I received the following question from a reader who follows the Ibishblog on Facebook: "Dr. Hussein, Your advocacy is commendable. As a Muslim, you fight for me. I am just wondering, given your personal belief system, why do you advocate for Muslims?"
First of all, let me say thanks very much for this extremely important and interesting question, which demands both a simple and a complex answer. The simple answer as to why I would fight for Muslim American civil rights and liberties and against Islamophobia and discrimination is because it is right in the abstract. It is important to fight against all forms of discrimination and defamation, but we do so most effectively when it comes to the communities we know best. Those who follow my work will note that I also take a keen objection to anti-Semitism, sectarian intolerance, homophobia and other forms of discrimination sometimes exhibited by Arabs and Muslims, and it is for precisely the same reasons. There are principles at stake here, and they are universal and humanistic.
There is, however, a more complex answer as well. First of all, let us address the question of my "personal beliefs system." I imagine that the reader is referring to my personal religious opinions. I am, and have since I was a very young child (probably around age 6 or 7, believe it or not), been a committed agnostic. This means that I’m skeptical about everything, including all the claims of all major religions and the claims of atheism as well. Without going into any details, I’m convinced that the great metaphysical questions of existence are beyond the comprehension of human beings at both the rational and the intuitive ("spiritual") registers. Indeed, and I’m sure I will be writing about this in more detail sometime, I embrace and celebrate what I have termed "the virtue of doubt," and I agree with my friend the late Edward Said that a secular frame of mind requires skepticism on all matters, especially the trajectory of history which is a genealogy of human choices.
However, these details are another subject for another time. Suffice it to say that since my arrival in Washington in 1998, I have taken every opportunity to make it clear that I am not "a Muslim" as such in terms of religious belief, but rather from the Muslim American community and part of the Muslim American community. This shouldn’t be difficult for anybody to understand, as it’s a simple distinction between private philosophical and religious beliefs and familial, cultural and personal affiliation.
At the same time, I’ve been quite firm in insisting that my agnostic religious beliefs and secular political commitments do not in any way diminish my share of and participation in the legacy and heritage of the great Islamic and Arab civilizations of which I am every bit as much an heir as the most pious of the faithful. Just as my Arab and Muslim heritage doesn’t in any way diminish my American identity or commitment, so too my agnostic persuasion and secular values do not in any way diminish my participation in and commitment to both the Arab-American and Muslim American communities.
And, in truth, even if I wanted to (which I don’t), I could not escape this participation. There is nothing outside the whale. We are all, whether we like it or not, to our fellow Americans simply Arabs and Muslims, with all the negative and (occasionally) positive connotations with which these identities are infused in American popular culture. As a matter of fact, my future and fortunes are inextricably tied to those of my fellow Arab and Muslim Americans, as theirs are to mine, and we have no reasonable option but to respect each other and try to work together to advance common interests in a reasonable way.
Anyone who thinks that an agnostic such as I, or a Christian Arab-American for that matter (unless they are a Bible-thumping evangelical, perhaps, and probably not even then), are somehow immune from or even less affected by Islamophobia, anti-Arab defamation or discrimination on the basis of religious bigotry or ethnicity doesn’t understand how these things work in the contemporary United States. I don’t think there are very many people in the Arab-American community who have been called an Islamist, a jihadist, a supporter of terrorism, anti-American, radical, extremist, an anti-Semite, etc., more than I have been, or in a more public way. Most if not all of the people who have called me this in, for example, major newspapers, or on major television programs, have known very well that not only am I not any of those things, but that I am both agnostic in my religious opinions and secular in my political orientation. It doesn’t matter one bit, of course, since it is our identity and our community, and not our actual opinions or activities, that are often under attack. Again, there is nothing outside the whale.
But, I should emphasize, even if there were, I would not take advantage of that opportunity. We are not just talking, after all, about my own fortunes, but also those of my family and my community to which I have a profound and unshakable commitment. It is simply unacceptable to me that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans should be defamed, mistreated or discriminated against, or that their rights are violated. This commitment is what brought me to Washington DC in the first place in 1998 to begin working as Communications Director of ADC. Obviously, it’s also what inspired me to write most of what I have written, which has mainly been about Arab and Muslim American civil liberties, rights and defamation, including three very extensive reports on hate crimes and discrimination against Arab-Americans, covering the periods 1998-2001, 2001-2002, and 2003-2007, respectively.
There is one final important point to make: this is also an important expression of my commitment to the United States and to American values. The attack on Arab and Muslim Americans that we have been witnessing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, especially the explosion of Islamophobic hate speech, is an attack on American values of fairness, inclusiveness, equal treatment under the law, religious accommodation, cultural diversity and freedom of conscience. Combating this rash of hate speech, and the discrimination it has inspired, is to defend the most essential elements of what makes this country great. As I noted above, there are many forms of defamation and discrimination facing many different communities in the United States that have to be opposed, however it’s obviously the case that the most effective opposition, because it is the best informed and most motivated, tends to come from or be led by people in the affected communities themselves. It is up to us to join this battle for our own sake and for our country, and for us to do it in an effective and intelligent manner that is productive rather than counterproductive.
In short, the reason why I advocate on behalf of the rights of American Muslims and against abuses and defamation is a combination of personal interests, family interests, community interests and national interests. Under such circumstances, I don’t think that either I or anybody else really has a whole lot of choice in the matter.