MUSLIM APOLOGY? Nicholas Kristof’s column


The strong opposition to the proposed Park51 Islamic Center in New York over the summer of 2010 made me ponder and think hard as to why so many Americans had serious fears and misgivings about Islam and Muslims.

Troubled and pained while agonizing over this reality all summer, I realized something that I was reluctant to admit previously.  Post 9/11 many people asked Muslims to apologize for 9/11.  I adamantly refused. To apologize, I said to myself, was to accept responsibility and accept collective guilt for something I did not do,  nor what the majority of Muslims did. So I still refuse to accept responsibility for a crime I did not commit. And despite the crazy and vile deeds of a vocal minority of craven Muslims either rejoicing, or worse, denying 9/11 ever happened, the majority of Muslims do not condone terrorism.

But I did realize something: I need to apologize to my fellow Americans and all victims of terror who suffered for harm committed in the name of Islam.  I have to do so unconditionally, irrespective of creed, ethnicity or citizenship for the terror committed in the name of my faith, my deity, my Prophet and my community.  I also make this apology to Muslim victims of terror.  They are the unsung thousands who have been killed and maimed by a lurid theology of terror that claims its victims daily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.   These victims are not combatants but are thrown into ideological meat grinder as means to questionable and immoral ends.

So what do I apologize for?  I apologize for the HURT, PAIN AND LOSS caused to the family members of those who are dead and to the survivors for the deeds committed by people who acted in my name as a Muslim. If there are others who agree with me, then we apologize for terror committed in OUR names, as Muslims. We need to forcefully disavow the crazies who have taken over the name of Islam.

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, wrote that “more moderate Muslims should stand up to extremists, speak out for tolerance, and apologize for sins committed by their brethren.”

I think Mr Kristof is heading in the right direction, but I would tweak his advice substantially.  I am not opposed to Mr Kristof making the suggestion, but it would have been better if this advice came from a group of Muslims or individuals for whom it was a moral action item.  Furthermore, there should be no quid pro quo: I apologize for my sins, then you also apologize for your sins.

On Saturday 18 September I heard the folks of Park51 were engaged in a summit. So I posted a message on my Facebook. I wrote:

“I hope this summit will address something that I only now realize had not been accomplished post 9/11: representative Muslim groups need to reach out to 9/11 families and seek reconciliation with them. Apologize to them for the hurt caused to them by people who committed violence in my/our names as Muslims. This is not taking responsibility for terrorism but vocally reclaiming our Islam. Anyone who can spend $100m on a Center can spend $2m on publicity and reconciliation. Otherwise the Center will defeat its purpose of reconciliation. It might not be a bad idea to name, the mosque, not the Center, as the Mosque of Reconciliation.”

I still hold this view and made this plea on September 11, 2010 in a radio interview on “The Warren Pierce Show” WJR Radio AM 760 Detroit . I think the time for reconciliation in America is overdue: it should be we Muslims who take the first step.  Yes, I know, it will appear as self-serving to reconcile now, given all the opposition to all things Islamic: from opposition to mosque-building, to averting Qur’an-burning,  claiming Shari`a is a threat to America, and simply bigotry on the part of some, not all Americans.  But we have no moral choice: reconciliation is a duty in Islam.

It took me some time to realize that it is the hurt of 9/11 that is causing many people to be angry at Islam and Muslims.  If there is anything I can do to assuage this hurt and advance reconciliation, I will act unconditionally and invite those of you who agree with me to join me. Those who disagree, I would like to hear your reasoned arguments and sagely counsel.

Remember, an apology is a small step towards reconciliation; it is only the beginning.  It has to be done sensitively and with care. With reconciliation and atonement, the issues that continue to cause suspicion, mistrust and anger will also in time be slowly be addressed.  Only a genuine reconciliation can achieve such ends. It will not be easy, but it has to be done.

When performing the act of reconciliation, one should not ask Americans, the British, the Spanish or other nations to apologize for their role in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan for the deaths of thousands in those countries and elsewhere. This is a realization that many of these people have already reached, while the rest will hopefully in time find it in their own hearts and consciences to atone.  But it is not for me to say.  I was reluctant to include this paragraph, but I anticipate some people will object to my suggestion and will raise the question.

As the Qur’an beautifully advocates:

“For good and evil are not equal:

repel (evil) with what is better,

and then the one between you

and whom was enmity

will become a bosom friend.

“No one will be offered this (gift of reconciliation)

but those who are constant

No one will be offered it

Save those who were gifted with a great good fortune.”

