In the Gray Zone: Recognizing the Muslims in US
By Ben Tomkins and Amanda Dee
Photo: Local Muslim groups address Western stereotypes; photo: Amanda Dee
On Nov. 28, Ohio State University officials and news outlets initially reported third-year logistics management major and Muslim Somali refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan as an “active shooter” when he crashed his car into and attacked 11 people with a knife. Campus police officer Alan Horujko shot and killed him. ISIL claimed him as a “brother” in its 57th al-Naba propaganda newsletter.
For some proponents of a registry of Muslims living in the United States and bans on the immigration of Muslims—either outright or through what President-elect Donald Trump dubbed “extreme vetting”—it appeared to validate the need for stringent control and tracking of Muslims within U.S. borders.
The Ohio State attacker was a Muslim refugee and presumably would have been on the proposed registry. Ideally, his presence on the registry would have set off alarm bells with authorities when he posted on Facebook that he was “sick and tired” of seeing fellow Muslims “killed and tortured,” and implored the United States “to stop interfering with other countries, especially the Muslim Ummah.”
The complication of the Ohio State attack is that some facts fit a particular narrative perfectly during and after the attack, but the relevance of those facts pales in comparison to the absence of critical information. ISIS called Artan a “soldier,” and their news agency, Amaq, declared he acted “in response to calls to target the citizens of the international coalition.” While certainly plausible, the flat fact is that nobody, at least nobody whose job it is to find this information and share it with the public, has been able to establish a concrete connection between them. Artan is dead, and we are left with an act, a few Facebook posts, and a whole lot of rhetoric and fear.
Ultimately, it is the “Ummah,” or Muslim people at large, who are caught in the informational and social crossfire. A Muslim registry treats Muslim individuals as if they can be grouped together in such a way, but many Muslim leaders are strenuously protesting this characterization.
Dayton Islamic organizations have been increasingly proactive in dispelling myth and misinformation, and some Muslims feel the need to address their holistic understanding of Islam over the course of 45-minute Q&A’s with the general public.
It is a difficult task within the current political and media climate of white-hot rhetoric and the proliferation of misinformation with social media, but one that members of the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton and Dayton Ahmadiyya Muslim communities have undertaken with vigor. The perversion of their sacred text by ISIL and other extremists is not only an affront to the fundamental values of love and compassion articulated in the Quran but also an insult to the fundamental message of peaceful coexistence shared by peoples across faiths and beliefs.
IN THE ZONE
The Islamic State has been actively recruiting individuals around the globe for the purpose of committing acts of terrorism. Part of that program has been the creation of an “us against them” narrative designed to coerce Muslims into accepting a false dichotomy of religion and nation, interpreting “jihad” as a holy war instead of a holy struggle or striving. The seventh edition of Dabiq, the ISIL recruitment magazine, features a cover with two Muslims holding signs saying “Je suis Charlie,” with the caption “From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: the Extinction of the Gray Zone.”
“Gray zone” refers to the group of Muslims who consist, according to Dabiq, “of the hypocrites, the deviant innovators, and the abandoners of jihad.” Unfortunately, the gray zone concept is an effective propaganda tool for instilling fear in non-Muslims, as well.
The idea amongst non-Muslim majority populations in countries like the United States that their fellow Muslim citizens may be teetering on a slippery slope of religious mass murder is a driving force behind concepts like a registry. Whether Artan acted in a vacuum or in part due to ISIL propaganda is unknown, but his apparent manifestation out of thin air feeds into the ISIL narrative that the gray zone is the answer to the informational gray areas in the minds of non-Muslims.
In stark contrast, Ohio’s Muslim leaders make the strong case that no such gray zone narrative exists in the minds of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. “As Ohioans, as Americans and as Muslims, we’re shocked by today’s senseless attack,” Roula Allouch, national board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), tells reporters in a press conference the same day of the Ohio State attack. “We stand together with Ohioans of all faiths and backgrounds in praying for the speedy recovery of all those who were injured in today’s attack.”
Dayton City Paper spoke with Dr. Kindy Ghussin, board of directors of the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton (ISGD); Mubashir Tahir, president of the Dayton Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA); and Dana Jalanbo, member of the ISGD Education Committee, who echoed these sentiments.
“Islam teaches peace,” Dr. Ghussin says.
Chapter 5 (The Table) verse 32: ‘For that cause, we decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.’”
“We also deliver meals to the homeless once a month, mostly in downtown Dayton, and do educational lectures and Q&A sessions at Sinclair,” he says of ISGD.
Dayton City Paper asks Ghussin about the Q&A sessions: “What kind of questions do people ask you?”
“Things like, ‘Does Islam encourage Muslims to kill non-Muslims?’” he responds.
“Geez. What the hell do you say to that?” we ask.
“I say two things,” Ghussin says. “I mention that verse, and then I say, ‘Grab a Quran and follow up [on] it. You don’t have to buy it, just go to a library and read it for yourself. Chapter 2 (The Cow), verse 256 says there is no compulsion in religion.”
We took his advice. Both are exactly as described.
