owner is going to put the books that sell more in a more visible place. Usually you find a few copies of the Qu’ran along with a few other books on Islam next to books about other lesser known religions.

The reason book stores have been running out of books on Islam is simple. The American people have bought the Qur’an to read for themselves what Islam is all about, in hopes of understanding why there is so much hate for them. Most Americans simply do not trust the government nor the media. They would rather read for themselves and try to figure out why someone would kill themselves and thousands of others. In this quest for understanding they stumbled upon something they had not been looking for… answers to the questions their preachers had told them not to ask. I have met a number of people and spent hours on the phone with them calling me, from across the country, to discuss different aspects of the Qur’an after they have read the Qur’an. They have been shocked at how clearly, how precisely the Qur’an explains things. This is the first time they have read anything religious other than different versions of the bible.

People are buying the Holy Qur’an and reading the Qur’an, the alternative to “do not question, just believe”. The Qur’an is a truly satisfying answer to Christianity and a book that does give answers to all their questions. They are shocked to read in the Qur’an, challenges to humans… to seek, to question, to find out for ones self. This is in stark contrast to what they have been exposed to all their lives.

For the first time in the history of America, the president of the United States, even though elected by the extreme right wing, has come out and told the American Public in nationally televised speeches that Islam is a religion of peace. He has stood in front of the entire nation over and over again telling his Christian country the major highlights of Islam. George W. Bush, who claims to be a pious person, reading his bible every night, convincing the American religious right that he is a truthful person, has come out over and over again in public acceptance of Islam. Even if it was for political purposes, for his political gain, he has had to come out openly supporting the religion.

For the first time, Ramadan was publicly celebrated at the white house, with the national media giving attention to the event, showing clips on primetime national TV news. This event was a small affair to keep the small Muslim voter population, which has never been a force in the USA.

For the first time my American friends know what Ramadan means. Quite a few of them found Happy Ramadan cards at their local store and sent them to me. For the first time in decades, the largest greeting card manufacturer in the United States published an Eid Card.

The post office has started commemorating Eid by printing a postage stamp. My American friends were surprised to find them and sent me mail with that particular stamp, for all to see.

To the myopic eye, the events of 9/11 appear only harmful to the image of Islam, smearing the image of the greatest religion in the world. But, if you look at the long term effects after the dust of this horror settles, you will see that awareness of Islam is becoming greater and more people around the Christian world are seeing Islam as not the religion of violence, terror and hate but for what it truly is, the religion of peace and harmony. The religion that shows us the true path to happiness and salvation.

The American public is very capable of distinguishing between the radical right minority in any religion and the main stream majority of peace loving Muslims.

Strike while the iron is hot

We can take advantage of this exposure, as at this time Islam is a household name. We need to make the word of Allah, the book which shows the true path, easily and readily available to the people.

Some people have taken advantage of the libraries but quite a few have not. It is up to Muslims around the world to avail this opportunity and take advantage of the exposure being given to the religion. Good or bad exposure, we can make this bad situation into a positive one and make it as easy as possible for the rest of the American public to access the Qur’an

At this point the only ones really speaking out and being heard are the anti Muslim extreme right wing Christian preachers. It’s time to counter that, not with harsh words or insults but with the truth and by making the Qur’an easily accessible to the masses. Once we place the Qur’an in front of them and they read for themselves, any logical, intelligent person will close their ears to these preachers and hate mongers.

There are a few organizations out there providing literature on Islam but even fewer who make it easily accessible. A seeker has to hunt them down. Remember, the average American is not familiar with the common terms used in Islam, the terms we take for granted and that are part of our daily lexicon. They are scared to ask and they are unsure of what they will find in the book.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the USA. It has spread via word of mouth by people who have had contact with other Muslims. An even smaller number of people have had the courage to walk into a Masjid, if they can find one in their city, to learn about the religion. People want to learn but are scared to walk into a Masjid. They do not know the customs. They do not know what to expect when they walk into a Masjid. They do not know how to act and are scared to offend someone. They have heard a thousand different stories but don’t know what to believe and what not to believe.

It is time to change our attitude of, “we have a good religion, if people want to learn about it they will seek it out”. We need to take the example of the televangelists. I am not saying change the religion and make it sound like Christianity, but we do need to accept the fact that Mass Media can be utilized to change this inaccurate image of Islam and paint a true picture for the world to see.

We need to realize that Mass Media advertising does work and accept the fact that we can utilize this to show the world the true Islam. A few articles here and there will not do the trick any more. There has to be a specialized marketing strategy and a dedicated effort to reach as many people as possible. This needs to include properly designed newspaper advertising, a website designed specifically for the American consumer, TV advertising specially designed for the target audience and billboard advertising nationwide.

This should not be done to improve the image of any certain country or region of the world, but an easy way for the public to order and quickly receive the Qur’an, the true world of God.

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