On the side line of the summit of the Forum for the proximity of the Islamic Schools of Thought held in Tehran in autumn 2010, Taqrib News Agency the subsidiary to the Forum got the opportunity to meet with Imam Muhammad al-Asi and ask him for the answer to some questions regarding Shia and Sunni relations, the Muslim Image in the US and the mosque which was supposed to be built two blocks away from the site of 9/11 called Ground Zero. Following is the script of our interview with him.
Q: Let's start with the status of Muslims in America. Please tell us about the social and the economical situation of the Muslims in the US.
A: As of Muslims around the world, like everywhere in the world no one really wants to count them. There is no concrete, final census of how many Muslims there are in the United States but an educated guess would put Muslims around 80,00000, with some say it's more than that and some say it's less but These 80,00000 would be a happy medium. These 80,00000 Muslims in the United States come from different backgrounds. You may say that one category is those Muslims who are immigrants, Muslims who left their original countries and homelands and immigrated to the United States and thus became residents of the United States with their family so that is what you can call as the immigrant community of Muslims in the United States.
The other category of the Muslims in the United States is the converts some would say reverts. These are people who were born in no- Muslim families. It could have been Christians or Jews or agnostics or whatever and whatever experience they had in their lives they discovered the meanings of Islam and through a rational decision they became Muslims.
And then there is a third category of Muslims and those are the Muslims who were born in the United States. They don't consider themselves immigrant Muslims because they did not leave their country and come to the US and they were born in Muslim families and many of these if not the majority of these area African- American Muslims, some people would say black Muslims. These are the three broad categories of the 80,00000 Muslims in the United States.
As far as their social-economic status is concerned, generally speaking Muslims are middle class Muslims or even Upper middle class. Muslims are not the poverty-stricken community in the United States. That does n’t mean that there are not poor Muslims, just like there are under classes in other religions persuasions but the overall picture is that Muslims generally speaking are better off financially and economically than the average person in the United States.
Muslims are located in the larger cities in the United States. Most of the These 80,00000 people are in metropolitan cities such as Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Huston, Denver, Miami and etc…
As far as the persuasions, religious persuasions of the Muslims in the US, they are just like they are in the rest of the world. There are those Muslims who call themselves Sunnis, there are those who call themselves shias and yet there are those who call themselves Sufis not particularly Shia or Sunni. So this is the general overview of the Muslims present in the United States.
Q: You talked about conversion to Islam. On the other side we have Islamophobia. Can you compare these two? Which one is exceeding the other one?
A: Well, when you speak about Islamophobia. Islamophobia is generated by instruments of government and power.
Islamophobia is not something someone is born with. It is not something that comes naturally in any community in the United States. The phenomenon of Islamophobia or anti-Islamic sentiments and ideas, they were all generated in the past ten or twenty years, maybe thirty years but not more than that. Before that many people knew nothing on Islam. I remember, going back to the United States in the 1970s I was fasting in Ramadhan and my coworkers no one knew anything about Ramadhan, fasting or Islam to that matter. Everything was strange or new or mysterious to them. So people when they don't know something it does not mean that they necessarily have antagonistic feelings towards it but as political conditions of the world changed and they have been changing very rapidly in the past generation or two and Islam has been asserting itself in its own part of the world there are governments that see that Islamic self- determination is inimical to what they call their national interests so they begin to spew out negative and destructive propaganda against the Muslims hence you have this fear of Islam that has gripped many people in the United States and that’s you have what is called this Islamophobia. Now I don’t think this has anything to do with people who become Muslims. I haven't heard of anyone who has become a Muslim because he fears Islam but what this Islamophobic propaganda has done to the public is that it has created in them a curiosity that," What's this Islam? I just hear the media speaking about Islam in a negative way. I'd like to learn about it myself" so people out of curiosity start to go to bookstores and libraries, read about Islam and in the process some of them actually become Muslims hence you have this movement of people adhering to Islam from other religious backgrounds which I think from the perspective of fanatical religious people is a cause of alarm. They are afraid that why are a lot of people becoming Muslims? Does this mean that in future there is no longer going to be Christianity in the United States? And what will happen to Christians who are living in this country? All of this obviously comes from a lack of knowledge of what Islam is all about? And a lot of the problems whether they are problems of perception or whether they are practical problems a lot of these problems come simply from the public ignorance of what Islam stands for.