(Qur’an 41: 34-35)

About ebrahimmoosa

Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
This entry was posted in Islam in America and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to MUSLIM APOLOGY? Nicholas Kristof’s column

  1. Ali Mian says:

    Along with trying to relate to our collective loss suffered from 9/11, we should also pursue a critical reconciliation, one that involves undoing and struggling against the homogenization of people into monolithic religious identities. For after all, Muslims are not only Muslims, but a collection of varied differences.
    Sunday, September 19, 2010 – 04:12 PM


  2. Ahmad says:

    Professor Ebrahim,

    You wrote: Furthermore, there should be no quid pro quo: I apologize for my sins, then you also apologize for your sins.

    Are you saying Muslims should not expect/demand an apology for the atrocities committed in the name of national defense?

    If so, how do you plan to account for the atrocities committed against Muslims, not only by Muslims-which you’ve addressed–, but by important people in power who, frankly speaking, should know better?

    I don’t think your position, as articulate as it is, accommodates the range of emotions American Muslims feel. We may feel sorrow over 9/11, but some of us have families back “home” who do not appreciate the “smart” bombs dropped indiscriminately over their homes as we speak.

    Moreover, even if some of us do not have familial connections to anywhere other than the USA, don’t we, in the name of justice, have a duty to speak out not only against the terror committed by our coreligionists, but also for the terror committed against our coreligionists? I do not believe you are applying a double standard, but how would you address the perception that you’re holding up a double standard?

    Sunday, September 19, 2010 – 06:48 PM


  3. Ebrahim Moosa says:

    Ahmed I understand your point of view and I have that in mind. I am sure you noticed I pre-empted this point by pointing out that such an objection will be raised. Forced reconciliation is a non-reconciliation. If people do not feel strongly about it, they should not be coerced or be blackmailed by quid pro quo.
    Ebrahim Moosa


  4. Ahmad says:

    I have read your writings here and there and have noticed a preponderance of articles which encourage Muslims to be self-critical and come to a solution about the bad apples among us.

    I do not subscribe to a quid pro quo approach, as neither do you and I agree with you on that point. Injustice should be condemned unconditionally. However, where in your vision of self-critical Muslims is the space for justified dissent? When can Muslims point the same critical eye to others, whether it be our governments, foreign governments, etc., that you encourage them to point to on their own coreligionists.

    I fear that in focusing on the bad apples, you ignore the various variables that form the socio-political context within which these bad apples are formed and raised.



  5. Ali Mian says:

    Dear Dr. Moosa,

    I would love to hear you thoughts on parallels between the reconciliation that you are rightly encouraging and post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. It would be great if you could share with us some insights from that example. This may also enable us to think transcontextually, and see reconciliation as a global ethical gesturing.


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      Dear Ali, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a state sponsored quasi-juridical body that did perform a great deal of healing among South Africans and also left many unhealed. My suggestion in this column was something infinitesimally more mundane and humble: how does one rebuild trust between Muslims and non-Muslims in America? What kind of meaningful gesture can serve as a beginning. In the Christian tradition the offender washes the feet of the offender. In South Africa, the minister of police under apartheid, Adrian Vlok washed the feet of Rev Frank Chikane. What kind of reconciliatory practice is there available among Muslims?


  6. Anonymous says:

    Dear Ebrahim,

    Thank you for your powerful but simple message of empathizing as a Muslim-American with those hurt from the atrocities of 9/11 and in a sense, seeking forgiveness for the atrocities committed in the name of Islam/Muslims. Not enough of this kind of vocabulary (empathy, seeking forgiveness, apology, reconciliation) has informed Muslim-American interfaith dialogues and outreach after the tragedy of 9/11.

    The Park51 folks could learn a lot from this — it is more effective than anything else in combating the current wave of Islamophobia.

    Monday, September 20, 2010 – 02:19 PM


  7. Zaid says:

    thank you for this…what this article evokes for me is the sense that, beyond just making statements of apology (about which I kinda agree with your early reasoning to some degree: apologizing for what one is not responsible for in some ways doesn’t make sense to me), establishing mutual trust and respect, etc requires enormous compassion and empathy and reaching out. The term “reconciliation” is very apt and Ali’s comment on post-Apartheid South Africa seems to be suggesting a helpful comparison. It’s about truly understanding the insecurities, misunderstandings, fears, and misconceptions of the “other” and addressing those with care and compassion and understanding and empathy rather than condemnation and accusation. I’ve always felt that Muslims are too quick to play the victim card (not in the sense that Ahmed is talking about – speaking out against injustice is absolutely required), but in the sense of feeling victimized and hated and complaining about that and blaming the other for their ignorance and bigotry…but we have to realize I think that the irrational fears and misconceptions and insecurities of the “other” are very understandable if we step out of our shoes and into theirs…so acknowledging those misconceptions and fears and addressing them honestly, proactively, positively, and meaningfully, rather than defensively and accusingly, that is ultimately what it would take I believe.
    In addition to the beautiful verse you cited Dr Moosa, we can perhaps keep this other one in mind as well: “And the servants of the Most Gracious who walk gently/humbly on the earth, and who, whenever the ignorant address them, reply with peace” (25:63)…it is an entire disposition of self that is required, one of gentleness and humility and kindness and understanding, emanating “peace” in all one’s actions and words…


