America not only touts its freedoms, it sends mad bombers around the world to spread them. Yet, right in its capital city, Washington DC, committed Muslims, most born in the US, have been deprived of their religious right to pray inside their masjid at the behest of the Saudis. Whither the freedom of these Muslims?
As one walks into the Islamic Center in Washington, DC, from Massachusetts Avenue, he can clearly see the inscription written on top of the masjid in the ancient Kufi script, “In the houses [masjids] that Allah has allowed to be erected, so that His name could be conscientized therein…” (24:36). In the vast majority of masjids in the United States, and probably the world, raising Allah’s (swt) name above all others, “Indeed, masjids belong to Allah, and so, do not call on other than Allah therein…” (72:18), is not possible. Thus today we have the proliferation of sectarian masjids (Sunni, Shi‘i, Salafi, Tablighi, etc.), ethnic masjids (Pakistani, Arab, African, Indonesian, etc.), and class masjids (African American, immigrant), in all of which the name of Allah (swt) stands second to His human power rivals on earth. In this masjid, a Salafi may forbid entry to a Shi‘i; and in that masjid, immigrants may welcome the FBI, but not African Americans; and in a third masjid, the imam’s khutbah may have to be approved by some “higher” authority.
For one brief shining moment, the Islamic Center (in Washington, DC) was liberated from all of these racial, sectarian, and authoritarian accretions. For a short time, the Islamic Center ceased to be a prayer-only masjid, becoming the reference point for all Islamic activity in the area, the organizing venue for Islamic activists, and the inspirational fountainhead that excited the Muslims to their larger social and political responsibilities. The Muslim Jumu‘ah attendees, no longer seen dozing off, actually looked forward to going there for the khutbah, rather than for fulfilling a perfunctory ritual “duty.”
Muslims are supposed to gather in masjids so as to integrate their aggregate contact with Allah (swt) five times a day — that is, to be the instruments of Allah’s (swt) overwhelming power — to the correction of the social upheavals that exist in their societies and countries, regardless of wherever they are. Masjids are required to organize an agenda of social contact, social correction, social involvement, and social transformation by Muslims. Masjids are supposed to equip the Muslims with knowledge, courage, wisdom, and impartiality so that they can provide guidance in the face of the difficult issues their societies are facing — issues of discrimination, terrorism, extremism, perpetual war, torture, rendition, occupation, imperialism, Zionism, failed representation, criminal capitalism, wealth polarization, etc. To put it in the way that it should be: masjids are a staging area for the projection of Islamic power — the power to move morals, ethics, justice, and principle into the public space as a basis of human behavior rather than greed and self-interest. And for a short time, the Islamic Center meant all this to the local Muslims who felt they now belonged to something greater.
It was these local Muslims who had the courage of conscience to elect their own imam, rejecting the succession of imams who were appointed by the ambassadors of non-representative governments in Muslim-majority countries, and whose freedom of thought and expression was stifled by these same governments. With the Islamic Revolution in Iran capturing the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims (1979), with the signing of the Camp David Accords (1978), with the US-instigated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), and with the continuing brutal repression of the Islamic forces in Syria, the Center administration’s quietist, non-commital, and apolitical approach could no longer be tolerated by the local Muslims who wanted to and needed to be a part of the ongoing transformation taking place in the Muslim East. So they did what at that time was thought to be impossible to a government-controlled or quasi government-controlled masjid: they nonviolently changed the defective, unresponsive administration to a representative one by community demand, and ultimately elected Muhammad al-‘Asi as the new imam of the Islamic Center in 1981.
It is not known whether a free masjid in the heart of the “free” world — a free masjid that was not shy to point to the dirty relationship between American imperialism and Saudi Wahhabism — was more unpalatable to the technocrats in Washington or to the royals in Arabia. An order came from somewhere to silence the Islamic Center microphone against the injustice manufactured by Washington and Tel Aviv, and driven into the heartlands of Islam by proxy Muslim governments. Playing the role of bouncer, the Saudi government came out in force, with the DC police, to occupy the Islamic Center on March 5, 1983 under the pretext that Imam al-‘Asi’s administration was using the center as a cache of weapons (no weapons were found) and that much-needed repairs and renovations had to be done. No eviction notice or prior warning of such action was ever given to Imam al-‘Asi; instead, the surprise operation was precisely timed before salah al-fajr to cause Imam al-‘Asi, his pregnant wife, and infant daughter the maximum amount of terror. On a cold day in March, the Imam and his family were forcibly taken in a U-Haul truck to a high-rise apartment several miles away, but the Imam rejected this “setup” and made his way back to the Islamic Center where a swarming media was already awaiting him.
