Addresses Oxford University
Channel: Omar Suleiman
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Good evening. It's wonderful to see so many of you here tonight. And we're very lucky. Because tonight we'll be joined by Professor Imam Omar Suleiman, who is here to give an address on the title Islam a test, not a threat. So without further ado, please welcome Omar
Thank you very much.
So I want them
to be with you all.
Human, the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. First and foremost, I want to thank the president of the Union, Matt, who is the tallest person I've ever met in the United Kingdom. So this is already a very unfamiliar and foreign environment to me, but it's wonderful to speak to someone at eye level
here in the UK, and of course, all of you for attending and everyone that was a part of organizing this
Xena Isla Ibrahima is smart ILA is
Hema is smart. Ila is how Kawhia colega. Well as bout we want
To Musa our isa
Nabi Yona won't be him. Learn who Federico Gaynor had in home one Nola who Muslim on
now how you heard what I just recited may have caused you a range of emotions.
It may have given you what some social scientists describe as linguistic threat or anxiety, which can happen when a foreign language is spoken around you. Or it may have sparked curiosity and interest about what it was that was just recited.
Or maybe you just appreciated how it sounded. Or maybe you just don't like my voice.
A complex interplay of psychological factors can influence how we deal with the foreign and the unfamiliar. But the verse that I recited from the Quran translates as follows. Say, we believe in God, and what has been revealed to us, and what has been revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and his descendants. And what was given to Moses, Jesus and other prophets from their Lord may peace be upon them all. We make noses distinction between any of them, and it is to him that we wholly submit, when I translate the verse, suddenly the foreign and the distance may now feel familiar and near. But going from foreign to familiar, is usually a process, a process that many find
inconvenience or too complicated to engage. Because in more ways than one, ignorance can be comfortable, and knowledge can be complicating.
When my worldview perfectly conforms to an algorithm that aligns good and bad, and truth and falsehood neatly to my likes and dislikes, then I inevitably live comfortably in my chamber of ignorance that intentionally or unintentionally excludes people and ideas that could be disruptive.
There are some who find joy in exploration and experiencing others. With the example of the recitation of the Quran. Some would shed tears, even if they didn't understand a word of it, just by being captivated by the beauty of the recitation, or even the emotion of the reciter. But those who take it a step further by familiarizing themselves with the meaning of Islam, Sacred Scripture, may find an even deeper sense of enrichment. The Quran speaks about Christians who hear the Scripture and whose eyes filled with tears not just out of an appreciation for the recitation, but also out of recognition. When the righteous Christian leader of Abyssinia, known as Dina Joshi received the
first set of Muslim refugees fleeing the persecution at the hands of the pagan elites of Mecca. He initially granted them safety out of a commitment to his own scripture and principles of justice. But then when his diplomatic ties with Mecca, were put to the test. And Islam and the Muslim community were misrepresented to him. He called for the Muslims to recite from their book as Jaffa the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him read
verses about Jesus and Mary peace be upon them. He was deeply moved, and he famously drew a line in the sand, saying the difference between us and you is no greater than this line. This religious recognition of his had massive political implications, and that it shaped his legendary refugee policy. He no longer saw these people, as Wanderers and Bedouins from the Arabian Desert. But as brothers and sisters in humanity, and faith, the familiarity led to a beautiful logical place of friendship and fraternity through faith. There's perhaps nothing more beautiful than when you see the best of what you hope to be, and people whom you want assume the worst. The great Syrian
historian, even our socket records that when a group of Byzantine Christians first encountered the Muslims and their worship, and the Great Mosque of Damascus, they paused and said admiringly, you remind us of the disciples of Christ, and there is no shortage of historical accounts to a similar effect. Sometimes, however, the familiar can cause a different reaction.
One Easter many years ago, around the time when the movie The Passion of the Christ, was released, that's when Mel Gibson was still okay. I held a series of Friday Sermons on Jesus peace be upon him in Islam, and I invited the local community to attend, we put an ad in the local newspaper, and 30 to 50 of our neighbors join every single week for the Friday sermon for an entire month. And at the end of the last sermon of the series, I walked to the back of the mosque, and I found a gentleman named John sitting alone.
He was one of the last people left in the mosque, and he looked like he was about to burst into tears.
But as he was looking at the inner part of the dome, the look on his face wasn't one of contentment, or even grief, it was actually one of frustration. And so when I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he was okay, he responded by saying, people who pray like Jesus to the lord of Moses five times a day, and I'm supposed to believe you're going to hell.
