On April 18, I attended a day-long Shariah workshop at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles), which was hosted by the Shura Council of Southern California. The event consisted of a series of panels conducted by several Islamic leaders. In addition, there were attorneys, Christian and Jewish clerics who spoke. Tariq Ramadan, who spoke the previous evening in Anaheim, was also there and was also called upon for a short impromptu speech. The principal host was imam Muzammil Siddiqi, of the Islamic Center of Southern California. (I have already posted aspects of that day which I felt deserved their own separate posting.) The themes of the day were to present Sharia to non-Muslims, demonstrate that it is in conformance with our laws, show the relationship between religion and American law, and complain about Islamophobia. Throughout the day, there were many references to the Republican Party, as well as specific Republican figures.
After welcoming remarks from Siddiqi, in which he spoke about "myths" surrounding Sharia and Islamophobia", Jamal Badawi, executive board member of the Fiqh Council spoke on "The essence of Sharia". Badawi is another one of those Muslim leaders who was sent the Freedom Pledge letter by Former Muslims United asking them to sign a pledge that Muslim apostates in the US not be harmed. (He never signed it or responded.) He spoke from an outline that explained Sharia, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), sources of Sharia, its objectives (protect life, property, mind, family, wealth and faith), and misconceptions about Sharia, specifically its perceived harshness.
Next followed a panel discussion moderated by Naeem Baig, executive director of the Council for Social Justice, Islamic Circle of North America. The panelists were Ameena Qazi, Deputy Executive Director of CAIR in Los Angeles, who spoke on the origin of anti-Sharia bills and its affect on America, Badawi, and UC Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, who spoke about Sharia hysteria and its impact on democracy (his words, not mine).
Qazi spoke about the two dozen or so states that have attempted to pass anti-Sharia legislation into their state laws and called it "paranoia'. She referred to "the right-wing", conservative Republicans and Christian evangelicals. She specifically mentioned Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Frank Gaffney, ACT for America, and attorney David Yerushalmi (who is involved in many of the state efforts to preclude any laws that would conflict with US law and the Constitution).
Bazian is a two-trick pony. One pony is named Israel, and the other is named Islamophobia. He tried to make a connection between Islamophobia and political campaigns-specifically Republican campaigns. He brought up the old story about Willie Horton, who was supposedly discovered by George Herbert Walker Bush's campaign adviser Lee Atwater. (Horton was actually discovered by the Democrats in the primary and used against Michael Dukakis before the Republicans ran the ad.) Continuing, Bazian brought up the film, "Obsession", which he stated was distributed in the battleground state of Ohio during the 2008 campaign of John McCain. He attributed the 2010 Republican electoral success, in part, to Islamophobia. He talked about how the Republican party has trouble "appealing to people of color" and how they "represent one segment of the population". He also stated that "promoting racism is the norm, not the exception" and accused the Tea Party of attacking Muslims. And not to be completely partisan, he called out Harry Reid, who he said spoke out against the Ground Zero mosque in order to win re-election.
The next panel was on the Constitution and religion featuring Heather Weaver, staff attorney, ACLU-DC, Marcy Strauss, Professor, Loyola University Law School, Steve Rohde, ACLU-So. Calif President, and Zulfiqar Ali Shah, Executive Director of the Fiqh Council. The moderator was civil rights attorney Reem Salahi.
Rohde spoke about freedom of religion, separation of church and state from a historical point of view. Strauss spoke about the Establishment Clause. Weaver talked about "increased attacks on Muslims", profiling, being denied access to government buildings because of their dress, and all that stuff. She showed a video of Oklahoma politician Rex Duncan (Republican, of course) defending the effort to keep Sharia out of Oklahoma state law (to guffaws from the audience). During the Q and A, Rohde sounded off against Clarence Thomas, quoting Thomas as claiming that each state had the right to establish its own state religion. He also made the statement that "fascism comes wrapped in a flag and a cross." Here again, we heard more references to the "religious right", the Republican party, and to the "danger of Christianity as a state religion".
