August 12, 2014
Bismillah Ar Rahman Ar Raheem
“O you who believe! Fear Allah, and say a word directed to the Right: That He many make your conduct whole and sound and forgive you your sins: He that obeys Allah and His Messenger, has already attained the highest Achievement.” 33:70-71
Brothers and Sister of the American Muslim community,
I have become aware of the dialogue taking place in social media about the American Muslim community, and specifically about the Islamic Society of North America and its role in the United States. This includes ISNA’s philosophy and strategy of engagement with the government and public officials. I welcome this dialogue, as do all the leaders of ISNA. This may be a good beginning for a larger discourse among the American Muslim community and its leadership as the American Muslim knows best what is in the best interest of its communities. Imam Malik exemplified for us the importance of understanding the context before issuing the ruling or critique when he told a man from another land who came to see him that he could not give an answer to the man on the situation of his people. “You know better than I do about your situation,” he said.
No Muslim leader in America, particularly those who volunteer in their positions wish to find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, reality is that many of us are between two attacks, those that come from Islamaphobes from whom we must defend our faith, our rights, and our communities, and those that are coming from our fellow Muslims, from whom we must defend the integrity and intentions of our leadership. It is appropriate and encouraged for members of the Muslim community to hold leadership accountable and to ask tough questions and it is the responsibility of the leadership to respond. This is why I will try to participate in this dialogue, to answer some of the issues and concerns what were raised.
However, before I go further in addressing the current issues, I would like to establish general guidelines for constructive dialogue.
Imam Shaafi’ said, “My opinion is correct with the possibility of being wrong and the opinion of those that disagree with me is wrong with the possibility of being correct.” He also stated, “There is no time that I engage in debate with others without praying that Allah will show me the truth that comes from the person in order that I may increase in knowledge and benefit from him.” Secondly a person must learn from his or her own mistakes, from his friends, brothers, sisters, and even those who have animosity toward him. All of us must believe in these principles of engaging in dialogue, that dialogue and debate are for seeking truth, not proving oneself to be right. It is also very important that if we see something we think is wrong in one of our brothers or sisters that we know, then we should try our best, by whatever means we have, to talk to them privately before we critique them publicly. Otherwise, the well intended advice might be interpreted as creating friction and disunity among the Muslims. We must deal with people for what they do and what they say and try to understand their context. Their intentions are for Allah alone to judge.
Living in the American context it is also essential for us to understand how to address the diversity of opinions and approaches of individuals and communities. I would like to stress there is a distinction between unity and uniformity. We can and should work towards unity without requiring uniformity. Unity that is established on respecting the general principles and values that come from our faith, and in those tenets of the United States law and Constitution that compliment the principles and values of our faith. This can make us stronger in our iman and more effective in our civic responsibilities. Ensuring that we do not force uniformity allows us to combine the two in ways most feasible for each individual. Those that choose to exercise their religious and civic responsibilities may do so through public peaceful protests and even civil disobedience, while others use means of constructive and sincere engagement to dialogue with elected officials, holding those whose salaries come from our tax dollars accountable for how they serve our country. These two approaches should be respected and equally embraced in the Muslim American community. In my early years in the United States, I studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the various approaches people used to move the cause forward. All of these efforts became a part of American history. To understand the fruits of engaging our government, and to understand the interfaith effort of ISNA, please refer to the links included at the end of the article. They will help clarify how ISNA explains the concerns of the Muslim American community to elected officials. There are some Americans that have Islamaphobic mentalities – including some members of Congress and other powerful public figures; through them millions of dollars are spent isolating Muslims from the public discourse, painting them as disloyal citizens of the land that is their home.
The absence of American Muslims from the table of dialogue only creates a vacuum that would be filled by others, possibly by these very individuals. Its not only about whom you dialogue with but what you say when you are with them. An individual who understands the Seerah of Prophet (peace be upon him) will see that he (peace be upon him) dialogued with many people including those like Walid ibn Mughira, who attacked him personally and showed tremendous disrespect to him (peace be upon him). The Prophet (peace be upon him) let him finish his speech, despite the offensive content of it, and then responded to him with calmness and kindness. Dialogue does not mean that you compromise your principles in promoting justice and fairness, it does means that you try to understand where the other side is coming from and try to reach a common understanding based on shared values. Our example in dealing with others, as in all things, is the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). You will find more about this in a book written by Professor Tariq Ramadan, Footsteps of the Prophet.
