[Editor's note: The following report was received via e-mail. It refers to the January 26, 2009 conference at West Chester University, "Islam in America: Understanding Intercultural Differences."]
Report on "Islam in America" conference at West Chester University
Jan. 26, 2009
Overall, the conference was a whitewashing of Islam, portraying Islam solely as a benign, peaceful religion, similar to Christianity and Judaism, with no intended ill-will and no oppression of women; with the help of the "biased" media, adherents of Islam have been made to feel uncomfortable in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.
The panelists repeated their views that "Jihad" has nothing to do with violence. The panelists dismissed Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and Steven Emerson as unqualified with regard to militant Islam.
Underlying themes of the conference were:
- to encourage the spread of Islam by inviting people to one's mosque or home for dinner;
- the diversity within Islam (not all Muslims are Arabs);
- alliances with blacks and other discrimination victims are important;
- U.S. foreign policy engenders ill-feelings.
Students were either compelled or coerced with extra-credit to attend the conference, with Professor (and conference speaker) Lawrence Davidson noting: "Some of the students have been dragooned here – it's for your own good."
The mayor of West Chester, who was scheduled to deliver opening remarks, did not appear or speak.
Notes on the Speakers:
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI Spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan:
"America is a great country" where Muslims have more freedom to practice their religion than in many Muslim countries. He claimed there are 6-8 million Muslims in the U.S. today.
"Most Americans do not know that Islam respects Christians and Jews."
"Muslims in America have not done enough to educate others about Islam."
"Misconceptions exist about Islam" in the U.S. Why? Because the media "always associates Islam with violence." He said that because of the Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland does not mean all Christians are violent, therefore people should not think of Muslims as violent. He also cited Timothy McVeigh as an example of a violent Christian. The gist: Oklahoma City equals Sept. 11. "Those Muslims who got involved in violence do not reflect the Muslim spirit."
"Honor killings" are limited to a few "tribal" groups and not representative of Islam.
He was critical of violence, mentioning attacks in several cities throughout the world, but omitting any in Israel and said the perpetrators "do not represent Islam" but use Islam as "a cover for their political agenda."
Muslims have "legitimate grievances to policies – mainly of the United States."
Osama Bin Laden does not represent Islam. He cited sura 5:35 which states Muslims cannot kill "an innocent person."
"Jihad is probably one of the most distorted concepts about Islam in America. The word Jihad refers to the inner struggle one has to go through to be a better person … not to gossip, not to steal, not to lie."
Mohammad "was persecuted" in Mecca. When he moved to Medina and formed a new nation, "he had an obligation to defend his nation" by warring. "Self-defense is a right to all nations."
"Infidels" tried to uproot Islam from its land in its founding stages.
"Jihad means to defend your country when it is attacked; jihad means you defend your land when it is attacked."
During Q&A: The Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia "is not true Islam."
PANEL #1—Topic: THE BASIC TENETS OF MUSLIM BELIEF:
Lawrence Davidson: "… Some of the students – who have been dragooned here – it's for your own good."
PHILLIP HOEFS: "It is difficult being a Muslim in America."
Another panelist (unsure of his name: ?? Ofari??): "Mohammad's character [is an] excellent example to look at if we want to be successful."
QAZWINI: "There are many shared practices between Muslims, Christians and Jews" such as "piety. What really matters is our heart and how we treat others."
He noted there is no segregation between gender in mosques, and Davidson pointed out that there is within Orthodox Judaism, where women have to sit upstairs, separate from the men.
Q&A: About homosexuality:
QAZWINI: "If someone does not practice homosexuality, they are not a bad person. Homosexuality needs some sort of [medical or psychological] treatment" to correct it. It is the act they oppose, not the person.
Q&A: About pro-Gaza demonstrations in Florida:
Davidson: Protests and Holocaust-related epithets and signs had to do with "the nature of the invasion and who was on which side. What America are we witnessing?" He cited rifts between, for example, between "neo-cons" and the Left and said: You're going to get a multiplicity of expression. What went on the past 8 years [of the Bush administration] was not an expression of my America."
Ofari???: What transpired in Fort Lauderdale was "an expression of what they [the protesters] deem to be an act of social injustice."
Q&A: What about suicide bombers and their belief that it gets them to Heaven?
QAZWINI: Adam and Eve went to Paradise/Heaven. Adam ate from the apple and was sent out of Heaven. Cain kills Abel: this is the "first bloodshed. Earth is not a crime-free zone; Heaven is."
He claimed: "Over 99% of Muslims are peace-loving and law-abiding." When asked again, he said violence is not only associated with Islam. What about Christians and the Crusades?
"Does Islam condone suicide killing? No."
The media sensationalizes violence in the Middle East. The media does not cover the peaceful, scholarly side of Islam. The West focuses on violence.