He went on to explain that it was the first time he felt like he had witnessed the biblical references of Jesus falling on his face and prayer in real life, that now he had to seriously reassess his own convictions. He was perplexed by us, because he always assumed us to be worshipping another God altogether, and following some sort of pagan religion with incoherent ideas. But what he saw an Islam that was familiar to him, had now become a test to him. Which brings me to another conversation of mine, which forms the basis of this address I was on I was once asked by a fellow Professor after giving a one on one presentation on Islam. If I could honestly say to him with a
straight face, that Islam was not a threat to him.
I responded to him by saying, Islam is not a threat. But it is a test. In the case of John, Islam was a theological test to him. But in a much broader sense, Islam as a religion, and the Muslim community, provide a potent test to almost every political and social movement trend claim or party in our western societies today. And if you don't reckon with this test, you risk not just alienating or oppressing Muslim populations, but robbing yourself of the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of what has been made foreign to you before and not remedying the gaps in your own thinking and practices. First, we must start with the ugly.
The demonization of Islam and the dehumanization of Muslims, based on manufactured fears has led to all sorts of political and social problems. Now there are two types of foreign to reckoned with in regards to Islam and the Muslims. There's the exotic foreign and there's the extremist foreign. The exotic foreign is the foreign which casts Orientalist tropes on Islam and Muslims with a lens that never allows them to be seen as part of anything other than their mysterious own. And the extremist foreign that portrays Islam and Muslims as uniquely dangerous and suspicious, which has formed the basis of the colonization of the Muslims abroad, and the securitization of the Muslims at home. At
the onset, the two forums may seem unrelated, but they actually do feed off of one another. Both lenses involve a charitable read of the quote unquote West past and presents an escaping read of the quote unquote Muslim world, past and presents. And it may be perhaps that much of this projection of Islam and the Muslim world is a lack of recognition of the ways in which Islamic civilization has already contributed to the very fabric of Western civilization as we know it today.
Everything from the coffee that we drink to our medicine. And some would say the same thing, to our toothbrushes and combs to our math and sciences to the robes you adorn yourself with when you hopefully all graduate from this wonderful institution, to the legal traditions you study to get there, to the domes and your architecture and in many ways, the university system itself to the study of optics and psychology and surgery and the hospitals, they're performed it and the list goes on and on. But you wouldn't know that watching the crude portrayal of Muslims over the years who seem hell bent on destruction, and unable to function outside of the harsh Arabian Desert, a place
where the women are all seductive and subjugated and the men are vicious and malicious. And while these stereotypical constructs were brought to life through Western imagination onto Western screens, the very contributions of the Muslim world to Western human progress were erased. And even worse, the main contribution of the west to the Muslim world in return has been to tame and civilize populations by force, to supposedly protect them from themselves and the world from their terror. And this is precisely how the exotic foreign lens plays into the extremist, extremist foreign lens that renders Muslim populations uniquely dangerous. And mentality is forged of we must liberate them
out of mercy and benevolence, ironically, by bombing them mercilessly. So you effectively become our Saviors in Hollywood, but our tormentors in real life. Muslim men are inherently in need of being restrained and Muslim women are inherently in need of being rescued. And so in the name of women's rights, women are drowned and starved and left in utter desperation. As their nations and families are stretched to pieces and in the name of human rights human atrocities are committed far from the sight of those who unwillingly or unknowingly fund them with their tax dollars. And just as ignorance has led to a lack of appreciation for what Islamic civilization has meant to Western
civilization, it has also led to a lack of acknowledgement for the many harms caused to the Muslim world through historical and ongoing projects of Western imperialism. But as the saying goes, a history written in blood cannot be erased by lies written in ink fabricated lies, see weapons of mass destruction.
By unrepentant global powers that justify illegal invasions, in order to steal the resources of Muslim lands long predate their rock war. Virtually every attempt to arrogantly impose a Western conception of democracy on foreign populations has failed and left in its wake nothing but misery destroyed civilizations and civil wars. Rather than be held accountable for deliberate crimes to stunt the progress of some Muslim majority countries. These advanced democracies add insult to injury by insisting that the very countries they ruined are in fact the authors of their own destruction. And that the solution to the liberation of these backward countries is, you guessed it,
even more unsolicited, unwanted and most importantly, utterly failed intervention by enlightened superpowers. Now, that is not to say that all problems that exists in the Muslim world are externally imposed and to be blamed on the west. Nor is it to say that there is nothing redeeming about Western civilization as it is celebrated today is to say that a sincere and inquisitive mind that is willing to be vulnerable in the pursuit of truths made so foreign, will likely arrive at a very different conclusion about Islam and the Muslim world than what is mainstream today. It's also true that the sincere and inquisitive Muslim is also self critical, and that Muslims should
challenge themselves to live in accordance with their best examples. Despite the overwhelming obstacles. As Muslims, we should constantly seek to revisit the beauty of the pristine example of our Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, and to revive the golden age of Islamic contributions inspired by that example. Our oppressors are not our teachers, and our obstacles are not our excuses. So while we refuse to let others pontificate to us, we preach to ourselves and to our world simultaneously to be better. Now, some might say, even while acknowledging that Islamic Golden Age, that it's time to stop living in the past, Islam and Muslims today, they argue, are a shadow of
their predecessors. Most modern discoveries and progress take place outside of the Muslim world and often outside of faith communities altogether. The world's religions that remain relevant today have largely done so in spite of and not because of their actual teachings. And so religions have to constantly constantly monitor societal trends, and then rapidly undergo a rebranding exercise, which often entails renegotiating their core beliefs as a matter of pragmatic survival, or aligning their beliefs entirely to secular and unholy pursuits of power.
