WASHINGTON - The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan joined several Black American Muslim leaders to address the controversy surrounding the proposed building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York, as well as the general attitude of mistrust and intolerance toward followers of Islam.
The members of the Coalition of African American Muslims, which included the Minister, urged a rejection of anti-Islam hatred and religious intolerance, while connecting the disdain for their faith to America's old history of hate. But, they said, out of the negative attacks on a beautiful way of life comes an opportunity to teach and spread the truth—despite severe opposition.
“This world is not ignorant to the beauty of Islam,” said Minister Farrakhan. “The fear is that Islam will change the religion of the slave that they took it from and make him a bright light of a brand new civilization,” he said at a press conference held at the prestigious National Press Club and broadcast live worldwide via Internet webcast.
Imam Abdul Malik of Islam on Capitol Hill, a youth advocacy group, agreed saying Islam is under attack by bigots who fear that which is different. “Islam does not mean terrorism,” said Imam Malik. “The real issue is the rise of Islam,” he added.
There are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. Minister Farrakhan pointed out that in close proximity to where the Islamic center is to be built, there are sex shops, peep shows, strip clubs and other immoral activities not being protested by those who say the Islamic center will violate hallowed ground and disrespect the memories of who died in Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Those who oppose the center contradict the very principles outlined in the United States Constitution which guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, the Minister said.
International media outlets such as PressTV, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the India Globe and Asia Today newspapers asked questions and observed as the leaders decried the atmosphere of intolerance created by extremist right wing media talk show hosts, unscrupulous special interest groups, ill-motivated politicians and prominent conservative evangelical leaders.
Opponents have made plans for the center a major political and social question, holding protests at the proposed site, and quizzing political leaders from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to President Obama about their positions on the issue. Violence has also erupted: A Muslim cab driver in New York survived a vicious, bloody knife attack as the debate has grown vitriolic, contemptuous and falsely condemned Islam as a religion of hate and enemy of America. Mosques and Islamic centers in different parts of the country have been vandalized and a site for a center in Tennessee was torched.
“We know when people start burning books, it's not a great leap for them to begin burning people. History has shown us that,” said Islamic scholar Imam Zaid Shakir of the Zaytuna Institute. An entire industry has developed which profits from fostering the Islamophobic climate in America today, said Imam Shakir.
“I think what we have to realize is that there is a lot of money first of all that's been spent to create that climate of fear and suspension and mistrust towards Muslims,” said Imam Shakir. “The books have been cranked out and there are major media outlets that are behind that effort of demonizing Muslims.”
Islam is a force for good, liberation
Asma Hanif, chair of the Washington D.C.-based Council of Muslim Organizations, spoke about her difficult experience as a Muslim woman raising children and interacting with family members who have heard media misreports about Muslims.
“As I stand here, I think about the fact that I'm an African American Muslim woman born and raised in this country. I think about all of the family members that I have who are listening to the words that are being said about me personally, because they know I am their daughter; I am their sister; I am their mother; I am their niece; I am all of these things. But, if you listen to the media, they say I'm a terrorist, or I'm oppressed, or I'm a bad person,” said Ms. Hanif. “I'm not oppressed! I dress this way because I love it!” Ms. Hanif continued. “In fact, if the truth be known, the only oppression I have ever seen was growing up Black in North Carolina! Islam liberated me as a Muslim woman!”
The severe economic crisis along with the sensationalized coverage of the “underwear bomber” in Detroit, the Ft. Hood shootings, the alleged Times Square attempted car bombing and other highly publicized alleged terrorist plots have contributed to fear mongering and hatred.
The controversy, however, is also creating curiosity and inspiring others to learn more about Islam, observed Imam Shakir and Imam Siraj Wahhaj, amir of the Muslim Alliance in North America, agreed.
“That which is happening right now and across the country with hatred against Muslims, I'm telling you, there's good,” said Imam Wahhaj. “All over America people are asking ‘Teach me about Islam.' ”
Coalition wants to help bring solutions to problems
The Coalition of African American Muslims, a group formed within the last month, sees offering solutions to these problems and giving a voice to the growing number of Blacks in America who are followers of Islam as part of its mission. The coalition said it was willing to work across racial, ethnic, religious and other divisions to combat rising hatred in America and help steer the country onto a proper course.
Islam has deep roots within the Black community, in fact, a significant number of followers of Islam in America are Black people who came to Islam as a result of the work of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In later years, due to the influence of prominent representatives such as Malcolm X, the late Imam W.D. Mohammed and Minister Farrakhan, Blacks have continued to embrace Islam.
Coupled with America's legacy of racism, slavery and Jim Crow laws, Blacks have undergone an experience that has prepared them for leadership roles in a society still suffering from bigotry, racism and inequality present at the birth of the nation, said the Muslim leaders.
“We're not new to this. This is the same toxic soup of hatred and bigotry, just served in a different bowl,” said Imam Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Freedom Society. The rights advocate described how he endures “Driving While Black” and “Flying While Muslim.”
“This is not the climate in which we want to operate,” said Mr. Bray.
Nisa Islam Muhammad, who has spearheaded outreach and education efforts regarding the religion of Islam and was one of the lead coordinators of the press conference, said its time has come. “It's a great day to be a Muslim,” said Ms. Muhammad, who is also a staff writer for The Final Call.
Lessons for world present in America
Minister Farrakhan said the world is looking to America for leadership, and watching to see how America handles this particular religious issue. A nation's highways, bridges and roads do not determine its greatness; a nation's greatness is determined by its righteousness, he observed.
“She (America) started wrong. Slavery was wrong. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was not right. The dehumanization of an entire people was not right,” said Min. Farrakhan. “One-hundred and fifty years of Jim Crow was wrong. How do you right a wrong like that?”
“When we go to the cause of all causes, we can't blame the agents of God's cause—we have to look at God and ask him why he permitted it,” said Min. Farrakhan.
If Black people rise above emotion into God's thinking, they will see persecution was preparation for a future mission and duty to humanity after trial in the furnace of affliction, the Minister said.
“We have a unique historical prospective in terms of being people who have fought against racism in this country, bigotry, and attempts to relegate us to second class citizens for centuries,” added Imam Shakir. “That bequeathed in our genes a certain resilience and a certain combativeness that is really lacking from this current discourse. I think bringing that voice to bear will be for the service of our brothers and sisters. Not as an alternative voice, not that we have all the answers, but saying that we have a unique perspective and I think that unique perspective will be galvanizing for the overall Muslim community.”
“I personally think that the Muslims in America have a great role to play not only in Islam in America but really Islam all over the world,” said Imam Wahhaj. “We have to show our brothers and sisters and the rest of the Muslim world how to deal with differences. How to have doctrinal differences and yet sit together at the table and have discussion and have dialogue and not bloody each other's noses, not kill each other.”
Discussing the sectarian violence going on in many places of the world, between Muslims, Imam Wahhaj said he is disheartened when he hears about it.
“It sickens me when I hear about a masjid (place of worship) blowing up and 60 or 70 people dying, it just doesn't make sense and it is so hard for me to imagine that these are really Muslims doing it,” said Imam Wahhaj. “I think our brothers and sisters in the East and the rest of the Muslim world could learn a lot from African Americans in the United States.”