PANEL #2---Topic: THE MUSLIM STUDENT EXPERIENCE
Note: Two panelists were leaders of the Muslim Student Association: one at West Chester, one at Temple. One of the panelists was a white Christian male convert to Islam. The gist of the panel: Muslims are like everyone else.
NASHRAH SHAH: Referencing Sept. 11: "It's unfair for a society to be judged based on a couple of fundamentalists." The perpetrators were "just a bunch of terrorists. These are not Muslims; these are terrorists."
There was a brief discussion during this panel about black Muslims. One panelist (name??) is a second-generation black-Muslim (her parents converted to Islam). The issue of "slavery" was brought up, yet there was no mention of the fact that it was Muslims in Africa who sold blacks into slavery.
Panelist TARIQ NABEEL arrived late. He noted that he grew up in Bucks County (after arriving in the US – later we learned from Oman) and tried to establish a group for young Muslims in that area and was unsuccessful as there were only 3-4 in his high school. At Temple U., there were many more. He is treasurer of the MSA there. He claimed he has to "be careful what we say around people." Later, when asked about this during Q&A, he said he meant to refrain from "political comments that might be turned against you" and to just say that Muslims "stand for peace." He praised CAIR and urged Muslims to be more active in politics and getting elected to forward their agenda. He expressed his opposition to The Patriot Act.
Another speaker (name?? female) said that as a Muslim, she will not apologize for Sept. 11 and does not ask Americans to apologize for actions in Iraq. Sept. 11 was bad, she added, but was "as very bad things this [U.S.] government has done."
Another panelist (Aliya???) said Muslims should not be apologetic: "We don't have to be shy; we have to be more aggressive" in introducing non-Muslims to Islam.
MAJOR SPEAKER #2: DR. ARTHUR GOLDSCHMIDT, Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at Penn State University; Topic: MILITANT ISLAM: Diversity of Approaches
(Goldschmidt noted he is not an expert on militant Islam and was asked to speak on the topic. He then proceeded to pontificate on the subject) Most Muslims want to present themselves as peace-loving. Most come to the U.S. for economic reasons and have become successful. They do not want things to change, as they are content. The desire for change is why people demonstrate. "People are not militant because they are poor."
"Most Muslims feel the U.S. is unfriendly" about the "Palestine" question or the way we talk about "attacking Iran." We already attacked two Muslim countries: Afghanistan and Iraq. "The recent conflict in Gaza has heightened Muslims and non-Muslims alike."
"Many Muslims perceive the media has a pro-Israel bias."
He asked rhetorically if one should be called a "militant" based on their talk or their actions. "Even if they argue a lot, they are more likely to talk the talk not walk the walk." In other words, militancy is just empty, harmless rhetoric.
He referenced "supporters of Palestine" and said, "Hamas" is one of those "groups the U.S. doesn't approve of."
Militant Muslims "only want people to respect them. They don't want ‘Islamophobia.'"
He said he went to the Internet to get info on militant Islam and that he only found works by Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer or Steve Emerson and they are "not my idea of how to learn about" militant Islam. "I was hoping for a scholarly work." He rejected a claim he attributed to Pipes that Muslims want to make Islam the dominant religion in the world. "Not many Muslims in America want to restore the caliphate."
The Koran includes passages that advocate fighting, but who does it mean they should fight? It also has passages about peace.
As for Jihad: The press claims that it means "Holy war. [But] We heard this morning it means ‘inner struggle.' A lot depends on the context." He noted that when Yasser Arafat went on TV and chanted "Jihad Jihad Jihad" that "some struggle against evil. In the context of Gaza it meant Israel."
As for violence attributed to Mohammad: He was opposed by "merchants in Mecca who were very powerful."
"Muslims are more likely to suffer from war and violence than to initiate them."
He strongly suggested that evangelical Christians and Zionist groups benefit by playing up "militant Islam." He said "It is in the interest of certain groups to weaken" Muslims in the U.S. "U.S. policy is essentially aggressive toward Muslim countries."
Muslims have a right to advocate for a U.S. policy that would be pro-"Palestine" or to reject who can and cannot have nuclear weapons.
When said he heard of a campaign to ban anti-Israel groups on the Web, he said: "Is Israel that much threatened that we should ban all Israel hate groups?"
In the Q&A he said in response to a question about militancy vs. terrorism: "The actions we [the U.S. government] take must seem terroristic to the people we take actions against."
When asked about the media, he urged the audience to not just look at what is reported, but also what is not reported. He claimed the media did not report why Hamas began firing rockets at Israel, and said it was because in November Israel had gone into Gaza City to pursue terrorists. He claimed Israel had also reneged on its promise that there would be open access in and out of Gaza.
Asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: "I have a fairly positive attitude about the Muslim Brotherhood" primarily because they do not advocate separation. Yes, there is some violence, he admitted, but excused it, noting: "What kind of oppression" they are victims of.