In regards to ISNA’s position, ISNA is one of the founders of the organization of National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an organization that calls for ending torture by law enforcement. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, former President of ISNA, was among the first Muslim leaders to bring this issue to the forefront of the minds of Muslim communities in the US. Raising this issue in the interfaith platform led to President Obama issuing an executive order to end torture by the government. NRCAT is one of the largest interfaith organizations in America dealing with ending torture. It is an alliance of good, fighting for justice similar to the alliance that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a part of even prior to his prophethood. ISNA is a member of National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), an interfaith organization that deals with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their objective is to convey to the United States leadership the strong concern of the faith communities regarding the ongoing conflict, to push for a more active role on the national level, and to establish a just and lasting peace arrangement. Leaders of NILI, have met many times with secretaries of state and other high officials to further this cause. ISNA is also a founding member of one of the largest interfaith civil rights organizations created to defend Muslim rights, Shoulder to Shoulder, created to protect rights of Muslim in America and standing firmly with partners of other faiths to speak against bigotry in all of its forms. In addition to these partnerships, ISNA has issued many press releases regarding the loss of civilian lives in various parts of the world. In recent months, much emphasis has been put on addressing the loss of life in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. ISNA leaders have also taken many opportunities in recent months to speak directly with high level officials on behalf of the American Muslim community. Each time, whether at the White House iftar or at any other gathering, leaders take great care to consider the interest of the American Muslim community and the context in which they live. I participate in many dialogues with the President of the United States and many other officials regarding healthcare, combating gun violence and domestic violence in America, as well as bringing the perspective and concerns of Muslims regarding the many issues in the Middle East and around the globe.
My Brothers and Sisters, let me be open with you, I often find many Muslim communities are more concerned about international issues than American domestic issues. We have to connect the international issues of concern to the country in which we live so that our fellow Americans can see the impact of these international issues on America itself. If we desire for our point of view to truly be heard, nationally and internationally, we have to engage our fellow American citizens in general dialogue, and we have to engage elected officials from local representatives to the President of the United States. I have visited communities in Europe and was shocked to see that in some areas the Muslim community has isolated themselves from the larger community and disconnected themselves from the country which they are citizens of. We cannot choose to isolate ourselves; we cannot choose to be silent. Wherever we live in the world, those are the places we call home, the places where our children are raised and the places where they will raise their own families. Yet I have met many people, even in the US, who follow the political situations of their countries of origin, but are oblivious to the politics of the country in which they live and work. Individuals have great concerns for the situations “back home” but are not investing themselves in the greater community here at home where they are physically present and where their children are educated.
Similarly, I see many masajid that are deeply engaged with our public officials and work with partners in the interfaith community. However, there is still a gap between what the community feels and what the community does. Many Muslims will pick up the phone to call a friend and express their displeasure with policies they see, be that domestic or foreign, but they do not pick up the phone to call their local representatives to express that concern. They may email their imams and Masajid Board members preaching endlessly about the importance of speaking up against the injustices, but they do not email the officials who made the decisions. They may read articles that upset them about issues concerning the community but they will not write a letter to the editor. They may listen to a talk radio show that disgraces Muslims but they will not call in. My Brothers and Sisters, we should be grateful that we live in a world where we are able to engage in dialogue, vote, and lobby our government. To be silent, to disengage, would be to discard one of the most powerful tools God has given us with which we can do good. I would like to say that ISNA would like to be that platform where we can agree to disagree and to represent different points of view, unity but not uniformity. Many times I had heard speakers at ISNA conventions and conferences whose opinions I disagreed with but who I had encouraged to be invited back to address the community because we had to understand each others’ different points of view. At the same time, we must be wise in how we address these and how we prioritize the issues being addressed. We need to think about what will impact our children and the generations that follow.
Finally I would like to say, ISNA is your organization. ISNA’s doors are wide open. You can become a member today and earn the right to vote people in or out of the leadership. We hope that you will join us to hear various speakers, with a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience, who have agreed to honor us with their presence this year and share with us the diversity of opinion and practice in so many aspects of our lives. I started this article with a verse of the Qur’an and I would like to end it with this one,
“O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witness to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do.” 5:8