Since that day, because of his meaningful and inspiring talks either in official or unofficial capacity, Imam al-‘Asi has had to endure spending time in prison, two false misdemeanor charges, not being allowed to enter the Islamic Center, not being given “permission” to go for Hajj or ‘Umrah, and not being allowed to function as the elected imam of the center. As the sole elected, and thereby legitimate, representative of the Muslim community in Washington, he has been forced to conduct Jumu‘ah and ‘Id services outside the masjid, at first in its courtyard, and when barred from that by a steel fence, in the alley across Massachusetts Avenue, and then for the last 15 years, on a sidewalk adjacent to the Islamic Center. March 2013, as this issue of CI goes to press, will mark 30 years of his delivering Jumu‘ah every week on the sidewalk, regardless of the weather, which has ranged from below 0°F and snow in the wintertime to around 112°F and lethal air quality in the summertime.
Such a level and length of conviction can only be based on and reflective of principle. The will of the people in conscientiously choosing their leaders is legitimate; the force of governments and their constabulary officers in countermanding this will is illegitimate. And thus the only legitimate Jumu‘ah at the Islamic Center is the one that is conducted outside on the street, not the one that is conducted inside the masjid. And the place where the Islam of truth, action, principle, and conscience is presented is on the street, not on the inside where it is the Islam of which sweet dreams are made. Islamic conviction has always been tempered in the heat of injustice, not in the air-conditioned spaces where lullabys substitute for khutbahs. And so if a passerby wants to learn about Islam, be inspired by the Qur’an, and become close to Allah (swt) and His Prophet (pbuh), let him spend some time on the street; if he is only interested in fulfilling a ceremonial ritual, there are a thousand other places he can go.
Allah (swt) knows best. He placed us in the street. Being on the street is liberating: we are free. We are affected neither by impinging fear, nor by cringing favor. Whether we are attendees or imams, on the street, we have no fear of losing a position or status because we delivered words of truth to an oppressor, and our apparent plight of not being inside a masjid obviates that we have not been favored by a sponsor (government). No one pays our bills and no one compensates us for our commitment, and thus we owe no one a compromise in our presentation of Allah’s (swt) words of truth and justice.
And in His wisdom, He placed us in the street, of all places, in Washington — the citadel of representative governance, democracy, and civil rights. Washington is supposed to be the example for the rest of the world; Washington is the place where all the defenders of democracy and all the impassioned advocates of freedom and liberty congregate and pontificate. But the hollowness of it all is not to be found in some dark Latin American or Middle Eastern corner of the world, rather it is to be found in Washington’s own backyard, just a stone’s throw from the White House, the Capitol (where Congress convenes), and the Supreme Court. For 30 years, an elected representative of the people has not been allowed to discharge his duties because of the overweening power of corrupt and entrenched vested interests. And to boot, those special interests belong to the much-maligned Muslim part of the world. Isn’t this the kind of power that democracy, the rule of the people, is supposed to curtail? Isn’t this the last place on earth where something like this should have (or could have) happened, and then be allowed to persist for three decades, through the presidencies of five successive US administrations, whose motorcades have shuttled past the street Jumu‘ah on several occasions?
We find ourselves on the street because the dominant power axis composed of imperialism, Zionism, and Anglo-Wahhabism cannot afford to give us an institutional presence where we can put money and human resources behind our words and ideas; they tried it in 1981 and discovered they couldn’t last with this kind of freedom for more than a year-and-a-half. After trying and failing to bury the problem with Justice Department legalism, the Americans threw the bone to their Saudi sectarian lapdogs, but the road to justice has never passed through Riyadh; and thus no attention to resolution and reconciliation is expected from Arabia. So the vigil outside the Islamic Center led by Imam al-‘Asi will continue,
“Hence, who could be more wicked than those who bar from [any of] Allah’s masjids the conscientizing of His name, and strive for their ruin, [although] they have no right to enter them save in fear [of Allah]? For them, in this world, there is ignominy in store; and for them, in the life to come, awesome suffering” (2:114).