In the context of the same religious text, if you look at the verses upon which ISIL has founded their version of Islam and the foundation of Ghussin’s Islam, you simply don’t end up in the same place. ISIL’s religious beliefs are radicalized because they pick on the violent snippets, whereas what most Muslims would call “real Islam” starts with the good.
“True Islam” is how Mubashir Tahir and his association refer to it. The Dayton Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA) hosts spiritual and recreational youth events at Fazl-i-Umar Mosque, which they claim as the first mosque in the U.S. built solely by African-American Muslims and the first purposefully built mosque in Ohio.
Currently, the Dayton AMYA, which consists predominantly of American Muslim converts, organizes free classes for boys and girls every Saturday. Wednesday nights are Q&A sessions, with coffee and cake.
“Its primary aim of all moral training is to ensure that these young men can be good citizens and better contribute to the communities in which they live,” he explains. We try to involve our youth from [the] start in community service projects and activities like blood drives, food drives, and public street clean-ups.”
THE LAW STUDENT
Dana Jalanbo was running about half an hour late to her interview, but considering it was 8:30 p.m. and she had been up since 4 a.m. amidst law finals, she sounded more composed and articulate than she gave herself credit for—especially when talking about why she’s losing sleep for her law degree at University of Dayton.
“I feel that I can be a voice for those who don’t have a voice of their own,” she says. “I say this because I’m bilingual, and I have the privilege of being an American and also growing up exposed to another culture, which enabled me to view things in more than one perspective… I have noticed from the volunteering opportunities that I’ve done that people who are new immigrants or refugees, they come here and a lot of them don’t understand their rights or don’t understand how to go about every day in legal issues they may face. I want them to be strong and to understand that the beauty of America and what it is founded on is for everyone to have a voice to be heard.”
At UD, Jalanbo is part of the Human Rights Awareness and Advocacy Group, International Law Society, and Volunteer Student Law Project. She is also on the ISGD Education Committee. And she covers with the hijab, the veil or scarf many Muslim women wear over their heads as a symbol of their faith. To wear the hijab “takes so much more strength as a Muslim woman, to walk out every day knowing that you’re easily identifiable,” she says, simultaneously calling it a “true blessing” because “you get the chance to show everybody what the true values of your religion [are].”
When acts of violence in the name of religion add more propane to the already hot fire of American fear and suspicion, some of that heat is misdirected toward people like Jalanbo, people who might wear a scarf around their head instead of a cross around their neck: “The biggest issue that I have being an American Muslim is it’s very tough when I hear stories of those who commit atrocities and then hide behind the name of my religion. It’s tough having to go the next day and face my classmates or face people out in the streets,” she says, “because I always have this feeling like, oh my God, I hope they don’t think the teachings of Islam have anything to do with this… I always wish to know what people think because I always feel like people who don’t know anything about Islam except what they see in the media may deep down inside be judging, have speculations, or they may… just be scared.”
Jalanbo’s call to action is for continued and increased inter-faith meetings and understandings, which she strives to achieve as a member of the Ask A Muslim Dayton chapter, an organization dedicated to answering any questions non-Muslims may have about Islam, in addition to volunteering with local charities.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people see what’s on the media, a lot of the rhetoric that’s going out, and they haven’t even gotten to know a Muslim,” she says. “And if they did, or if they went to a local mosque, they will see that it’s absolutely nothing like it’s portrayed in the media… I wish they knew what Islam is truly about, that it is a religion of peace, tolerance, and mercy. If that weren’t the case, it wouldnt be the fastest growing religion in the world.”
BEYOND THE PALE
If anyone has a reason to promote solidarity, it is Kindy Ghussin.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the second of two buildings full of people representing all faiths, races, and nationalities, was crashing to the ground. As it was happening, two men, both claiming to be Muslims, rushed toward it. One had hijacked an airplane, bringing down those people, and the other was Kindy’s brother, Fred. Fred was a criminal investigator for the city of New York working at a building near Ground Zero. As the towers dropped, he ran into the dust cloud to help as others fled. A month later, he died from inhaling the thick, gray dust. That’s the truth of Islam, or for that matter, any religion or any people. Recently, the FBI reported 257 “anti-Islamic-motivated crimes” during 2015, compared to 296 in 2001, the year of 9/11.
There are a few crazy extremists trying to bring down the world, and there are billions of selfless Muslims like Fred, who are rushing to help the world’s people as they fall.
As we bring our conversation to a close, Ghussin poses, “Everyone should remember, everyone who claims to love Jesus, that Jesus looked Middle Eastern. Forget the blue eyes, light hair, whatever; he looked like me. Middle Eastern. Dark beard and dark skin.”
The Islamic Society of Greater Dayton is located at 26 Josie St. in Dayton, with a new facility at 731 S. Alpha Bellbrook Road in Sugarcreek Township. For more information on ISGD or upcoming events, please visit ISGD.org. The Fazl-i-Umar Mosque is located at 637 Randolph St. in Dayton. For more information on the mosque or upcoming events, please visit DaytonMosque.org or follow @MKA_Dayton or @daytonmosque on Twitter.