So Islam has to stop resisting reform of its core values and tenants if it wants to thrive in today's world. My answer to that is why is it that despite all the calamities and challenges that continue to plague many Muslim majority countries, and the pressures and discrimination that come with being a Muslim minority, Islam remains the fastest growing religion in the world. And while you may sneeringly, say, we just have more kids, I'd respond with, we certainly have a lot more converts as well. So how do we make sense of this, in my view, in one word, authenticity, from the preservation of its message and the historicity of the Quran, to the commitment and adherence of its
followers to its tenants, to the simplicity and consistency of its message, to the intuitive yet uncompromising nature of its moral code. The core value proposition of Islam is so potent and robust that it connects deeply and profoundly with those seeking fulfilling answers to some of life's most perplexing questions. The human inclination to worship is innate and impossible to overcome. Whether the object of our worship and devotion is God, or technology, or progress or human reason, or indeed our own desires, we are all in some way devout. Islam is so widely appealing because it places an unrivaled emphasis on submission to the only entity that is absolute God, emphasizing that
everything and everyone by comparison and contrast is relative. Thus, the very essence of the Islamic faith begins with the act of ultimate humility and opposition to satanic pride, which is to dethrone oneself in recognition of one's fallibility and imperfection. It is hard to imagine an expression more authentic or sincere. And this is what is so profoundly appealing about Islam, to many who have embraced it. It is a striking, counterintuitive and historic anomaly. By and large, Islam has resisted reinventing itself to align with the prevailing orthodoxy, orthodoxies of society. And Muslims have insisted on the full practice of their faith in the face of much
discrimination. Though this seemingly stubborn refusal to relent should be costly. Islam if anything continues to grow exponentially. And so if the goal is to exert maximum pressure to make Muslims uncomfortable with their Islam as it is, I would argue that it will only make Muslims insist more on their faith. So we will remain just by being ourselves as a result of that a test, a test for ever evolving systems of thought and governance a test for new trends, a test for new worried populations that may see our insistence on our faith as a threat. And we've already seen the impact of such a dangerous framing of our religion and community, not just abroad. But here at home. While anti
refugee and anti immigrant rhetoric and policies rooted in ignorance and fear on the rise. The Muslim refugee is not looked at merely as one who may consume some of the nation's resources or dilute its identity, but a threat to that nation's existence because perhaps they'll inflict terror or infect their populations with regressive ideologies. The Muslim prisoner, jailed on false terrorism charges, or for mere thought crimes isn't afforded the same backing by rights organizations that otherwise fight for liberties and the end of mass incarceration. Because to defend a prisoner accused of supporting ISIS or Al Qaeda may end up costing you your own security,
or at the very least lead to your permanent social stigmatization. Even though the accused may be entirely innocent. Muslims feel the double standards around them all the time. It's why Palestine not being given the Ukraine treatment, despite seven decades of a sustained illegal occupation stings so much.