Q: A lack of knowledge you said. Does this lack of knowledge end in a measure like Qur'an burning, that the person does not really know what is in Qur'an and he burns it. If the person knows that what Qur'an says is the same as what Bible and Turah say would the person go on burning it or still there are political reasons behind it?
A: Muslim community in the United States has had instances in which there have been acts of vandalism and criminal acts, assaulting Muslims and a Muslim was stabbed in New York city, certain Islamic centers were damaged by acts of some- still up until now they are unknown- and the law has caught up with these kinds of people and there are some other parts of the United States where Muslims would like to build some Masajid (Mosques) and they were not able to do that. These acts can be traced into a strain fanaticism within the Zionist evangelical movement in the United States and that Zionist evangelical movement does entire of brushing Islam with a broad brush of accusations and obviously when there is the bad press that the Muslims have in any particular country there is bound to be a type of incitement to acts that are damaging to the Muslims and this is what we have developing. I think it's very inaccurate just because there is a few individual or something like that to say that all of the people in the United States are anti-Islamic but in the same breath we should also say that there is a definite media and government policies that are anti-Islamic and if the media and the government policies continue the way they are then we may have a population of Americans who are against, who are inimical and who are hostile to the Muslims.
Q: About the relation of Christians, Jews and Muslims. What the American Muslim society has done for the proximity of the religions in there? Has there been anything like unity walk in there to keep the unity among followers of different religions?
A: In the past ten or twenty years there has been an interest among the followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to try to have meetings, they call them interfaith sessions or get together and there has been quite a few of them maybe dozens of them throughout the United States in the course of the year taking place but honestly even though it sounds very good but there is no substance to it. People just go and sit down and they would say things which may sound appealing to other people but they don’t want to deal with the substances so the major issues are avoided in these types of meetings therefore there has n’t been any positive cumulative effect from these interfaith meetings so what is carrying the day in the United States is the media and the media is very hostile to Muslims and you have a notion in the public that Islam is not desirable and maybe Islam cannot fit into the American social context. This is what happens because there are many people of good will in the Christian and Muslim persuasions but the problem is that they don’t have the wherewithal, they don’t have the means, they don’t have the power, they don’t have the finances to exclude the trouble makers and it's very unfortunate for both the Muslim population and the Christian population in the United States that the trouble makers are the ones who have the power and the money and the trouble makers are those who are instigating fanaticism and division within their own religious communities and among the different religious communities.
Q: As you said the one who wants to bring unity does n’t have the power. Any suggestion regarding that and as of the individuals "what can I do to bring unity among Muslims"? Some say through your words, through your behavior and through your proper stance, because as Quran says," Muslims are always ready to help others." Are there any other ways?
A: What I can see is that Muslims have to get together. The Muslims in the United States are divided. They are not united. If they were united we would have a very different…
Q: You say that they are divided If they are divided where is that hinder? Is it the topic of Shia and Sunni?
A: It's part of it. I think most of it has to do with money. Many Muslims go where the money is. They compromise principle for what they consider to be the advantage of finances. That’s the bottom line. If Muslims just put principles before economics they’ll do much better and that’s the disease. There's nothing to be sad about. However way the condition we are in, which is not a very rosy condition, or whatever it is I think ultimate good is going to come out of this.
Q: Everybody wonders when Shia and Sunni face the same direction for prayers, when they have the same book, when they have the same God, how is it that they are so much divided? Probably minor differences but how and why there are these minor differences so much important that divides them.
A: There is a simple answer to that. They don’t know each other. A Sunni Muslim is nor willing to go to a Shia Masjid (Mosque) and by the same token a Shia Muslim is not willing to go to a Sunni Masjid.If there is not the motivation and the will power for each one of these sides just to go and attend the congregation of the other side how are they to know each other? It's that basic that simple that once they get to know each other they would say:"wait a minute here. There are not very many differences. Oh my God we thought that there was a world of differences between us." Yes there reason you thought that is because there was a world of distance between you but when you collapse the distance then you realize the differences are only the margin, insignificant differences but as long as distances are going to remain, then the doubts are going to be there, the stereotypes are going to be there, the misinformation is going to be there.
Q: So what is your message, your suggestion is "Let's get to know each other" or "Let's face each other".
