Monday, October 21, 2002

The Futility of Apology

You’re in third grade again, one of thirty-five white kids in a class with five black kids, and your teacher is passing back your math tests. She turns to the class, stabs a finger at one of the black kids and accuses him of cheating on the test. The kid admits it and she dispatches him to the principal’s office.

Now she demands that the four remaining black kids stand and apologize for the lone cheater’s behavior. Confused and embarrassed, they awkwardly sputter something about being sorry. The teacher mocks their apologies and marches the whole lot off to the principle’s office.

Is this fair? Reasonable?

No, the scenario is ridiculous. The teacher, hopefully, would be fired immediately. So why does it seem reasonable to hold every individual Muslim responsible for the actions of a few? And why do Muslim spokesmen accept this responsibility?

In the days following the September 11 attacks, American Muslim leaders bent far, far over backwards to condemn the attacks, to such an extent that they sacrificed a certain amount of dignity as they prostrated themselves before the public and the media. Muslim leaders published contrite full page ads in national newspapers, held blood drives, cuddled in photo ops with President Bush, burned candles at vigils, hoisted flags outside mosques and draped their cars, homes and persons in red, white and blue, made pilgrimages to churches to pray for the destruction of the attacks’ perpetrators. They urged Muslims in America to join the FBI and to enlist in the US military and fight in Afghanistan.

None of it was good enough. From one corner, commentators from the right and left complained loudly that Muslim leaders had been absolutely silent. From the other, those who acknowledged the existence of the avalanche of condemnations complained that they were half-hearted and insincere. “We know these people really hate America,” one FBI agent told me.

The first contention is demonstrably false and the result of ignorance or deliberate deception. The second is of course wrong, but more understandable. Whatever the circumstances, it is impossible to apologize sincerely when the apology is made for the sake of smoothing things over, not because one is truly responsible for what one is apologizing for. At the same time, exaggerated apologies tend to imply an admission of guilt. As the Christians' own holy book says, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

It is true that there is a difference between condemning an act and apologizing for it, but somewhere after the fiftieth statement of condemnation the distinction is blurred. The fact is that Muslims had a unique responsibility to spell out Islam’s position on the events, which, after all, were carried out in the name of Islam and mainstream Muslim concerns. But this should be done in a dignified manner and to a reasonable extent. What is expected of Muslims, and what they have accepted, goes beyond our responsibility.

Last week, as I was running late for a late-night meeting, I stopped off at the Starbucks a block from my Virginia home for some coffee. Minutes after I got back in my car, a sniper shot and killed a woman at the Home Depot three stores down. After this brush with death, am I demanding that all white people apologize (most experts say the sniper’s probably white), or that the National Rifle Association hold a prayer vigil? No, because I don’t feel they are responsible.

At the same time, many of those who are loudest in demanding even more apologies from the Muslims are silent on the actions of those they actually are responsible for. The Middle East Media Research Institute, for example, a pro-Israel think tank, regularly plays “gotcha” with Muslims, dubiously translating speeches and articles sliced from their context to portray a Muslim world seething with hatred and extremism. The group’s director is Yigal Carmon, former administrative head of the occupied West Bank between 1977 and 1982, ranking member of Israel’s intelligence establishment, and an outspoken proponent of torture. “Pain is not taking life,” Carmon explained to the Washington Post. “Pain comes and goes. Pain disappears. You know, everyone experiences that. Unwillingly, of course.”

Aside from appearing guilty and insincere, the danger of losing perspective on this matter is that condemnations and apologies can deteriorate into an orgy of self-flagellation and unhealthy obsession with the alleged failings of Muslims. Our community is not perfect, and some of the responses of some Muslims to the challenges they face are the result of a combination of frustration and ignorance, willful or otherwise, of Islamic parameters of action. These Muslims should be advised and the people should be warned against their methodology.

This does not mean, however, that we should obsess over our mistakes, even if they are the only aspects of our community getting any media attention. I perceive in some quarters an inferiority complex taking hold, a paralyzing “9/11 Syndrome” that is causing many Muslims to retreat, curl up into a fetal position, be afraid to begin any sentence without a condemnation of terrorism, and just be happy they haven’t yet been deported. Why should Muslims feel so humiliated, when there is so much about our community to feel positive and hopeful about?

It has been repeated ad nauseum that, except for an insignificant fraction, Muslims in America want dialogue and harmonious relations with their neighbors. This is true enough. But Muslims need to stop expending energy fleeing from the fallacious notion that they bear responsibility for what a handful of people do, and be bold as lions in implementing their duty to Allah and the society they live in: “You [Muslims] are the best of nations raised up for the benefit of men: you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah.”