Shah's topic was the influence of Islam on the founding fathers. Here we heard about John Locke, the British thinker who influenced the thinking of the founding fathers, such as Jefferson and his (Locke's) interest in Islam. It was during the Q and A, that I asked Shah about his relationship with Kind Hearts, an Islamic charity shut down by the FBI in 2006 for raising money for Hamas. In his answer, he made the statement,
"I condemn Hamas."
The moderator (Salahi) permitted two questions from the audience.
The next panel was on religious law in Abrahamaic faiths and featured as panelists Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who spoke on Jewish law in American life, Pastor Anna Olson, who spoke on Christian law in American history and Dr Siddiqi, who spoke on Islamic law and Muslims in America.The moderator was Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting. I would guess that the aim of this session was to draw a parallel between Canon Law, Jewish Halakhah law, and Shariah law. In her presentation, Olson dragged on and on to the point that she lost her audience. I noticed two people in audience who had fallen asleep including Sherman Jackson, who was on the next panel.
Siddiqi, in his talk, tried to explain Sharia. He described it as comprehensive and that it "covers everything". He brought up the topic of how Muslims living in non-Muslim lands should live. According to Sidiiqi 1/3 of the world's Muslims live in non-Islamic countries. He pointed out that in the past, Muslims were told not to immigrate to non-Muslim lands since "they could not fulfill their Islamic duties". That debate is now over, according to Siddiqi, since so many Muslims have immigrated.
Siddiqi reiterated that Muslims are not trying to impose Sharia on non-Muslims. They are instructed to obey the laws where they live (as long as it doesn't conflict with their duty to God).
Here are some other notes I jotted down.
Non-Muslims in Muslim lands have full liberty.
Honor-killing is absolutely forbidden.
Certain things permitted in Islam are not allowed by US law. (For example, he cannot perform a marriage without a license and he cannot divorce a couple.)
During the break, I approached Siddiqi and asked him why he had not signed the Freedom Pledge letter sent to him by Former Muslims United. That conversation is repeated in this link.
Then, after some forgettable remarks by LMU President David Burcham, the final afternoon panel began, moderated by Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies at LMU. The theme was the role of religion and religious law in the public square. The panel consisted of Imam Sayyid Mustafa al-Qazwini, an Iranian-born Shi'ite cleric (Shura Council), Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College, Dr Maher Hathout, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Dr. Sherman Jackson also known as Abdal Hakim Jackson, from the King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture, University of Southern California, and once again, Marcy Strauss.
The only notable comments I wrote down were when Qazwini stated that Sharia fails under dictatorships, but is successful in a democracy (Which democracy would he give as an example?), and when Firestone stated that during the "Golden Age" in Spain, Jews were second-class citizens, but were treated better (by Muslims) than by Christians.
It was during this Q and A, that the audience members were finally able to get in some questions.
When called upon, I introduced myself, and my question went like this:
"We have heard a lot of talk today about hate and intolerance, but there is an 800 pound gorilla in the back of the room, and its name is hate and intolerance. It is not the hate and intolerance that may or not be directed to you, but the hate and intolerance that is being carried out by Muslims against religious minorities in Muslim countries-people being killed and their places of worship destroyed-from the Coptic Christians in Egypt, to the Christians in Pakistan, the Jews in Yemen, the Baha'i in Iran, the Christians in Iraq and the Christians and animists in Sudan. In addition, Jews in Europe are now experiencing the worst anti-Semitism since the 1930s. It has gotten to the point where they cannot walk the streets wearing Jewish garb lest they be insulted, spat upon or assaulted. Yes, some of the perpetrators are neo-Nazis and skinheads, but the primary perpetrators are young, male Muslim immigrants. 'I am not attributing that to Muslims in America', I said. 'I don't hate Muslims and I don't know anyone in this room who does, but why do you never speak out against that hate and intolerance?"
Qazwini was the first to respond. He said there were two problems. First of all, most of these countries are not free countries, and for the past 8 decades, the Western superpowers, including the US, have supported these regimes. "Don't blame Islam", he said. "Don't blame it on Muslims."