A: Exactly. It's as simple as you get. Just go to each other's place where you congregate and just sit in, observe things, listen, open up your mind and then all those barriers and obstacles would come crushing down but as you refuse to do that, we are going to stay where we are.
Q: About the latest fatwa of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Kuwaiti cleric desecrating the wife of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).Any idea on that and several positive feedback from the Sunnis around the world.
A: First of all Imam Khamenei in his fatwa is very wise because he is looking at the condition of all the Muslims and I think it is a point of reference that those of the Prophets respected and loved and cared for Muslims should show a healthy attitude towards them. A person who happens to be from Kuwait who maybe reacting to his personal lifetime negative experiences decided one day in Ramadhan to have a type of get together in London, England. London England is in fact befitting for hundreds of years behind the divisions of Muslims in the Muslim world. There have been different types of sects that were concoctive by the British in Muslim lands. In Iran you have the Bahais, in Pakistan you have the Gharianis. I mean the English hand has been in many of the Suffi activities in the world, and even today you can detect British hand in it and so here we go again. In London England the source of trouble making in the Muslim world, a person convenes a meeting in Ramadhan and then begins to use foul language against people who were in the household of the Prophet. This could have been away from the media, could have been in exclusion but it was n’t. So it gives reasons to believe that this person maybe an agent himself or he has very close connections and instructions from agents who are working to divide the Muslims. The number one issue right now is dividing the Muslims in imperialist and Zionist circles. How can we divide the Muslims? You know work on sectarianism and what came out of this unfortunate event was a sectarian division of history and Imam Khamenei was very in his fatwa timely and wise to put an end to this penitent in some fanatics and fanatics exist on both sides of the fence and actually fanatics feed each other's fanaticism. When a Shia fanatic begins to say things like that he is echoed by a Sunni fanatic who would say other things that are offensive to Shia and then both of them begin to have an orchestra of division that would split the Muslims and make sure that the Muslims remain divided and separated and so the fatwa came right on time and it reverberated very well with sane, level minded and balanced Muslims around the world. It was very well received because that is what was supposed to have been said and it also should be echoed by the Muslims who belong to the Sunni persuasions or schools of thought and also expressing their fatwas concerning some of the negative words that may have been expressed by fanatics and Sunnis side so it takes two to tangle.
Q: What about the point that it was a Sunni cleric who wrote that letter to Ayatollah Khamenei asking for his idea and that it is not just Shias but Sunnis also might refer to Ayatollah Khamenei.
A: I understand that but what I'm trying to say is that Imam Khamenei gave a fatwa against the fanatics in the Shia context. That fatwa needs to be complemented by a Sunni fatwa against the fanatics in the Sunni context. There is the issue of takfir (excommunicate) that is brewing in their context so it would have been who these who were excited by the fatwa were given by Imam Khamenei. It would have behooved them to match that fatwa with a fatwa of their own against those takfiris (excommunicated ones) in the Sunni context.
Q: What about the story of Ground Zero. We have heard that a lot of people supported a disco to be built there and on the other side there were those who were pro-Muslims among both Muslims and Christians and they supported a mosque to be built there and the story of terry Jones and then Qur'an burning.
A: This whole subject about building an Islamic center in Manhattan, two blocks away from what is called Ground Zero is very dubious. There are a lot of questions marks about it. The person who is behind this idea, his name has been flashed through media off and on; his name is Faisal Abdul Rauf. I think he came to Iran a couple of years ago, this person is consultant for the FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigations, which has been harassing the Muslims in the United States at an accelerated pace since 9/11, so he's been consultant for them since 2003.
The other thing about him is that he has been appointed by the state department as something like an ambassador of good will. United State's state department sends him to Muslim countries to polish the image of United States to the Muslims. Recently he went to Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and he's been on these trips all around the Muslim World to speak to Muslim population and tell them that the US, The United States government is funding them. So here is this type of person who is saying that he wants to build an Islamic center in Manhattan.
Now in saying something like that this center which they say is going to be 15 stories high, higher than this hotel, is going to cost $15,0000000. The question is where is this money coming from? No one ever asked that question and there is still not any concrete answer to "Where are you going to get this money from? They look at this account that people who trying to figure out what does this person Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf worked? Does he have $15,0000000? Obviously not. Does he have $15,000000? No. Does he have $1.5 million? No he doesn't. So he does n’t have any money so he is speaking larger than his size.
