So what should we make of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who spoke brightly of committing mass murder at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland?
No hardscrabble ghetto background for Mohamud. His father was an engineer who moved his family to suburban Oregon.
No clear thread of alienation running through his adolescence. Studious, a mother’s pride, a basketball fan; he smiled at girls and enjoyed college nightlife. “He was just like everyone else,” a shocked fellow student at Oregon State University said.
No influential uncle in the jihad who lured him in, no ‘group of guys’ with regulation-size beards who recruited him after jumma prayers at the neighborhood mosque. Neighbors described the family as quiet and friendly. “Osman (the father) was very sophisticated,” said a staff member at the Christian social service agency that helped resettle the family when they arrived from Somalia.
There will be no shortage of theories offered in the coming weeks. Much of it will be stupid and simplistic – the yowls from the ‘Islam made him do it’ industry, the grunts from the ‘Get American troops off Muslim lands’ tribe.
My own sense? Let me tell you a story.
A few weeks ago, I ran into Ebrahim Rasool at an event in Washington DC. Now South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States, Rasool along with other Muslims in South Africa helped found the Call of Islam, a group that played a key role in the Struggle against Apartheid.
I remember the surge of pride I felt when I first read about the Call as a searching young Muslim man. The Muslims of the Struggle represented a proud and powerful Islam, a faith that viewed itself as a shaper of history not a victim of it, a tradition that based its identity on how it elevated others not how it dominated them.
Growing up I was always told that my faith mattered, but I was never told what it meant. Community leaders presented Islam as a private affair for the prayer hall, something to be quiet about in the world.
But as I got older, I wanted more. Other people I knew were publicly proud of being black or Jewish or Mexican. It gave them an identity, a way of being, a sense of belonging. When, as a graduate student at Oxford, I started to explore what Islam meant for my life in the world, I was lucky to have mentors who pointed me in the direction of Islam’s heroes.
The Muslims of Rwanda who protected Tutsis in their homes and their mosques from the marauding Interhamwe militia during the genocide; Badshah Khan who worked closely with Gandhi in the peace movement that liberated South Asia from colonial rule; Albania’s Muslims who saved countless Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust; and, of course, those Muslim heroes in South Africa.
These are the examples that shaped my understanding of what it means to be Muslim in the world.
Mohamed Osman Mohamud was not so lucky. His search for identity took him online, where he watched videos and read articles by Islam’s villains, shadowy men sending messages from the mountains of Pakistan and the deserts of Yemen. The story they sell impressionable young men is so simple: Muslims were once a magnificent nation, but we have been made victims by this group and that group. You must defend the Muslim nation. Your actions will return us to glory.
It would be perfectly understandable if, in this time of Muslim terrorism and Islamophobia, everyday Muslims tried to slink into the shadows, to hide in the mosque. But it would be a huge mistake. Now more than ever, we need Muslim community leaders to be loud and proud about Islam’s glories, to inspire a new generation to follow in the footsteps of the Muslim heroes who bent the arc of the universe towards justice.
If Muslim leaders don’t offer an understanding of Islam that inspires young people to be bridges of cooperation, we forfeit them into the arms of those waiting to make them bombs of destruction.