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Interview: Muzammil Siddiqi

Muzammil Siddiqi

Imam Siddiqi is the chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America and the educational and religious director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Calif. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 13, 2010.

Tell me how you came to Orange County.

I came to Orange County in 1981. I was in Washington, D.C., at the time, [where] I was the director of the Islamic Center. But with the Iranian Revolution and all of those things, the center there was going through some turmoil. Some people visited me from Orange County and invited me [to California].

“9/11 created a lot of misunderstanding. ... But that's not what Islam is; that's not what Muslim people are.”

So I came. It was my first time to California, ... although I've been in this country since 1969. I liked very much the environment. The community was a small community at that time. [I] spoke at the Islamic Center and visited families in different places and then went back. …

After a few months I received an offer from them to come and be the director of the center. They had just established the center, and they wanted to see somebody come and lead the community. I spoke to my family, my wife, children, and we decided to come. So we just moved here, and ever since we are living here. It is almost now 30 years.

[How has the Muslim community here in Orange County grown since then?]

The community was small at the time when I came. In our Islamic Center, we had 100 to 200 people come for Friday prayer. But slowly more people started coming. ... We started [an] elementary school for children, and that attracted many people, really a program that I had started. So we started taking more property in the area and expanding our center. We built a school first, and then after that we built the new mosque.

Now the community is large, because many refugees came because of the Iran situation; from Afghanistan; many coming from Cambodia and Vietnam; then people from many other places. We have, I estimate, about 100,000 Muslims in Orange County. And then many other Islamic Centers were established, so we have 12 centers now.

How many Muslims are there in L.A.?

In metropolitan Los Angeles, all the way from Santa Barbara to San Diego, we estimate half a million Muslims. And they are from all over actually. I would say at least maybe 30 or 40 different nationalities are planted there. And also in Los Angeles, we have a very good-size Afro-American community, local American people who accepted Islam...

Do you feel that faith in this country is changing because we've had a big increase in immigration, not just Muslims, but Hindus and Buddhists from all different faiths, from across the world?

Yeah, America is now a country of many religions, not just one religion or two religions. And then, of course, [the] large Christian community and then large Jewish community, but then there are Muslims, the Hindus, Buddhists. In Orange County we have a very large amount of Buddhists and people of other faiths who are here. So it's a land of diverse cultures, diverse ethnicities, religions, and that makes a pluralistic society.

But when people of religions come to America, are they somehow changed by the American culture, or do they change the culture themselves?

It's both. People have to understand that the culture here is traditions, and they have to adopt, so adapt and adopt both. They have to adapt themselves to the local culture. That doesn't mean giving up their tradition, giving up their values, but at the same time understanding. So you see that a lot of direction takes place.

In Orange County, we have several interfaith groups that are bringing people of different faiths together. We talk; we meet; we celebrate; we visit each other's holy places. And dialogue and interfaith relations, especially [among] Muslims, Jews and Christians, is increasing.

Why is that important?

It's important because of living together. The society brings people together. A large amount of people are very educated, so they cannot live in isolation from each other. People are working in their offices, businesses, and their neighborhoods together, so I think relations are important. The people should build the relations, understand each other and understand each other's background.

The more we know, the better we can live with each other. In our tradition, they say ... people are enemies of things that they do not know. So the more they will know, it's better.

So to the broader community, what is your message? What do you try to convey to non-Muslims about your faith?

In Southern California we started a program called Open Mosque. Open Mosque is open all the time; people can come and visit anytime, and we will welcome people. From churches, from schools and colleges, always we have groups that come, especially on Fridays. But then we also set a special day during the year where all mosques -- or most of the mosques, I would say -- open their doors for the neighbors. [People can] come and visit the mosque and meet with the people and taste the food and go around and see the place. And a lot of people come.

Actually sometimes we have lines of people standing. They want to see, and they are very happy that this opportunity is there, because people there [say]: "We don't want to intrude; this is your holy place. ... We wanted to see what it is, so I'm glad that you give us this opportunity to come and visit. [It is] so similar to what we have. ..."

We also introduce them to Islam. There's no idea of converting people, but the only thing is to introduce them, let them know, let them know us, and if they are interested, to take any books, copies of the Quran, any other information. They are welcome to do that. Otherwise, [they can] just come and walk around and taste the food and meet with the people. And people like ... the variety of food we have. ...

You must hear stories from members of your community when they encounter misunderstandings, discrimination regarding Islam.