Asked about Gaza and Egypt, he claimed "ordinary Egyptians" want an open border with Gaza, but since the U.S. government opposes this, the Egyptian government will not allow it. Gazans are "cooped up."
PANEL #3---Topic: AMERICAN MUSLIM REACTION TO U.S. FOREIGN POLICY (surprisingly little on Israel)
IFTEKHAR HUSSAIN, Chair, Council on America Islamic Relations for Pennsylvania: U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East after WW II: two concerns: "the oil alliance" and "Soviet containment." But there are double standards: example: the U.S. does not impose democracy on Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
DR. MAGHAN KEITA: U.S. policy is convoluted and Americans are not aware of what shapes U.S. foreign policy.
DR. WILLIAM LESLIE HEWITT: There is "self-delusion" among Americans: "We think of ourselves as a peaceful people" but do not use the term "genocide" to describe what Americans have done to, say, native Americans. "Our historical approach is a violent one." When the U.S. invades a country, "We call it ‘offering democracy.'"
Davidson: Americans only care about foreign policy when it concerns them, and they localize it: American Jews have an affinity for Israel; Muslims, ‘Palestine;" Irish, Ireland.
As for Sept. 11: Americans "have no context to understand it" and only rely on the media, politicians and experts to explain it. "Why were we attacked on 9/11? According to Bush, because Muslims hate our values. This is bunk. It's a real trap. For Muslims, the trap can be very serious and lead to much discrimination – or worse."
DR. MAGHAN KEITA: Muslim Americans are not monolithic.
IFTEKHAR HUSSAIN: Muslim Americans from South Asia, for example, have had little interest in Iraq and Israel-"Palestine." But more recently have developed a "sensitivity" and are now interested. They are trying to get African-Americans to see a kinship with Muslims through a shared history as victims of discrimination.
Davidson asked Keita directly if he had "Any critique of U.S. foreign policy on Israel-Palestine?" Keita did not respond to this.
Goldschmidt: "My advice to Muslims:" Look at the examples of Jews and blacks: get elected, start lobbying groups.
Davidson: U.S. "policy is largely a reflection of lobby influence."
Hussain disagreed with Goldschmidt and said it was better that Muslims "create coalitions" with other groups based on "shared values."
Keita spoke about Pres. Obama and suggested Muslims emulate his political-organization skills; that they circumvent lobbying by using Facebook, YouTube, etc.
MAJOR SPEAKER-- #3—MR. IFTEKHAR HUSSAIN
He had one of the smaller audiences of the day. He used a PowerPoint presentation to discuss "American Muslim Activism." He noted the many Muslim advocacy groups and what they do. Specifically: the Muslim Public Affairs Council, CAIR (which focuses on "civil rights"), the Muslim American Freedom Foundation, Islamic Society of North America, Muslim Students Association and ICNA.
Much of his presentation was devoted to defending Sami al-Arian, strongly suggesting he was persecuted for his views. He criticized, for example, that at his trial, 21 witnesses were Israelis. He claimed that al-Arian was acquitted of 8 of 17 charges and was "essentially acquitted" of the other 9. He suggested the judge was out to get al-Arian.
He told the Muslims in the audience: "If you are vocal and active in political issues that are sensitive" what happened to al-Arian will happen to them. He called this "the fear factor."
During the Q&A he criticized the government's use of "unindicted co-conspirator" and claimed CAIR's only link to the Holy Land Foundation was that HLF gave CAIR $5,000 to perform public relations work.
He claimed CAIR chapters are funded only by local donations and that national CAIR only takes money from foreign individuals, not foreign governments.
When asked about the claim in his presentation that hate crimes against Muslims are rising rapidly, but that FBI statistics instead show the amount of crimes are plummeting, he attacked the FBI stats as "lies."
PANEL #4: Topic: WOMEN IN ISLAM: (This was the most well-attended of the sessions: About 200 people, mostly students)
DR. HELEN SCHROEPFER: "All of the world's religions struggle with gender justice." Muslims tend to reject feminism because "feminism is associated with colonialism." When Muslim women criticize Islam (as being oppressive) it only serves those who are trying to demonize Islam. The Koran gave great benefits to women that did not exist prior to the Koran.
Sura 4:34 which instructs men to "beat them [women] lightly is meant to limit violence against women, not encourage it, and was only meant to be used during Mohammad's time because of the socio-economic circumstances of that period. The Koran is all about equality for women.
DR. MAHRUKH AZAM, a Pakistani: The notion that Muslim women are oppressed is wrong.
DR. SHAMSHAD AHMED from India: "Not all women are being battered and beaten by their husbands."
HOEFS: "Honor killings need to be taken seriously."
Q&A: When asked about sharia and its treatment of women, panelist SARAH NASSER claimed according to Islam: "The law of the land always takes precedence" to sharia.
There were other conference sessions Monday evening and one on Tuesday that I did not attend.