Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Superheroes: American Muslim Style - Reza Aslan, Suhaib Webb, and Khalid Latif

By Khurram Dara 

Any of us Muslims in America will tell you that we live with more freedom in this country than we do anywhere else in the world.  That said, we would also tell you that never before have we seen the level anti-Muslim sentiment in America that we find today.  While most of this sentiment is fringe, it is starting to creep into the mainstream.  Mosque protests, preemptive (and irrational) anti-Sharia movements, and general suspicion of Muslims in the United States is leading to hateful rhetoric and harassment of American Muslims.

We Muslims try, time and again, to defend ourselves. 

“We are just like you.”
“Islam is peaceful.”
“We love America.”

But sometimes it’s too much for the average American Muslim.  Smooth talking, charismatic, and persuasive commentators, who push these anti-Islam views, often outdo us in arguments over whether Islam fundamentally promotes violence.

Luckily for us, we have a few very gifted individuals in our company.  These are our “superheroes.”  We have the confident Reza Aslan, scholar and writer, who can be found picking apart arguments of Islamophobes with his intellectualism.  Aslan is regularly brought on national television outlets to counter Islamophobic commentators.  (Watch Reza’s TED talk HERE).

Suhaib Webb, the nationally-known Imam who quickly gained a following for his candid attitude and focus on American Muslims, has shown through example that being Muslim and being American are not in conflict with one another.  He has tackled some of the most important problems in the American Muslim community, like attempts at youth radicalization. (Check out Suahib’s Virtual Mosque HERE).

And Imam Khalid Latif, the young and charismatic leader of the Islamic Center at New York University, has turned heads through his service as chaplain for the NYPD.  Latif, who has been writing for the Huffington Post Religion blog during the month of Ramadan, represents the emerging American Muslim youth in our quest to better showcase Islam to the rest of America. (Follow Khalid’s blogging on HuffPost Religion HERE). 

And the list certainly doesn’t end with just these three.  We have plenty more who come from the shadows in times of need, to show and explain what Islam is all about. 

But what’s the moral of the story?

They aren’t really superheroes. 
They are human.
And they can’t be everywhere.

No matter how much we wish we could fight the Islamophobes through discourse, some of us just can’t.  If we American Muslims want to succeed with a strategy to improve our image, it can’t just be through argument, the way our “superheroes” do.  And we shouldn’t just rely on our American Muslim version of the Justice League to save Islam’s image.

Why not?

Because for this to be a successful strategy, a majority of us would need the requisite poise, acumen, and rhetorical wherewithal to be able to defend our faith against the misinformed.  While it would be incredible if there were more people like Aslan, Webb, and Latif, who could do this, the truth is there aren’t.  And even if we did, we can’t fight in every little battle that presents itself - we need something more comprehensive.  Lest we forget, there are many parts of the Qur’an that have varying interpretations and many of elements of Islam that are up for debate within the Muslim community.  If you, like many of us Muslims, do not have a true, academic understanding of many of the moving parts that exist in Islam, you’re setting yourself up for failure in an argument.

And consider the other side of these arguments - the Islamophobic side - the people who hold signs that say, “Muslims Go Home” and “Islam is un-American.”  Are those types of individuals going to be convinced by what Muslims have to say? 

It’s doubtful.

So what can American Muslims do?

We can start to develop a long-term strategy to improve our image.  We should adopt a strategy that actually treats the root cause of our image problem.  All these instances of bigotry and harassment; they are symptoms of our image problem.  But what causes our image problem?  Terrorism. Fear. Hatred.  So our strategy should try to attack those concerns.

Any American Muslim can openly denounce terrorism.

Any American Muslim can cooperate with law enforcement in the common pursuit of national security.

Any American Muslim can join a service organization in their community.

Any American Muslim can invite their neighbors over for dinner.

Any American Muslim can show (not just tell) our fellow Americans that we are just like them.

You don’t have to be an Imam, activist or a scholar to change Islam’s image.  So instead of sitting back and expecting our “superheroes”, advocacy organizations, or inter-faith groups to solve our problems, we should start taking action.  We have the potential to actually address the underlying cause of Islamophobia.  We have the opportunity to be more effective in the long run than our individual activists or organizations can be.  And we can build a better life for future Muslims in America.  All we have to do is continue to make those personal connections and invest in American society.  Actions will do more to change the image of Islam than anything any of us can possibly say, ever will.

Khurram Dara is the author of the forthcoming pamphlet, The Crescent Directive: An essay on improving the image of Islam in America.  Khurram is an American Muslim from Buffalo, NY and is currently a law student at Columbia University.  You can follow Khurram on Twitter @KhurramDara.


  1. Thank you for keeping your articles so concrete. They are very helpful!

  2. Thanks for such an important and informative article! It's nice to see websites and authors that advocate civil discourse.

  3. Goofy picture, but a good article.

  4. The belt buckles look like they have little crescents and stars!

  5. Khurram could you maybe speak a little bit to how non-Muslims can also help fight Islamophobia? Like you said in the article, I am not a Muslim or an expert on Islam, but I know some of the things I hear said about Islam are just wrong and I am curious about how I can gently correct people without knowing too much about it myself. Thanks!
    -Ken, WA

  6. @Ken

    Correcting people through discourse could work from time to time, but we have to remember that the ignorant often hold views that are devoid from logic and reason.

    The best things non Muslims can do, who want to help us out, is to share your stories. Tell people about the relationships you have with Muslims. Explain to them that you are friends with a Muslim, work with a Muslim, have a Muslim neighbor, and try to explain to them that in many respects we are no different than them.

  7. Share the message of Allah with our fellow humans. Invite everyone to Islam.