Sunday, July 03, 2005


Imam With A New York State Of Mind

On September 11 2001, New Yorkers awoke to see the ugly face of humanity burning and tearing down one of their most famous landmarks.

Terror, mass murder, suicidal mania, religious extremism. Call it what you like. For New Yorkers of all backgrounds, indeed for all Americans, the enemy was clear. And it was overseas.

The terrorist attacks on New York were the work of foreign extremists. Sadly, ordinary Americans of various faiths with little connection to those responsible were attacked.

The main suspect was one Saudi dissident named Usama bin Ladin. Clothed in a white gown, sporting a beard and turban, bin Ladin became the object of American hatred. And the first suspect taken into custody had his photo splashed across the front page of Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph.

The headline was “First Arrest”. The man had his head bowed and was wearing a blue turban. He had brown skin and a beard. He sort-of looked like Usama. One of his co-religionists was attacked and killed by an angry American. Both men were presumed Islamic extremists.

Yet both men were Sikhs.

A few days later, news spread of another suspect. The young American medical intern was suspected of involvement in the attacks. The young man lived in New York and worked near the World Trade Centre. Various news outlets showed his photograph, and speculation was mounting of American Muslim involvement.

Eventually, the young doctor was cleared. It turned out that the young man on his way to work when he heard on the radio about the attacks. He rushed to the scene and was assisting paramedics in treating survivors when one of the towers fell. Within minutes, the young doctor was killed by falling debris.

He gave his life to assist the dying before joining them in death. And to his family’s dismay, he was never honoured in the martyr’s rollcall. Instead, he was labelled as a terrorist.

There are so many stories of Muslim Americans blamed and accused. Not to mention those presumed to be Muslim. Yet Muslim Americans continued their pursuit of mainstream American life. Including their religious leaders.

Two American Imams stood out in the post-September 11 period. One was of Greek extraction, the other Egyptian. Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson lives in California and is a resident scholar at the Zaytuna Institute, a Muslim thinktank. He was invited to the White House by President Bush immediately after the attacks. He also addressed numerous American and international media outlets and was widely interviewed and quoted in the mainstream media. The other was Imam Feisal.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is resident scholar (Imam) of Masjid al-Farah, located a few streets away from the World Trade Centre. He has held this post since 1983. He also delivers lectures in churches and synagogues, and has been involved in inter-faith dialogue since the 1970’s.

Imam Feisal visited Australia last year at the invitation of Premier Bob Carr, who had met him in New York some months earlier. Mr Carr was impressed with Imam Feisal’s approach to religious and broader issues, and particularly with the Imam’s preparedness to join his fellow Muslim Americans and embrace mainsteam American life.

Australians of all faiths have been searching in vain for sensible coherent Muslim voices amongst local religious scholars. Few current spokespeople for Australian Islam have been able to provide such a voice, at least certainly not in Sydney.

It is, therefore, little wonder that educated Muslims and non-Muslims across the community flocked to Imam Feisal’s talks in Sydney, many travelling from interstate and New Zealand. Imam Feisal’s books are found in homes and offices of Muslim professionals and students across the country.

The Imam’s latest release is a book entitled “What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America”. The book repeats many of the themes the Imam discussed in a lecture at the Adelaide Town Hall on Monday 29 May 2004 entitled “Bridging the Chasm: Islam and Australia”, a lecture in which the Imam quotes from William Blake and at least one Talmudic scholar as well as from the Qur’an.

Muslim Australians can appreciate the Imam’s embrace of Western culture and institutions as being almost perfectly compatible with Muslim beliefs. Liberal democracy has provided Muslims with greater freedom to practise and teach their faith than even exists in many Muslim countries. Australian Imams can deliver sermons without having to pass them by an official government censor. Muslim communities are encouraged to establish schools and receive generous funding packages from state and federal governments to do so.

Muslim Australians are resentful of a small minority of extremists making loud incoherent noises and selling strange and hate-filled books. Muslim Australians are also resentful of being judged by the words and deeds of such extremists. We wish we had more local imams who could speak with the fluency and sufi vision of Imam Feisal.

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