Controversy surrounded the Texas conferences celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) life where I was one of the key note speakers amongst luminaries such as Prof John Esposito and Imam Siraj Wahajj (click here for previous events).
Stand with Muhammad against Hate and Terror was the title of the three events held to raise funds for an important Strategic Communication Centre for Muslims which the multi media company Sound Vision plans to create. The idea is to facilitate a professional response to Islamophobic attacks in the media. This is well needed as the media machine that demonises Islam and Muslims in the States is funded with 160 million US dollars yearly. This investment has an effect: the perception of Muslims by the mainstream society is worsening continuously. Statistics show that in October 2001 59% of Americans had a good opinion on Muslims. In 2014 it was only 27%, Imam Mujaher Malik pointed out in his presentation. As a result Muslims suffer discrimination and alienation which in turn leads to depression, disengagement and even radicalisation of the youth. They may end up feeling hopeless, with no chances or opportunities in life.
Communication is the key
Anti Muslim propaganda is strong and until now the Muslim response is weak- often over emotional, sometimes violent but rarely do we see or hear rational, scholarly voices in the media that might help us make sense of current events.
In the run up to our Seerah conference in Garland Texas suddenly all kinds of controversial stories emerged in the press for example claiming that one of the speakers, namely Imam Siraj Wahaj from New York, advocated the overthrow of US law in favour of Shariah law. You can find them here 1, 2, 3.
Reading the news in London not knowing the facts I became concerned and called the organizers to find out more about the co- speakers I didn’t know, to make sure I was comfortable sharing a stage with them. It turned out that Imam Siraj was misquoted- out of context and in fact had a massive following amongst Muslims in the US. This was confirmed by Khalil Meek of MLFA, a convert who raises funds around the US for legal representation. He told me that he met Imam Siraj several times and knows him to be a well respected member of the community. Appeased I went ahead and flew to Dayton where the first Sound Vision conference was to be held.
Luby picked me up from the airport, invited me to dinner and the next day spoilt me with a food basket. Another sister, Shehezad, invited me for lunch and took me to Friday prayers. It was nice to see a wide range of Muslim men and women attend – it seems Muslims are less divided by ethnicity in the US and young American Imams have a huge following amongst the youth such as the imam who delivered the khutba, Osmane Drame. After an organic vegetarian lunch the sisters took me to one of the amazing health food supermarkets where I stocked up on all sorts of vitamins and green powders.
He explained that in the West we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The two need to be balanced. Of course we condemn killing in the name of God. However, we must defend our religion and point out that certain people show no respect for other people’s faith which is wrong. He went on to quote Pope Francis who recently said with Latin temper: If you disrespect my mother, I’ll punch you in the mouth. This illustrates the point. We don’t call for aggression but for respect, said Esposito. He also reminded the audience that living Islam was better than talking about it. “Walk the talk and bear witness to your faith”, he demanded.
Meanwhile I got busy signing books and chatting with some lovely ladies who later became facebook friends.The Dayton Seerah Conference functioned as a warm up for Dallas and Houston where we were greeted with over 500 protesters each.
The organizers made sure that security was tight on the night; there was an abundance of police, FBI and SWAT Teams to protect the predominantly Muslim audience and speakers. Outside a whole lot of media trucks were parked to report on the controversies. John Esposito couldn’t believe it, he said he spoke all over the world and was never met with such hostility and aggression anywhere.The heightened tension all round prompted us to sharpen our speeches.
The Dallas Conference was a huge success despite the protests outside which were lead by none other than Islamophobe Pamela Geller although she apparently didn’t stay very long. (Sources here and here).
A producer for the Fox New Show Justice with Judge Jeanine persuaded me to come on the program to talk about the reasons for my conversion to Islam and my book. I agreed after many emails back and forth although they only wanted to give me six minutes on the show and that is not a lot for the story. I brought a book along to gift to the presenter. However, when I was on the air Judge Jeanine just complained that we did not cancel our Prophet Muhammad (saws) conferences in the light of world events- Charlie Hebdo in Paris and Boko Haram in Nigeria. She hardly let me respond to her attacks. She then went on to accuse me of following a religion that allows women to be stoned to death. Too big a subject to get into here but the worst was that the presenter was supported by a fellow Muslim woman who I didn’t even know would share my six minute slot. When I watched the clip later back in London I couldn’t believe this Islamophobe was wearing hijab! Just goes to show: Can’t judge a book by its cover. Watch the video here. I ended up presenting the much more charming reporter from the Bill O’ Reilly show with my book instead.
In the van on the way back I had a chance to speak to Imam Siraj. He was the real crowd puller during our conferences- many in the audience came to hear him speak. Now he told me about his background, how he went to College after school and then turned his talents to improving the local community where he lived, Brooklyn. The area used to be run down and dangerous. Drugs were sold there and crime was rife. It was Imam Siraj who with the help of his friends and by the grace of Allah cleaned up the slums and transformed them into a respectable and well functioning community with a mosque at its centre. The imam brought many young disaffected youth to the faith and helped them to become assets to the American society. I was deeply touched by his wisdom, humanity and compassion and at the same time saddened by the unfairness and injustice of those media reports that had painted a distorted and false picture of him. We need this Strategic Communication centre for Muslims- not only in the US but also in Europe. Muslims must learn to invest and engage in the media! I am honoured to be part of the Sound Vision team of speakers and look forward to the next events.