Who should apologize?

All people of good conscience have a moral obligation to support what is righteous and condemn what is wrong. But who has a duty to apologize?
  • Should every person of Arab descent feel the need to apologize for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?

  • Should every American citizen feel the need to apologize for US military misconduct, like that of Abu Ghraib?

  • Should every Christian feel the need to apologize for the suffering of the Jewish people in past generations?
Simply as a member of the human race, I vigorously condemn all acts of terror, cruelty, discrimination, hatred, etc. But as someone who fits into each of the categories above - an American Christian of Arab descent - I do not feel it my duty to offer apologies for the malicious acts of others who simply share a label with me.

Not all Christians, Arabs, or Americans agree with me. Some of my counterparts have taken the responsibility upon themselves to offer apologies to the harmed parties.

Here are some examples worthy of discussion: (continued...)

First, an essay which appeared in the NY Post on the 5th anniversary of 9/11, written by an Arab-American named Emilio Karim Dabul. He writes:
"Five years after that awful day, it's time for all Arab-Americans, and Arabs around the world, to protest against Islamic fascism, to raise our voices - and, where necessary, our arms - against these tyrants until their plague of terror has been driven from the face of the earth forever."
On that point, I agree completely with Mr. Dabul. It is important for Arab-Americans to not only speak out against terrorism, but also actively work to eliminate it.

Where I think Dabul carries this too far, and where I disagree with him, is when he says:

"Arabs around the world, including Arab-Americans like myself, need to start holding our own culture accountable for the insane, violent actions that our extremists have perpetrated on the world at large.

Yes, our extremists and our culture."

Well, they are not "my" extremists. Whether they come to a timely death or spend their lives rotting in prison (hopefully), or whether they continue to roam free, they are not "my" extremists. They are my enemy and I have nothing to do with them, common label or not.

As for Arab culture, of course there are some elements badly in need of reform and change - I discuss these things with my Arab-American colleagues all the time. But a group of people who happen to share a label should not be assigned blame, internally or externally, for "insane violent actions...perpetrated on the world at large" on the part of its individual members.

Second, we have Marc Gopin, a Jewish rabbi and Professor at George Mason University in Virginia. I had the great pleasure of meeting him through my dear friend, Syrian reformer-extraordinaire Hind Kabawat. Dr. Gopin has embarked upon a courageous journey to bridge gaps between cultures and religions, and thanks to his partnership with Hind, he has visited Syria numerous times and has cultivated a friendship with Syria's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Baderedin Hassoun.

After his most recent visit this summer, Dr. Gopin published a long and very moving article that touched upon political, religious, ethical matters, containing great wisdom. I urge everyone to read it, and re-read it several times to absorb Dr. Gopin's vision.

The document, however, relates one rather controversial encounter that took place during a Friday prayer service in an Aleppo mosque:

"The Mufti introduced someone on my right. He was tall and young, maybe in his late twenties. He was dressed in white from head to toe with a traditional coat and cap. Others there wore turbans, those who were senior Sheikhs. The Mufti told me the story of this young man, and he said it in very few words. 'He is Iraqi, he was in Abu Ghraib for eight months and then released without charge. His two brothers were also picked up and have never been heard from since. This young man also spent twenty-two days living in a coffin. The American soldiers would take him out at meal times and then shackle him back inside the coffin.'

I have to presume from what the Mufti said that the coffin was also his bathroom. When I heard this my heart began to pound hard and I began to breathe heavily, my hands trembling; I felt the need to get up from my seat but I did not...the Mufti went on speaking about other things and I did not hear anything that he was saying. I was looking at the young man from Abu Ghraib, and he at me, and I could not take my eyes off of him. He had an intense and serious look on his face, and pain, and also a curious kind of shame, but I did not feel any hatred coming from him. He looked as if he was concentrating in a painful way on something, and he did not avert his eyes from me...

I could not sit anymore. I broke decorum and I got up in the middle of the Mufti speaking and I walked across the hall to the young man. The interpreter followed. The Mufti stopped speaking, and all eyes turned toward the side of the room. I spoke to the young man quietly and I told him how deeply sorry I was for what had happened to him, and I apologized in the name of the American people. Then I held his arm, and then I embraced him. I held back the tears."

Now, this is a slightly different context than Mr. Dabul's newspaper editorial, being that it was an emotional encounter between 2 individuals. I suppose one could argue that Dr. Gopin, as an citizen of a democratic nation like the United States, ultimately holds responsibility for the actions of the American government and its military. However, a few isolated incidents of gross misconduct by American soldiers should be addressed by their commanders. If those in leadership positions fail to take corrective action, then the citizens have an obligation not to apologize, but to elect new leaders who will demand accountability and proper military conduct in the future.

As Dr. Gopin said, "We did not elect torture":

"Then the Mufti told them what I had done with the young man from Abu Ghraib, and this created quite a stir. I believe he said, 'He apologized, how can we not respond to this?' He also rebuked them and mentioned how rare it is that they apologize, meaning the Muslim world, when they do something wrong.

Then some commotion occurred at the front. Some members were saying things to the Mufti, and I asked what was going on. They said that people were objecting to his bringing me here. They said, 'He elected George Bush,' and, my voice trembling, I responded, 'We did not elect torture.' Then the Mufti put me together with the young man and said to his followers, 'Show the world what he have done here today,' and immediately ten or twenty people in the front rows took out their cell phones and began videotaping our group standing with the Mufti and the young man."

Some will resent Dr. Gopin's apology to that Iraqi from Abu Ghraib prison, but that does not change the incredible courage shown by his efforts to promote peace on a grassroots level, between Arabs and Americans, between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I have nothing but respect for him.

Finally, we have Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas who has his eyes on the White House.

Speaking to the Israeli Knesset in July 2004, Brownback stated:
"As a Christian, I deeply, deeply apologize for the pain and bloodshed and deafness to suffering that we have hoisted upon you and your ancestors. May this never, ever happen again!"
Again, who is we? I am a Christian, and I have never brought any pain or bloodshed to Jews. Of course I condemn the holocaust inflicted by the Nazis upon them, as well as Gypies, Catholics (1/3 of the priests in Nazi Germany were executed), and others - but I do not feel that it is my place to apologize for it.

Every individual is responsible for his or her own actions, not those of his or her race, or ancestors, or co-religionists. But those with pride in their nationality, citizenship, religion, and origin should feel an obligation to be proactive - to combat dishonorable behavior by their colleagues, in both word and deed - not just to be reactive and apologize after the transgressions have occurred.