  8. Abu Ilham says:

    Dear Brother Ahmad

    Salaam un Alaykum

    We all are concerned about the imbalance in power that empire spawns. This imbalance in power is responsible for the hubris with which empire behaves in the (economically) developing world. We have a right, nay a duty, to protest against that. In fact we have a duty to change that as activists developing civil action.

    But I believe that the point that Professor Moosa was making was a larger one. Our struggle is against empire, not against ordinary citizens. You may argue a link, but that is a different argument. Secondly, an apology is a small act, but a large step towards reconciliation. It may not be an apology for the act, but an apology that our faith, our diety and our Prophet have been abused in the motivation for such dispicable acts. It is about reclaiming the purity of our faith from those who have subverted it. Thirdly, what kind of apology demands a quid pro quo? That would not be regarded as a sincere apology, but a contingent one, which is no apology at all. An apology is a sincere act of contrition. An act of reconciliation. These cannot be contingent, but sincere and open. It would be wonderful if it gets others to open their minds and hearts to also apologise for their behaviour – but not as a contingent act.



    Abu Ilham


  9. Whit says:

    I spend a fair amount of time in small churches talking to people about Islam. I also spend a fair amount of time with Muslim groups as we try to figure out how to address the intensity of fear and anger at Islam and Muslims. That so many need to understand more about Islam is absolutely true, but Ebrahim has recognized something more. One does not go to the family of someone who has died and explain the nature of cancer. They need rather for someone to sit with them awhile, empathize, and console. The people I meet are fundamentally scared. They are not mean or hateful. They need us to understand their fear and sit with them awhile before we try to teach them.


  10. Nurgirl says:

    Wasn’t the actual statement by Kristof that

    “MANY AMERICANS HAVE SUGGESTED THAT more moderate Muslims should stand up to extremists, speak out for tolerance, and apologize for sins committed by their brethren.”?

    Not that this forcibly detracts from your argument, which I think is valid and a starting point for discourse within the Muslim community itself. Just thinking in terms of comparing apples to apples.


  11. Hanna says:

    Hi Ebrahim,

    Thank you for this article. Your statements are humble and powerful. As a non Muslim who has been researching recognition and legal protection of cultural minorities in Western societies, I have reached the conclusion that the problem is not the Muslims’. I absolutely agree that Muslims should take the first step in the process of reconciliation. But, with respect, I wish to maintain that ‘apology for harms commited and pains caused in the name of Islam’, in my view, does not have to be the first step and might be counter-productive. I say so for the following reasons.

    1) Islamophobia has historical roots and structural causes – problems that apologetic Muslims, as a minority, cannot solve without cooperation and good faith on the part of the cultural majority. I posted an article on your facebook wall a while back about Islamophobia as a modern echo and natural continuation of past worries of ‘the Other’ in the US as well as other parts of the Western world. Of course Islamophobia has unique characterstics that distinguish it from all others, but I think the article makes a lot of sense. It’s to do with so much more than 9/11.

    2) The more contemporary causes of fear of Islam, in my view, are, among others – ignorance, lack of knowledge, and very importantly – a profound sense of uncertainty on the part of the non Muslims. There are many causes of this sense of uncertainty – among others: a) globalization blurring boundaries of cultures and nations and thereby causing uncertainty not just about Who They Are but most importantly about Who We Are; b) selective media representation of Islam; c) political manipulation; d) economic crisis making scapegoating comforting and therefore necessary; etc. All these have created prejudices and hatred, to which, I believe, we sometimes intentionally hold on and spread so as to ease our own pain and insecurities created and enhanced by a confusing modern world, so as to create a sense of certainty for ourselves – a false sense of certainty, but a sense of certainty nonetheless. Acts of terrorism such as 9/11 have of course had a profound impact, but they’re located within a much broader and complex historical, social and political context. With respect, I don’t see how statements of apology about ‘hurt, pain and loss caused in the name of Islam’ will make things any better – because we, the non Muslims, already know that what happened on 9/11 did not represent true Islam, it’s just that we (not all, but lots and lots of us) are unwilling to let go of our irrational fears, often for selfish reasons. What can one achieve by apologising to irrational beings? I’m worried that irrational fears will feed on humble apologies – ‘Ha! I knew they were all the same and all in it together. Why else would he apologise for it?’ Irrational beings can’t make subtle distinctions.