Qazwini also said that he has been active on the UC Irvine campus for 17 years and every Friday, he speaks out against this intolerance.
Jackson stated that it was a "false criteria". He also said, "Just because a problem persists, doesn't mean that Muslims are not speaking out. "Nobody is more concerned or affected by extremist interpretations than Muslims".
Hathout stated that he had just been involved in a Muslim conference on religious minorities (in Muslim countries). He also stated that "oppression of the majority will lead to oppression of the minority."
It was here that a lady told of her experience a year or so ago at UCLA when a speaker (Amir Abdel Malik Ali) led a Muslim Student Association Western regional audience in the pledge of allegiance-which turned out to be the Muslim Brotherhood pledge of allegiance.
It seemed as if only Hathout knew who Ali was. He described Ali as a fiery speaker with his own agenda.
Another audience member told of her involvement in February 2010 Yorba Linda protest against the speaking appearance of Amir Abdel Malik Ali and Siraj Wahhaj at a charity dinner held by the Islamic Center of North America. She told of the angry response she got from an organizer when community members tried to convince ICNA not to bring two questionable speakers into their community.
Since Ali had become the center of the debate, I raised my hand and was called upon by Qazwini. As I started to say, "I have engaged with Ali many times at UCI....", I was cut off by Hussain, who said, "We're not going to go there."
"He called on me," I replied.
Hussain then said, "I am exercising my prerogatives as moderator."
Once the event was over, I and some other non-Muslims stayed to exchange views and concerns with some of the Muslims-both speakers and audience members.
To sum up, I would say this: Shariah law was presented to us as the "path" to being a good Muslim. It contains rules governing behavior that revolve around treating others justly. Yet what was mostly left out was the part calledhudud, which prescribes the punishments for transgressions. Adultery was mentioned, but stoning was not. We heard about the strict rules for conviction, if you will, the 4 witnesses, the confessions, the acts of mercy, the right of a murder victim's family to forgive the murderer. What nobody could or even tried to explain was why a woman would be stoned to death for adultery, or why an apostate would be subject to the death penalty.
That leads to the obvious question the reader would ask, "Why didn't you ask them?" Opportunity for questions was limited. In the morning, we were told that after each panel discussion, people could write down questions and send them up front. I was able to send two up front, but they were never read. Nobody else's was either. After the first two I sent up, I wrote out almost 10 more. Nobody collected them. After each morning discussion, we were told there was no time for questions. We were told that there would be time in the afternoon. I was told that myself by Shakeel Syed of the Shura Council when I complained about the lack of Q and A.
I missed the press conference, which took place during the final panel. Pity bcause I wanted to ask one of
the participants, Edina Lekovic, about her time as an editor with the UCLA Muslim Student newspaper al-Talib, which published an article in July 1999 praising Osama bin Laden.
This, of course, is part of the tactics. Set ground rules for Q and A. Call for written questions that they can screen. That, of course, cuts out follow-ups. Another tactic was demonstrated at the George Galloway event at UC Irvine a couple of years back. You came up to the microphone, asked your question then had to return to your seat before the question would be answered. Again, that cuts off follow-ups.
But it was well worth the time spent. I was able to meet Ramadan at the coffee table and ask him about his call for a moratorium on stoning. Others were able to make important points. This event was part of a nation-wide campaign to sell Sharia to the American public as a benign code of religious laws that threaten no one. Much of it is so, but there is still that part that has to be addressed (hudud). That is where they want to limit the debate. They know their talking points. They also know that their talking points will not hold up
to real followups by knowledgeable questioners.
I assume that most, if not all, of the Muslims in the audience who came are decent people. One lady told me after the event that it is they who are most affected by extremism. I agree. My belief, however, is that the Muslim community in America is ill-served by its so-called leaders. As the reader will note from the links in this posts, many of the figures who spoke at this event have questionable histories.
These events are worth attending, but those going should insist on meaningful interchange and true Q and A.