Secretary, Islamic League of Somali Scholars in America
We live in extra-ordinary times in our world with the voices of Islamophobia, bigotry, and division shouting out loudly to create tension. That means Muslims need to be cautious and display wisdom in their interactions with one another and with the larger community. In post September 11 world, Muslims need to have a proper understanding of the reality of the environment they live in. It is not business as usual but rather time of heightened anti-Muslim hysteria. We must have a firm grasp of contemporary jurisprudence (fiqh al-waqi) and jurisprudence of Muslim minorities in the West (fiqh al-aqalliyaat al-Muslimah)in order to take our place as American Muslims in a practical way. National Islamic organizations like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) are calling for interfaith dialogue as a crucial part of Muslims taking their rightful place in the United States.
Sadly, a grave injustice was committed when one of the imams in the Twin Cities chose to stir fitna (strife) over an event that was held to stand in solidarity with Muslims. Islam warns us of the dangers of creating turmoil, whose consequences could damage near and far. In the last couple of months, Muslim-Americans have witnessed heightened anti-Muslim sentiment brewing in many parts of the country. The onslaught has been led primarily by well-known anti-Islam organizations such as Stop the Islamization of America. Two of its leaders, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer have written about, spoken on, and held rallies to warn America of the dangers of Islam. Islam is certainly not a threat to America. It is a world religion that over 5 million Americans embrace.
Subsequently, an unparalleled level of hostility to Islamic Centers, attacks on Muslims, and threat of publicly burning the Qur’an ensued within a short time. Fortunately, the opposition of the United States leaders such as President Barack Obama, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), and religious leaders across the nation helped defuse the tension. Pastor Terry Jones of Gainsville, Florida eventually succumbed to the pressure of reason and did not proceed with burning the Qur’an (Thank God).
Where Does The Somali Community Fit in?
The Somali community is very much part of the larger Muslim community. We are very visible in Minnesota. Our community was also negatively affected by the scary direction of events. Then, Multi-Faith leaders issued statements of support to Muslims and there was a feeling of “how can we help?”. That resulted in the idea of Minnesotans holding a Multi-Faith standing together event on September 28, 2010 at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.
Nearly thirty organizations sponsored the event, including several Muslim organizations. Furthermore, a number of Muslim religious and community leaders attended the event.
The event was primarily to stand in solidarity with Muslims and display respect among the different religions in the Twin Cities. Imam Makram Al-Amin of Masjid An-Nur and Sr. Jean Nackers of Islamic Resource Group spoke on behalf of the Muslims. Also, the Islamic Resource Group and the Islamic Center of Minnesota had display tables where copies of the Qur’an in English, tapes on Co-Existence, and pamphlets on Islam were distributed. It was an important opportunity for dialogue and understanding across religious lines.
Fabrications about the Standing Together for Respect Event
Over four hundred people attended the event. Mogadishutimes.com website posted a brief article and pictures of the event in a very positive way. In an unfortunate turn of events, somalimidnimo.com website took the pictures and distorted many of the facts. The website stated that all the Somalis who entered the church have lost their Islamic faith and that they read the Bible. Derogatory remarks were written about some of the leaders whose pictures appear in the pictures.
To make matters worse, Sh. Abdiqani Ali “Qardhawi”, Imam of Masjid Ashshafi’i covered the topic in his Friday khutbah on October first. He also, held a live program on Somali Media show on Minneapolis Public Television that same evening. In both instances, Sh. Abdiqani issued stated that all the Muslims who participated in such an event have become “kuffar”, apostates from Islam. Subhana Allah, why rush to judgment? Why not speak to the people who attended? Why not follow the etiquette of advising? Why the hostility towards your brothers? Why attack the Minnesotans who stood with us in time of need? Isn’t the recompense for kindness, a similar gesture of kindness in our faith.
What Did Sh. Abdiqani Base his Hasty Ruling on?
- He expressed displeasure at holding the event at a church. Islam does not prohibit going to a church or cooperating with people of other religions. We all know that this is a Christian majority country and churches host all kinds of events. Several Muslims participated in the planning meetings and agreed with the ideas of holding it at a church. The planning committee was of the opinion that holding the event at a church made the message more powerful. Furthermore, churches are the organizations that sponsored most of the Somali immigrants. Faith based agencies have shown professionalism and care for our community when it was most vulnerable.
- He claimed that the event was interfaith and that interfaith means unifying or integrating or merging the religions together completely (wahdat-ul-adyan). Both the definition of the word “interfaith” and practice are wrong as he espouses. Actually, the event was called “Multi-Faith” to show the distinctiveness of each religion. Interfaith means people of different faiths talking across to one another in dialogue for better understanding.
- He stated that the Muslims participated in acts of worship. In reality, our hosts were very understanding. Muslims performed the Maghrib (sunset) prayer there before the program started. Most of the activities were in the form of speakers from different faiths sharing their words of respect from the podium. There was no formal group worship, singing together, closing of eyes, and raising of hands. Also, there were no visible images of religious objects on the walls and Bibles were not used. The only part everybody stood together was at the end when all the attendees read the words of “Minnesotans Standing Together”.
Media Coverage of the Controversy
Before the controversy was created, Fox9 news covered the event; the Star Tribune had a picture caption of the event the following day. The BBC Somali Service had an interview with one of the Somali attendees.
However, some media outlets made sensational twist of events. Somali Media TV and Universal Television hosted Sh. Abdiqani “Qardhaawi”, who escalated the matter further. Universal television is viewed in many parts of the world and it participated in broadcasting the misleading information. He made many unsubstantiated allegations against all the people who attended the event. Somali Media TV and Universal television have so far denied access for us to present our side of the story.
Also, I am grateful to many of the Somali media outlets, such as Somali TV of Minnesota, Somali Mai TV, Somali Voice TV, Hiiraan website, and KFAI radio for giving us the opportunity to present our version of events.
The Voice of America, Somali Service ran a debate representing the two sides of the story on October 6th. Unfortunately, a piece of church choir music that was not part of the original interview was included. It gave the impression that we participated in the song to the worldwide Somali audience. However, VOA has respectfully rectified the situation in the broadcast on October 12th.
How Can We Avoid Such Manufactured Crisis?
- The need for cooperation and respect within Muslims and building bridges of understanding with people of other faiths is a matter of necessity in a pluralistic society. If there is disagreement, it should be handled with proper etiquette and not use public media at the first opportunity. Also, the media needs to responsible in its reporting.
- We need to agree and define basic terminology such as intrafaith (dialogue within people of the same faith); interfaith (dialogue between people of different religions); multifaith (dialogue among many distinct religions). The problem we had in this episode was that our distracters were defining interfaith as unifying or merging religions and that is not what happened here.
- The role of imam and leadership is a huge responsibility. Those in such positions should not abuse their authority. Fatwa, or Islamic religious edict have certain criteria and cannot be issued randomly or emotionally. It needs deliberation and solid evidence to support it.
- If we receive information about people, one should not rush to judgment but verify the truth of the matter.
- We need to keep the peace at all cost. Somalis and Muslims know very well the destructive nature of stirring up fitna. The difficulty of resolving the situation in Somali is a classic example of the long-term effects of fitna.
- It is easy to destroy but difficult to build. We need to respect our institutions and the effort so many people put into them. We must keep improving and make them sustainable. Leaders in the frontlines need respect not vilification.
Finally, there is optism out of this totally unnecessary fiasco that we are experiencing. I am seeing restraint on the part of many of our community leaders and calls for better collaboration. I am also noticing the Somali public recognizing the value of bridge building and interfaith dialogue. We may come closer as a result of this scary turmoil.