A lot of people don't know what Islam is, so whatever the media tells them, they've got to believe that. They think that's the way it is, so they think that Muslims are fanatics; Muslims are not open to other people; they hate other people; Islam is real in violence; women are mistreated, inferior, second-class citizens in Islam; and people are not friendly; they don't want to meet with other people. ...

And unfortunately, the incidents that have been happening and some extremist groups ... have created even more misunderstanding. 9/11 created a lot of misunderstanding. And then after that, some of the terrorist acts have created a lot of misunderstanding. ... But that's not what Islam is; that's not what Muslim people are.

Did 9/11 change the experience of being a Muslim in this country for you?

... I've been always involved in interfaith dialogue, because that was my study at Harvard. I studied at the Center for [the Study of] World Religions..., and have studied other religions. So I have been involved in interfaith work, but most of our community are not that interested.

People are mostly interested in building their own Islamic Center, [a] place of worship, a school for the children, raising their families and going to their businesses. They go to business and then after that will not even talk about their faith to other people. 9/11 changed that, because now everybody started feeling that Muslims are in their focus. Muslims, people look at them and say, "What are you doing?" So people said, well, it's very important for us that we should introduce [ourselves] to others, because a lot of people don't know us. We don't want the terrorists to define us, but we have to define ourselves. We have to tell the people who we are, and now we have to build relations with people.

Misunderstandings have to be taken away, because the first thing is people have misunderstandings; second thing they'll hate; the third thing will be violence. So these things have to be avoided. We have to see how we can build relations with people. So more Islamic Centers became involved in interfaith work, interfaith relations, and we have organizations that are especially focusing on public relations, removing any misunderstanding about Islam, such as MPAC, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, that have an office here in Los Angeles area. And it's a national organization now. [Also] CAIR, [the Council] on American-Islamic Relations. And that is mostly an organization that gathers the data about hate crimes and hate incidents and misinformation about Islam. They channel that, and they speak on those issues. And then [there are] our own Islamic Centers. Then we have Shura Council of Southern California, which brings all the Islamic Centers of Southern California on one platform. People come together, meet and consult with each other. Of course, each organization is separate, independent, but there is a body [for] consultation and collaboration.

Tell me about the service in the National Cathedral three days after 9/11. What was your role?

When President [George W.] Bush was elected, [the] Muslim community wholeheartedly supported his election. And after the election we wanted to meet with him. Many Muslim organization[s], the leaders, indicated that [they] just [wanted] to meet with him, so he agreed to meet with us. And the date was Sept. 11, to meet with him.

Why were a lot of Muslims supporting President Bush?

I think it's the way he spoke and the way he presented his views and things like that. It was giving hope to Muslims that he's the right candidate, the right person to do that.

Was there something about his own ability to speak in terms of his own religious faith that people connected with?

Yes. I think the basic message was the message of openness that we found. That was very helpful. ...

At the time there was more and more support for the Republican Party that was there because of the conservative values. There are many Muslims who are Democrats as well, but issues that the Republican Party presents -- against abortion, the marriage and family and a number of those things -- people find that these are much more in line with the Muslim values, Muslim principles. On the other hand, you'll find that the Democratic Party is much more open for people of different backgrounds. ... So you can have both. But in the matter of time of the election of President Bush, many people were supporting him, and they voted for him. ...

So I arrived on the Sept. 10. I stayed with my brother in Virginia, and on the morning [of] Sept. 11, I was preparing myself to leave. We were supposed to meet, the Muslim leaders, at one place together and have lunch. And then after that, 2:00 was our appointment.

Around 9:00 or so, I was in the bedroom, and my brother came running, shouting: "Look at that TV! What happened? What happened?" It sounded [like] some kind of accident. So we went and then we were glued to the TV after that. And it turned out to be this horrible crime that was committed. So of course ... there was no plan after that.

What was going through your mind as the day unfolded and it became clear it was a terrorist attack?

It was still not very clear who did it, what happened. Of course it was coming out that maybe they're people from the Muslim background who did that. Some other people might have done it, ... because Timothy McVeigh, in the beginning people said it was Muslims [responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing], and then after it turned out it was not. So we had no idea what happened. ...

Very soon it was becoming clear that they are people who are from some Muslim background. So Muslim organizations, I remember that the same afternoon, we had telephone calls [with] the various leaders, and we issued a statement within a few hours condemning this act.

And then after that, there was no meeting, so I was waiting [for] when the flights would be open to go back to California. I think it was the second day or third day [after 9/11] that I received a call from White House, that the president will have a prayer service on Friday and that I would be able to be there and represent the Muslim community. I immediately accepted that, said this will be an honor for me, [and] said that I would be there. ... They asked me to write a short prayer that should not be more than two minutes. So I prepared my text, e-mailed it to them, and then after that they approved it. They took out certain things and edited it and said, ... "Don't go beyond that."

