“Daily News”: We’re Part of the Same Civilization


Originally published in the New York Daily News, Dec. 10, 2015:

First the Paris terrorist attacks. Then, San Bernardino. Terrorists who subscribe to an abnormal and repugnant interpretation of Islam are killing innocents in Europe and America.

And just like after 9/11, ordinary Muslim Americans have been shot, hit and threatened. This is retributive violence. It is ugly, and it betrays our deepest American values.

Meantime, crowds are cheering Donald Trump as he sticks to his hateful proposal to ban all Muslim immigration and visitation to the United States.

Yet even though most Americans know that anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence are wrong, too few of us actively reject the prejudice by promoting a powerful, positive story to correct the record.

The problem of anti-Muslim prejudice in our politics goes well beyond Trump. There’s a softer, more acceptable form of bias that gets expressed in the notion that “we,” meaning America and the West, are engaged in a broad life-or-death struggle against “them.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the establishment favorite for the GOP nomination, calls America’s fight with radical jihadist terrorists a “clash of civilizations.”

Others casually use the phrase “radical Islam,” a dangerously vague terminology that, especially in translation, risks branding a whole religion and its billion-and-a-half adherents as incompatible with Western values.

Such hyperbole fundamentally distorts the ways in which Muslims have always been a part — often an integral part — of Western societies, nations and cultures.

Civilization as we know it would not exist without Muslim contributions. From the theology of Thomas Aquinas to medieval poetry, what we call Western civilization is deeply imprinted with Muslim innovations.

Likewise, Muslim scientists were key to early Western advances in medicine, pharmacology, chemistry, astronomy, algebra, trigonometry and optics.

In the modern era, Muslim soldiers fought and died to build and defend Western nation-states, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Poland. Hundreds of thousands served in Poland’s Battle of Warsaw (1656), the U.S. Revolution, the War of 1812, the Crimean War, the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, the Gulf War of 1991 and post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The battlefield is far from the only place where Muslims have contributed to the modern West.

Enslaved Muslims were among the most educated Americans — slave or free — before the Civil War. The polyglot Omar ibn Said penned America’s first Arabic-language autobiography in 1831. Before he converted to Christianity, he was one of dozens of literate Muslims who changed the face of U.S. literature.

That path-breaking literary legacy is alive and well in the poetry of Tony award winner Suheir Hammad and the prose of G. Willow Wilson, who writes the best-selling comic, “Ms. Marvel.”

The same is true of our music. From Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal to Yusef Lateef and Dakota Staton, Muslims helped make jazz our most distinctive American musical form. Muslims may be even more important to the history of hip hop: It wouldn’t exist in its current form without Everlast, Ice Cube, Mos Def and Q-Tip.

Muslims have also shaped some of our most noteworthy architecture. It began in the colonial era when Spanish colonizers transplanted Moorish geometric patterns, floor plans, floral ornamentation and tile in what would become Mexico and the Southwest United States.

And no person is more responsible for the Chicago skyline than Fazlur Rahman Khan, whose mastery of tubular construction can be seen in the Sears (now Willis) Tower, the John Hancock Center and the Onterie Center.

Celebrating this shared culture — as opposed to the counternarrative that “we,” implying “our Judeo-Christian nation,” will eviscerate “them” — is the best way of responding to the violence of extremists, vigilantes and bigots.


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