Two Muslim men?#34;Charles Muhammad, who is a middle school teacher and Chicago native, and Rehan Siddiqui, who immigrated from Pakistan to the United States 26 years ago?#34;sat down with me and my intern recently to share their responses and those of this area's Islamic community to the terrorist bombings in London and Egypt.
"I was shocked and appalled as were my family and Muslim friends," Muhammad, a River Forest resident said.
Siddiqui, a chiropractor who lives in Forest Park, recalled having a similar response. "It's unbelievable that somebody would use the name of our religion to justify killing innocent people," he said.
And for Siddiqui, the bombings hit close to home. His brother-in-law lives in London, and avoided the site of the bombings only after missing a bus.
"In London you have the coming together of so many cultures. It was beautiful. And someone was trying to destroy that, trying to divide us against one another," Muhammad said. "These were not true Muslims. These were some young persons who were under the control of some maniacal alliance."
"For a Muslim the killing of innocent people is anathema," Siddiqui declared. "Even the term Islamic extremist is an oxymoron, because the number one thing in Islam is to avoid extremes, to have moderation, to work for consensus."
He went on to explain the Muslim concept of jihad.
"The word has been so misconstrued and used for incorrect political purposes. Jihad means struggle. The biggest jihad, according to Islam, is the struggle with our own selves," he said. "It's the constant struggle to do good in our lives."
Siddiqui said political struggle is at the very end of the list of the kinds of jihad in which a Muslim might engage, and then it can only be to protect your own family or to fight for the cause of God.
Muhammad added that if the decision to engage in political jihad is made, Islam teaches very strict rules of engagement; even trees are not to be harmed during warfare.
Siddiqui refuted the idea that Islam promises suicide bombers that they will be rewarded for their martyrdom in paradise. He described suicide as "one of the biggest sins."
Both men conceded that Muslims in the Middle East do have some legitimate grievances, stemming from the Nineteenth Century colonial domination. But they were adamant that the ends don't justify the means in the case of terrorism.
"We in the Civil Rights Movement achieved dignity. We worked this thing out together. Now, the Palestinians have a just cause," Muhammad said. "But they are destroying the justice of their cause when they engage in terrorist actions."
Siddiqui reported he has experienced no hostility since the bombings, but his wife, who wears a traditional head scarf and a long outer dress, "gets a lot of looks."
On the whole, however, he has more often received support. "People in this area," he said, "are for the most part very open-minded. People haven't thrown rocks at us. On the contrary, after September 11, the landlord of my building, who is orthodox Jewish, came down, asked if people were treating me alright and told me to let him know if anything was wrong."
Both men believed what harassment there has been around the nation has come from ignorance and stereotypes perpetuated by the media. But they lay the blame for the misconceptions largely on their own community.
"The fatwa against suicide bombing that was issued a couple weeks ago by the Islamic community of North America," Muhammad said, "was fine, but we shouldn't have needed a special fatwa. If these imams [Muslim leaders] would have been doing their job long ago, we wouldn't have needed a fatwa."
Siddiqui agreed. "More and more Muslims think it's our responsibility.
We've kind of sheltered ourselves from the mainstream of society. I think it's our responsibility to reach out to people and say, 'listen, we're not what you think we are.'"
Siddiqui believes the way forward is through dialogue.
"One of the biggest misconceptions about our religion is that people believe that Islam is spread by the sword and that Islam forces people to convert. The problem with that is that I can't force you to accept my faith. That's why dialogue is so important and showing somebody through actions where you are," he said.
"The same guy who did 'Supersize Me' did a documentary about a super conservative Catholic who went to live with a Muslim family for a month.
The first thing he asked them was 'were you guys happy when September 11 happened?'! But after living with the family for 30 days, he found himself defending Muslims in public."
"People who want to know more, who are conscientious and aware," Muhammad concluded, "are interested in dialogue."