So we went on Friday, and it was around noon, ... and President Bush came. We were in the private office. President Bush came, met with myself and [the] Rev. Billy Graham, ... the Jewish representative and a few other people from the church, at the National Cathedral.

So we met with him and expressed our sadness and our anger. Actually, I remember that President Bush said, "I'm very angry." And I said, "We are all angry, Mr. President; it's a terrible thing that happened." And then we went for the service. ...

In the prayer I expressed sorrow and then also our sympathy, condolences, prayers for the people, for the victims and their families, and also for peace in our country, that we should all work together. That was the message, and I think that was also the basic message of all the people who presented.

After the prayer service, again we went back to the same room, and the president came and shook hands. And I told him, I said we were here to meet with you on that day, but unfortunately this thing happened, so we would like to see if you have another opportunity to meet. And the president said yes. Then I came back to California, and I received a call after that that on Sept. 26, that we were invited again to meet with the president at the White House.

... At that meeting, what did you tell him?

At the meeting, ... myself and a few other people were taken inside to the Oval Office, and the president said: "Thank you for participating in the prayer service. You did a heck of a good job..." And so he was very friendly, very open.

And I also gave him a copy of the Quran, saying that this book does not teach that behavior that was commissioned. ... And I told him: "I understand that you read the Bible every day. I hope you will read some days ... from this book also." And he said, "I will. I will." He said actually two, three times that "I will, I will." And then he took my hand, and we came outside, and then he asked me to sit next to him and had the copy of the Quran with him. And the whole media was there, and he said, "The imam gave me a copy of the Quran, and I appreciate that very much."

And he answered a few questions from the media, and then after that everybody left. Then he spoke to us. And we said that this does not represent Islam. And he said: "I agree with that. We don't call Timothy McVeigh a Christian bomber, and these should not be called Muslim people, because they are evil, and what they did is evil." And that was the president's message. …

And the president revisited the Islamic Center of Washington also after that, and he spoke there also: "That is not Islam. Islam is a religion of peace." That was our message basically. ...

Were you concerned about the misrepresentation of Islam during such an emotional moment?

I was. At the same time, I called immediately my Islamic Center here. We asked that the school should be closed on the day, because we don't know what's going to happen. And I learned from the people that the chief of police, the mayor of the city of Garden Grove, all of them came to the Islamic Center, and they said: "We are watching everything. Don't worry; everything will be OK." And the center [had] police cars going around.

But people did not react in anger; I'm very thankful for that. Actually, there were people, and some of our neighbors, they called us. They said that if there is anything, let us know; we will come to help you and support you. We know you people.

Some of the people. some of the Christian ministers and the Jewish rabbis called, and they said, "We know you people, and we are there to support you."

As you went up to the podium in front of such a huge audience in the National Cathedral, what was going through your mind?

I was sure that we are together in this. We are Americans all together, regardless of our faith, and this attack is on all of us. This attack is on humanity, because so many people at the World Trade Center, those people who died, over 3,000 people, almost 800 [of them] were Muslims, and they're all Americans, and the people from different other countries as well. So it is an attack on all people.

So the spirit of condemning the act, that this was evil, this was not the right way to express whatever anger they have; it is not the right way. The second thing is sympathy, condolence to the families that suffered, and prayer for them. And the third thing is prayer for the whole country to be together united; we must remain united.

Billy Graham also spoke. Did you have an opportunity to speak with him privately?

When we were together, we spoke to each other, yes. I expressed for him about admiration for his work, for his leadership. He's a great spokesman for his religion.

Why do you say that about Billy Graham?

That doesn't mean that I accept his beliefs, but I certainly admire the quality of work that he did. Billy Graham has been a very, very open person, much different than his son [Franklin Graham], who unfortunately spoke very harsh words against our religion. He called our religion evil religion. I don't think his father ever said that, anything like that. …

I remember that one time when Pope John Paul died, I was asked to be at CNN speaking about that. ... Franklin Graham was on the other side, and I told him when he had a little pause, I said: "Mr. Franklin Graham, we need to also dialogue. John Paul was a man of great dialogue, and he established so much understanding and love between the communities. We would like to do this. We should have more dialogue also among ourselves." He did not respond well. He did not say anything about that.

He and some other prominent evangelical leaders define America as a Christian nation, just in terms of its heritage, and then often have harsh things to say about Islam.

