When news broke last Thursday that a 24-year-old man with a Muslim name was responsible for the shooting rampage that left five servicemen dead in Chattanooga, the Muslim community took a deep breath: Here we go again. First, take to social media to decry the attack, then send a press release, maybe conduct a few press interviews. And still, wait for the inevitable blame that falls on the whole group solely because of their faith.
"It plays out the same way every time for me and many Muslims: You hear about something horrible happening, and after the initial horror and grief, you hope the suspect is not a Muslim," said Zahra Billoo, an attorney and executive director of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
If the perpetrator is Muslim, a series of responses ensue, including horror that someone would twist religious teachings to perpetrate violence, followed by a need to distance: "That person does not represent us, our community, our religion," said Billoo.
Really just disgusted & saddened about this attack on #Chattanooga. Shameful act by alleged ISIS sympathizer. Puts a stain on Eid.
— Adham Sahloul (@adhamsahloul) July 16, 2015
— Ahmadiyya DC (@AhmadiyyaDC) July 17, 2015
Indeed, Muslim organizations around the country are often quick to join what some call the "condemn-a-thon"-- a frenzied dance to issue statements against such attacks and distance Islam from violence. But many activists believe such actions are counterproductive and indicative of a double standard in American society -- in which minority groups like blacks and Muslims are expected to condemn individual acts of violence or risk being perceived as giving tacit approval.
"It's just not fair to Muslims to have to bear this responsibility of condemning, when there are so many other violent acts occurring in America," said Tanzila Ahmed, a writer, activist and host of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. Ahmed believes Muslim groups shouldn't cave to the pressure of the condemnation dance. "No other community is asked to do it. We don't make police condemn all acts of violence perpetrated by cops. Only people of color are expected to bear the responsibility of a larger group in this way."
Wajahat Ali, a journalist at Al Jazeera America and author of "Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America," agrees.
"Being forced to participate in the condemn-a-thon, wherein a nameless judge, jury and executioner is constantly testing our loyalty and moderation -- that I won't do anymore," said Ali. "There is a double standard that paints a Muslim shooter to be this otherworldly bogeyman, but when it's a white male, he's either sanitized, or his ideological roots are not investigated to same extent, or the label of terrorist is not applied equally."
But Billoo says that many Muslims are torn between standing up for themselves in calling out that double standard and the obligation as a Muslim to speak out against evil. "There's a huge tension. Why are we obligated to do this? But if we don't, then who will?" she said. "There's also the idea that such condemnations are ineffective -- that people who will believe us already know where we stand, and the people who question Muslim communities won't. And we continue to associate ourselves with these crimes when we condemn them."
Oh the anguish a Marine feels at the loss of a fellow Marine. RIP my brothers. You have not only left in honor but as hero's. #Chattanooga
— MuslimMarine (@mansoortshams) July 16, 2015
Ali says the condemnation dance can have severe consequences of further alienating a minority community. And Muslim communities have a real fear of backlash, as evidenced by the Chattanooga mosque that canceled its end-of-Ramadan Eid prayers on Friday after the attack.
"No one is denying that there is a problem of people committing violence in the name of Islam. The problem is the double standard that's employed -- which is married to hysteria that drives anti-Muslim sentiments that are deliberately used to further marginalize American Muslim communities, who have never committed violent acts," said Ali, who added that emerging details about Abdulazeez's life, which included a background of depression, drug abuse, and bankruptcy paint a complicated picture of what could have led him to the rampage.
Some Muslims believe it's those details that demonstrate how the American Muslim community is no different than any other in the U.S.
"What's emerging here is that he's as American as the rest of us. He had problems with alcohol, depression. It triggered something in him," said Shahed Amanullah, the founder of an accelerator that works with startups focusing a positive social impact on Muslim communities. "This can be a teaching moment that American Muslims are not different than anybody else -- that we have issues with depression, social isolation, drugs and alcohol. And that as a larger society, we need to come up with ways to help young America deal with young American problems."
But one thing many American Muslims do agree on is a need for the community to take charge of its own narrative.
"It's important to note the opportunity this type of thing that afford us as American Muslims," said Harris Zafar, spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, which has focused on demonstrating the practical teachings of Islam to fellow Americans. After the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad in 2010, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community launched nationwide "Muslims for Peace" and "Muslims for Loyalty" campaigns, which include annual blood drives around every anniversary of Sept. 11 to honor the victims, participating in Fourth of July parades, and passing out millions of flyers around the country detailing Islamic teachings on peace and patriotism.
"We wanted to confront in a bold way the idea that Muslims are not loyal to their country," said Zafar. "The fact is, we are active, patriotic citizens of this country and that's why we feel like we have to come out even stronger. We don't need to prove our loyalty, but we need to make it clear there's nothing to fear -- that there is no conflict in being American and Muslim. They are complementary to one another."
There's some evidence that investing in new narratives is working, says Ali. "Yes, anti-Muslim sentiment exists. It's being capitalized upon by politicians and pundits. We have record numbers of hate crimes and hate groups against Muslims," said Ali. "But the good news is, we are seeing fellow non-Muslim citizens stand up and support American Muslims against bigotry. We are seeing more American Muslims get space in the media. The overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject ISIS, reject extremism. And our fellow citizens are seeing that."