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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

American Islam is the hope of worldwide Islam. The dueling demonstrations following the Paris massacres brought that home. In the free world, millions of men and women marched declaring “I am Charlie,” referring to the murdered staff of Paris’s satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In the Islamic world millions of men (but not women) marched declaring “I am Muslim.” Their opposing banners told a lot. Marchers in Europe and America declaring “I am Charlie” were defending freedom. They included men and women, nonbelievers and believers, Christians and Muslims—the whole gamut of Western society. They marched for freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Marchers in the Islamic world declaring “I am Muslim” were defending Islam—Islam as experienced in Pakistan, Somalia, and points between, but not Islam as experienced in America. In the Islamic world Islam is the enemy of freedom. It oppresses women in every way possible to do so. It denies citizens freedom of religion, demanding death for apostates. It denies citizens freedom of expression, imprisoning anyone who speaks or writes against orthodoxy. Islam itself is not to blame for such oppression. Any ideology that dominates a people becomes the enemy of freedom. Fascism and Stalinism enslaved and murdered Europeans in the twentieth century, and entrenched Marxism in China denies people freedom today much as entrenched Islam does. Thus, not Islam itself but the dominance of Islam is the enemy of freedom, from Morocco to Indonesia. American Islam is different. It does not dominate. It is just another religion in a land dedicated to freedom of religion. It took awhile for our American forebears to realize that no religion is safe unless all religions are safe. Early New Englanders, who immigrated to the new world to escape religious persecution, actually persecuted those with religious views different from theirs, arresting, convicting, and punishing Quakers for the crime of being Quakers. They were trying to make their form of Christianity as dominant as other forms were in Europe, where Anglicans persecuted Catholics, Catholics massacred Huguenots, and everyone persecuted Jews. Puritan dominance, Anglican dominance, Catholic dominance—all were as much the enemy of freedom as Islamic dominance is today. But by the time our founders wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights, America had discovered a truth the Islamic world still needs to discover—when any ideology dominates, whether religious or secular, it becomes grotesque and destructive, destructive of others and ultimately of itself. On the other hand, when ideologies are able to compete for adherents in a free marketplace of ideas, the true ones remain vibrant and productive. American Muslims know this and mostly get to experience the benefits. Other Americans wrong them to blame them for the terrorism bred abroad. Other Americans should welcome them as neighbors and welcome their mosques into their neighborhoods. American Muslims can show Muslims around the world how to be both Muslim and free. Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He can be reached at