When they say America is a Christian nation, ... that's fine. Everybody has their right to do that, but not [to] misrepresent other people, not to say that other religions are evil religions. That's wrong to do that, especially a religion that is 1.5 billion people of the world that follow that, one-fifth of the human race or more that follow that. So how can you speak like that about other religions? One has to be very careful [about] what you are speaking. And these statements, they create hate and anger and misunderstanding in the mind of the people.

So it is our responsibility as leaders to be very careful. And that's the message of interfaith relations. It doesn't mean that you agree with the other faith, with the other faith's viewpoint. But respect is important, respect of all people.

Do you find that America's Christian heritage still informs this country? Is it possible for non-Christians in this country to fully feel engaged in the culture because of America's heritage and background?

Heritage is theirs, no doubt about that. Its heritage is Judeo-Christian, and mostly Christian. The majority of the people are Christian, but America has been very open. It's not a religious society; it's a secular society. ... All faiths are free. Actually, the secularism is a real, friendly secularism. It's not against any religion. There [is] some secularism that are anti-religion, but this is not that way. And that's the beauty of it. That's why American people are mostly very religious people.

If you compare with the Europeans, the majority of the Americans go to church, and a really large number of people believe in God, so people of other faiths feel very comfortable here. Muslims feel very comfortable here. Jewish people are here and thriving and flourishing, and the people of other faiths, Hindus and Buddhists and others. And this is the beauty here in this society, that people can live from different backgrounds, different cultures, and feel at home and supported.

So you're saying that the secular nature of government that supports religion makes you and other non-Christians from a different heritage feel more comfortable here?

Yeah. ... People are free to practice their religion. They can say their viewpoint. They can speak to the concerns. But at the same time, the state has not adopted any particular religion. Of course, the president is Christian, and many people are Christian in the Congress and the government. ... But that doesn't mean that this is necessarily a Christian viewpoint that is being presented here.

[You mentioned that Muslims had supported President Bush in the 2000 election.] Was there within your community disillusionment with President Bush over the course of his presidency, regarding not just the foreign policy but the close alignment with the Christian right?

Yeah. Slowly I think this feeling that people had ... diminished with that, especially the alliance with the evangelicals and then the Iraq war. For the Iraq war there was really no support. That wasn't good. ... And then because people found that war unnecessary, there was no need for that; there were no weapons of mass destruction there. And then also the damage that happened to the people, to the country and devastation. And so many people died, and it's continuous. The disaster is still going on.

Have you met President Obama, and have you found a different approach to religion with him?

Not yet. I hope I meet him. But the way he spoke about change and against war -- he spoke for bringing peace in the Middle East -- the whole issue of change attracted people, and that's why, again, a majority of Muslims voted for him, and people have great admiration for him. ... Of course, it is not the same level that it was in the beginning, because we would like to see the desserts. A lot of people don't want just to hear nice speeches; they want to see the action. And they're seeing the action is not really coming out. I hope it will. It's still [the] beginning; only one year has passed.

On your own experience in Orange County, what do you see [for] the future of the religious landscape in Orange County, wider L.A. and across the country?

If I'm going to speak only about the Muslim community, [the] Muslim community is feeling much more comfortable living in America and living with their faith. They don't see any difficulty observing their faith here in the society. A woman can walk with hijab. Here and there you find that, because of propaganda and Islam-phobia, you will find she has some problems, but not in the public in general.

Especially here in California, small, noncosmopolitan cities, you may have that, because people do not have much knowledge. But I think here we don't hear much incidents of hate. And people bring to the attention, and officials do speak against that. So you have mosques growing, and the number of people who go to the mosque are growing. There are many Islamic schools and Islamic tutoring programs. They're going on quite well. So people at the same time [are] also participating in the civic life. …

I think it's very important [that] people should participate and should be together with each other so we should not remain isolated within our own group, but we should be open and decide at this point that we are citizens, we are part of the country and we have our role to play, to make America strong, safe and good for all people.

And especially the Muslim community. I feel the role of the Muslim community is they do [have] a role. We have to make America understood in the Muslim world because of these wars. ... So we have to bring a better understanding of America and the Muslim countries, and also a better understanding of Islam and the Muslim world here in America, so we can be bridge builders; we can be ambassadors of both sides. And many people feel that way.

Building bridges is perhaps the most important. What did you think of President Obama's speech in Cairo to the Islamic world last summer?

That was great. I spoke after that, [and] I said that I have nothing except praise for that message, nothing that you disagree with.

The only thing after that is action.

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Published October 11, 2010

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