And let me state here in unequivocal terms, anti Palestinian bigotry is Islamophobia, even if not all Palestinians are Muslim. I say that because anti Palestinian bigotry employs the same Islamophobic tropes, it employs the same framing and tactics to dehumanize Palestinians, Muslim or otherwise, and deprive them of their basic human rights. We get it. We're a test to the principles you claim, whatever they may be. And that's why no matter where you stand politically, we test you. If you're a self proclaimed conservative who believes in preserving religious freedom and religious values in society, yet somehow simultaneously seek to remove Islam and the ability of Muslims to
practice or even exist in your society. You are betraying your own claims. There is nothing Christian about your
cause, and you should know that white nationalism is no less secularizing than anything on the left. And if you're a self proclaimed liberal who fights for the rights of minorities to live in peace and without harassment, yet simultaneously seek to remove the rights of religious communities, including minorities to practice their religion without fear of reprisal or legal repercussions, and to adhere to their own values of unchanging moral truths. Even if that means challenging your liberal values, you too are betraying your own claims. And so no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, Islam as a test to your political views, and the elasticity of your claims to pluralism, as the
great Muhammad Ali said about himself, I am America, that the part you won't recognize, but get used to me, black, confident, cocky, my name not yours, my religion, not yours, my goals, my own get used to me. The words I am America can easily be spoken as I am the United Kingdom, or I am France, or whatever other place that Muslims have found it difficult to live freely and faithfully. Muhammad Ali, though, who initially posed the test to America's legal system, War Machine, and understanding of itself politically, socially, and theologically, is now rightly recognized for enriching it and the world beyond beyond measure. It is my hope that many will come to see today's Muslims today, in
the same way, tomorrow, and maybe even today as well. I want to end with an observation though, that it is often when we're all vulnerable, that we're suddenly forced to work together. It has been my experience that nothing brings us together like crisis. It's in crisis, that we arrange our priorities to meet a common threat. And that we are reminded of our shared humanity. It's during that reminder that we can learn empathy for one another, and be enriched by one another's presence. humanity faces the major threats of environmental degradation, increased political polarization through social media, potential nuclear wars, global hunger, and the advent of technologies that
seemed to make us less human, and see others as less human. Muslims are used to being looked at as the threat. But we are a community of faith that loves to surf. If you lower your guard and see that beauty, you may understand us a bit more, and the beautiful religion that we adhere to.
And so as I started with the ugly, I'll end with the beauty that can arise out of the ugly. They both happen to involve the infamous date of 911. In the United States.
All Muslims have grown up in the United States are under the shadow of 911. And it has had global implications. And I look not just at September 11 2001.
I actually look at September 11 2005. And September 11 2011. Allow me to explain why. I'm from a city in the United States known as New Orleans, Louisiana. And we were struck in 2005 by one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of our nation, the same amount of casualties or close to the same amount of casualties as the 911 terror attacks, and all types of property damage, and so much more that happened to our city.
And as a Muslim community, we came out to serve. We went to shelter after shelter to bring people into our homes to bring people into our mosques. We served, we rebuilt. We got it out homes. And suddenly we were looked at entirely different.
When we went to the largest shelter at the time of evacuees, the Astrodome in Houston, where there were 1000s of evacuees, we asked for a date in which we could serve food to all of those who were there. And the shelter management said to us, there's only one date available to you, September 11.
Now we could have walked away from that and said it's not worth it. Imagine the optics of Muslims just four years removed from 911 walking into the Astrodome with their phones and hijabs and cookies and beards, with boxes in their hands on that day, when the fears of our community would be stoked in the way that they would annually where most Muslims on 911 would stay indoors. And in fact, till today still do.
But we took it as a challenge. He said you know what? We renew our intentions. Our goal is to serve. It may be for a divine wisdom that this is the only day that was given to us. And we will serve everyone in that day of 911.
And what ended up happening was as Muslims came out on 911 2005 to serve the evacuees in the Astrodome, we were the only relief group
To receive a standing ovation from all of the evacuees.
I fast forward to another 911 anniversary, the 10 year anniversary of 911. Where as faith groups who had now become more familiar with one another in New Orleans, Louisiana after that disaster, we decided to do something positive and productive on that day rather than mourn and grieve. And so we decided to rebuild a section of the city that had never been rebuilt river town, to repaint to redo the roads to clean it up and to completely transform it with hundreds of volunteers from our various faith communities, to show what togetherness could look like. We did so and then we came together in the mosque at the end of the day, and we had halal and kosher gumbo, the halal gumbo tasted a little
better than the kosher gumbo. It's just my opinion.
But you could see the tears in the eyes of the people that had once seen our community in a particular light. They sat there and they all look like John in the back of my mosque, frustrated, but content, hopeful, but at the same time, regretful.
And it paved the way for many difficult conversations that had to be had.
And as I say to people, when you complicate your worldview, it's a beautiful thing. And so I said to them, we have complicated things for you. You're welcome. as it heads medica Shabazz, Malcolm X. once said, we need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience and patience creates unity. Lastly, I want to acknowledge that some of this may be difficult to hear and process for some, but I want to applaud those who are linguish their comfort zones and find growth and what may be initially uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Difficult Conversations formed the basis of durable relationships. Durable relationships formed the
basis of healthy communities, Healthy Communities form the basis of contributing societies. And as I began with the verse from the Quran, I would like to conclude with another one as well. This one a call to get to know one another.
Yeah, a Johann Nasser in follow up on
mean carry on.
Why John? Come shuru welcome.
In early two, or four in Chrono Qumran and Allah He at Cancun in nulla, her only one hobby, oh people, we have created you all for male and female, made you into nations and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Verily the most honorable among you, and the sight of God is the most pious. Rarely God is all knowing, and all aware. Thank you very much.