Dear America: Moderate Muslims Exist

As an Afghan-American Muslim, and as the wife of an American diplomat living abroad in Ukraine, the attack in Benghazi felt personal. The loss of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others stirred up feelings I’d been struggling to deal with as a Muslim-American after 9/11: Are the actions of the few the responsibility of us all? Are we expected to become apologists for a religion that is in conflict sometimes with itself, and sometimes with the outside world? As an American Muslim, will there ever come a time when my loyalty to America won’t come into question?

Once again I was made to feel, by association, like the enemy. To remedy this feeling I had to step back into the role of an ambassadorial Muslim, to be on my best behavior, to lead by example, and to show that not all Muslims are evil and full of rage.  

It’s not a role I relish, but the reality is, that as unpaid, untrained, self-proclaimed Muslim goodwill ambassadors, none of us will be retiring any time soon. Our role seems only to be getting harder and more necessary as the politics of the region heat up. It doesn’t help that the extremists get ample news coverage and that the rest of the peace-loving Muslims are treated as if we don’t exist.

One of the many things I get tired of telling people: Not all Muslims hate America and want to bring death to our door. There are Muslims in Ukraine. They too were pretty upset by the film “The Innocence of Muslims.” They managed a peaceful protest at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. They didn’t burn anything down, so it wasn’t news.

Other things you might not have seen on the news: Libyan people did step outside their doors to hold up signs in apology, and to honor the good work Ambassador Stevens did in their country. The Twitter-verse is filled not with Al-Qaeda cells, but with networks of activists young and old who worked to make the Arab Spring a possibility; activists who believe in moderation, and peace and basic human rights. And as of this writing, Libyans are pushing to clean up their own streets and handing over weapons and ammunition from last year’s revolution.  It isn’t perfect. Not everyone turned in his or her weapons. But not everyone held on to them either.

Even those most well-meaning of people, who go to see panel discussions about Muslims in America, even they, I notice, expect to encounter the token lady in the hijab who can answer all their Islam-type questions. They’ve read books about Islam and so they expect she prostrates before Allah five times a day, and has read the Quran, and is probably a virgin to boot. It’s a shock to meet a Muslim woman holding a martini and smoking a cigarette; a shock to learn that she doesn’t live at home and maybe has a boyfriend, along with a car, a career, and an Ivy-league education. When people don’t run into the stereotype they’re expecting, even if the stereotype is a good one, they’re knocked a little off balance. Muslims couldn’t possibly be just like us.

But we can be, and we are. Moderate Muslims exist. We can watch an inflammatory film about Islam and laugh about its poor production value and bad writing. Moderate Muslims exist. We can look at an offensive cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed and remain unaffected, thoroughly aware that a publication with limited circulation is looking to make a dime.

There are orthodox Muslims, just like there are Orthodox Jews. There are pre-marital-sex-having Muslims just like there are pre-marital-sex-having Catholics. There are white-trash Muslims and royal Muslims. Some Muslims like cookies-and-cream ice cream; some won’t eat it if they know it contains a gelatin additive made from pork. Some keep kosher, some don’t.  You probably expected me to say “halal,” but the two sets of food laws are perhaps more similar than they are different, like a lot of the cultural and religious groups we talk about. Did you know a Muslim has already been to space? Abdul Ahad Mohmand was a cosmonaut who spent 1988 orbiting the earth in the Mir Space Station. He’s Afghan—one of those people from a country that seems to still exist in the Stone Age. Ever want to visit Istanbul, Indonesia, or Malaysia? Not a whole lot of violence, but crawling with Muslims. Here’s something else that’s a shock to many Americans: Muslims love the Food Network, and are as addicted to bacon as anyone else. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Muslims have human weaknesses too. Bacon and booze are among them.

Are there anti-Semites in our midst? Yes. Are there those who are against the freedom of women? Yes. Are there several hotbeds where America and Americans aren’t so popular? You better believe it. As a Muslim, I’m as impatient with Islam as I am with non-Muslims who are hell-bent in believing only the worst of what they see and read. But for every Muslim believer of sharia law, there is a Muslim who will counter that Islam is a religion that embraces the idea of democracy as compatible with religious life. For every cleric who calls for jihad, you’ll find an everyday Muslim that practices peace, and maybe even yoga.

I hope there will come a time when these moderate voices will be louder than the extremist ones, a time when Muslims don’t have to get so defensive about everything, because they’re accepted as a part of society instead of feared and hated. I’m not holding my breath that this will happen anytime soon. But Islam is in the middle of an identity crisis. And self-discovery, whether political or spiritual, is a process that can’t be rushed.

Murwarid Abdiani is an Afghan-American writer living in Ukraine.