So on further investigations it turns out that he has connections with a person, his name is Ribi and this person belongs to the American Intelligence community. This is the person who is behind the idea. So we wake up to realize" Wait a minute. The people who are going to finance this project are old hand intelligence operatives of the United States government. The question now becomes: what's all this going on? Why do they bring this issue to the … This would have been a non issue .It would have died in its cradle. There would n’t have been any fuss, no media, no coverage, one front page headlines in newspapers. No newspaper about the whole issue. It would n’t have existed if the media decided that:" We're not going to cover it; we're not going to pay any attention to it. It would have been a non issue, then something would have happened and the question now is why would the media, CNN, BBC, news agencies, TV stations and journalists and commentators why did every one grab this hot issue? The reason to that is there is going to be elections in the United States. The first Tuesday of November is the midterm elections and this issue comes in very handy for the Republicans who lost the majority in the house of representatives and also in the senate so they want to make a comeback and what better issue to latch on to 9/11? Because this Islamic, this proposed Islamic center was going to be built on what they say is Ground Zero. So they are tagging this issue to 9/11. 9/11 is a very sensitive issue in the American public so they can piggyback this issue on 9/11, get the jingoistic juices of the American, if you want to call it political fanaticism American stirred up then this is the best way to do it and that’s exactly what they did. So the Republicans use this issue to the maximum and they are looking good right now going to this election.
People right now are projecting that Republicans are going to come back and Republicans are going to lose in this election and what really helped all of this? This whole issue about this Islamic center or mosque and they almost built in the air. There is nothing. No budget. There is no support for it so it's obvious. It was used as an eternal political punching back to serve the election year that is coming. It is as simple as you get and so many Muslims they just got carried away that they all wanted to go to Masjid (Mosque) but why don’t you look behind the whole issue who is suggesting something, who is behind it? There are names, there have been few articles but they will never make it to the mainstream press the mainstream media because they are the facts. They shed light on what is really behind this whole subject. But about the poor Muslim the rationality is absent and the emotion has taken over not knowing that someone is pulling their leg.
Q: There is a lack of knowledge on Christianity among Muslims and a lack of knowledge on Islam among Christians. Where do you think this need for education must be met? Is it in the school books or the academic books or anywhere out of school and out of books?
A: Charity begins at home. If you want to explain or present Islam to the other then we , Muslims, are going to have present ourselves in a way that others can understand us. Many of Muslims go round the world to night clubs. The …that exist in this world Muslims are involved in them. These could be casinos; they could be the outrageous lifestyles they have. You see this does not give a very good image of Muslims. So if we can begin just to cleanse our own behaviors and begin to act right then people would begin to see" hey, look these people, there is something about them". We will pick their curiosity and then they have to do their own homework. People are not lazy. People think and when they see that Muslims have something to offer, and then they would begin to consider it but when we have nothing to offer in substance they are going to continue with the some misunderstandings that have been built throughout many many centuries. We are just going to have to change our behavior and once that happens our behavior speak louder than our words. People don’t need words, there is a lot of rhetoric, they need behavior. They see, they detect a quality behavior then they are going to be interested and concerned. That’s the key to it and from then on it's downhill because we in ourselves, we exude Islam. We project Islam. In the west these characters from Arabian Peninsula some guy has some car, can't remember it was a BMW or a Mercedes and the body of the car was made out of gold. Now what do you think and the people would say this person is a Muslim. He is wearing this Islamic thing on him and these people in the United States say," Look at this" It’s a total turn off. They are turned off. This is Islam? I'm not interested.
So if they see Muslims divided, why would they like to come into a house that is divided? Why would they be interested that," All we are going to have is problems."
Why would they have to get interested? All there is, is problems. I don’t want to get involved in that.
Born in Grand Rapids, MI in 1951, Imam Muhammad al-Asi, spent his childhood in America travelling to Beirut at the age of 11 and did n’t go back to America before he completed his Arabic language and graduated from Arab University of Beirut. Back in the US in 1973, he attended University of Maryland and graduated with a degree in Government and Politics in 1979. He has been very active in the global Islamic movement and has given frequent speeches in the universities across United States, Canada and Europe. In 1981 he was elected as the Imam of the Masjid (mosque) in Washington DC and right now he is working on the first Qur'anic Tafsir(exegesis) to be written originally in English.
Courtesy: Taghrib News