    3) Having said that, I do believe that the Muslims should absolutely take the first step in the process of reconciliation, but perhaps not with an apology. And reconciliation needs to start local and small and should take a great variety of forms – talks, shows, cultural events, etc. Irrational fears are at least partly caused by lack of knowledge, thus an effective way to make irrational fears disappear is to build up knowledge about what we fear. So educate us. This of course requires good faith on the receiving end, a willingness to listen and learn, and opportunities for interaction and meaningful debate. Hard work.
    Tuesday, September 21, 2010 – 12:14 PM


  12. sabirah says:

    I converted to islam due to spiritual reasons, i admit i was a bit naive, not really thinking that i would get it from all sides, the hardliner “us vs them” folks in the masjid and my family and friends in Germany who demand that I justify …motives which were rather personal. I didn’t see a reason to apologize, why would I, I had nothing to do with it. The person who did the dawah with me always said that folks who do commit terrorism in the name of islam are wrong. on the other side I, when not talking to intellectually able male, I have to fight off women in the masjid that don’t see a reason why females have to have education, and parrot their husbands and would love to join the jihad in Afghanistan. They see me as an outcast because i don’t join in.
    Why apologize? That i joined a religion that leaves scope for overinterpretation and incredible uneducated tribal ignorance at the same time? On a personal level, or in a generalized statement? It is difficult to explain this to a person that sees the world in goat and camel terms and wants to go back to a cave to make life easy again. How to explain this to a muslim who denies that the 9/11 attacks happened because he or she finds more comfort in conspiracy theories? I agree, one side needs to start reaching a hand, and I would prefer if it’s my side. But i think the approach is a bit too simplistic, i’m not sure if apology would work any more.

    It is very difficult for most muslims to get past this “but they did us harm first” feeling. That is what children are taught, that this kind of reaction and counter reaction is unhealthy. Why don’t the grown ups take their own advice? With the beautiful Ayat above Allah swt shows us the best way how to react in conflict situation. But I’m not sure if this is meant on a grand scale or on a personal level.
    An additional personal observation/opinion by me, the pressure after the 9/11 happenings has led to a lot of self criticism and healthy transformations in the ummah and in individuals and made muslims and non muslims aware of the religion


  13. Team C says:

    Americans are not looking for apology rather they are yearning for clarity.
    With many clashes occuring throughout Muslim societies and also in Europe, they are wondering whether they can trust the Muslims–not just on a personal basis but as a group of people.
    Muslim organizations and leaders must take a firm stand and clearly dissociate themselves from the trouble makers (violent & non-violent) and their ideologies, be honest about differences in Islamic Law and theology versus fundamental liberal principles.
    For starters, protection of religion is one of the maqasids of Sharia, from where we get the blasphemy laws. Feedom of expression is a fundamental liberal principle which is a corner stone of American democracy.
    How do we reconcile the two?


  14. Hanna says:

    I agree with Team C on the necessity of clarification, but I personally don’t think there’s enough yearning for clarity out there. Laziness has clearly been a big obstacle to meaningful dialogue and communication. Lazy assumptions, partly sustained by fear, rational or/and irrational, continue to spread by mechanical repetition, intentional or/and unintentional.

    I have been to a number of events organised by Muslim organisations in the UK. All were great, informative, but all were unnecessarily exclusive. How’s the message supposed to spread if the people who possess knowledge all keep themselves to themselves? I’m really frustrated by this, because the message is pretty clear to me, but it’s just not getting across, being heard or understood. Of course there’re lots of reasons for this, some are within our control and some are not. But I would say, with respect, that one of such reasons is the lack of effort, or lack of a clear sense of direction, on the part of Muslims themselves. Noone can do the job better than Muslims themselves, as noone has more understanding and lived experiences of the faith than Muslims themselves. This may be an unfair accusation, and I get the impression, though I don’t have enough evidence to back it up, that the situation is much better in the US than here in Europe. I’ve heard lots of Muslim voices from the US, but here the silence is deafening.


  15. riyaaz ismail says:

    salaam prof….

    want to respond to anonymous if we may.
    if muslims want to respond to islamophobia,the best way would be to do positive acts eg(if a mosque chooses that its members should donate blood,become members of the bone marrow registry,organise a neighbourhood clean up campaign,start a book club where everyone is welcome…
    these are the type of activity that will make others sit up and take notice.
    Monday, September 20, 2010 – 02:59 PM


  16. auwais says:

    “Not that this forcibly detracts from your argument, which I think is valid and a starting point for discourse within the Muslim community itself. Just thinking in terms of comparing apples to apples”.

    Along these lines: Isn’t an apology due to Sh Hisham Kabbani as well?


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