An Interview with Syed B. Soharwardy
by Peter J. Sanford
Are attacks on Civilians, justified due to the Government they have elected into power? Such as what happens in the United Kingdom and Israel?
Attacks on civilians (Muslims or non Muslims) at any time, peace time or war time, is forbidden in Islam. Any Muslim who attacks the children, women, sick and ordinary civilians of a community, regardless of their religious orientation, commits a serious sin and crime. Killing or hurting civilians because the American army kills indiscriminately at times cannot be justified. Muslims never react to an evil act by committing evil themselves. We Muslims strongly condemn the American aggression and cruelty in Iraq and elsewhere but we must rise above the moral levels of American, British or Israeli forces. We Muslims need to achieve the highest standards of morality and kindness set for us by our Creator, Almighty Allah in his Holy Book the Quran and demonstrated by the life of His beloved last Messenger, Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Mr. Soharwardy, what is your take on the separation of church and state in the US? Should Muslim students be allowed time to pray [salah]in US public schools? What about students of other religions?
Separation of church and state was required in the west because the church was abusing ordinary citizens in the name of Christian faith. By the 1500s the Catholic Church was the most wealthy and powerful institution in Europe, however the religious leaders were very corrupt. Many church leaders lived more like rulers rather than religious leaders becoming increasingly involved in political matters. To raise money for these activities, the Church raised fees for services such as, marriage and baptism, and also began the sale of indulgences, which were letters of forgiveness for one’s sins. This caused both anger and resentment across Europe, and many called for reforms to take place. Clearly, the clergy misused and abused the Christian faith in order to benefit from it. Therefore, it was the right thing to separate the clergy from the affairs of the government.
Presently the concept of separation of church and state is being abused and misused by the secular and atheist individuals, organizations and governments. They want to takeaway the religious freedom of an individual or community. Some of them are fundamentalist and extremist in their secular and atheistic beliefs. They are now doing the same thing that the Christian clergy did four centuries ago. They are imposing themselves and their atheistic / secular beliefs on everyone.
Freedom of religion for an individual or a community is one of their most important rights and must be protected, not only in private but, in public affairs as well. A Muslim student in the USA must be allowed to pray the required five prayers in day. In addition, the government should also provide prayer facilities in public schools. Similarly, students of other faiths should be allowed to practice their daily religious rites and the government should provide facilities for them to do so. What must not be allowed anywhere is the hatemongering in the name of religion.
I assure you, if a Muslim is allowed to practice Islam openly and freely and the society does not discriminate against him/her for being openly Muslim, then this Muslim will love that society and will help in protecting the religious rights of the followers of other religions. A true practice of Islam develops a kind and loving person, not a hatemonger.
The media seems to emphasise the negative aspects of Islam, why do you think this is?
Let me begin with some background to this problem. From the start, the unity of American society was established on xenophobia or an irrational fear of foreigners or strangers.. They had to have a fear of something in order to unite against that fear. If the fear is gone, the reason of unity would be gone too. American xenophobia operates in the service of American nationalism. Initially, the settlers feared from the aboriginal people and they united against them. They killed millions of aboriginal people in order to remove their fear. When these settlers found their identity as Americans they feared the British monarchy and fought against it. They fought against France, Mexico and other nations on land claims. They hated blacks and kept them in slavery for centuries. The Americans feared from the increasing power of Germany and fought against it. World War II added the Italians and Japanese to the “feared peoples” for the Americans. This was followed by the Red Scare and subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam. In the coming years the Communists served as convenient targets through the end of the Cold War. The Gulf war provided the Middle Easterners..and so the legacy of American xenophobia continued.
The American media always played a very significant role in keeping this “foreign fear” against other cultures and nations alive. During the last forty years the unprecedented expansion of Islam and the growth of Muslim community in Europe and North America frightened the Christian fundamentalists in the USA. They sought to stop this growth perceiving it to be a challenge to their religion. The tragedy of 9/11 provided them the perfect opportunity to identify Islam and Muslims as the next reason of foreign fear.
On one side, the Christian ministries especially the evangelical church has significant influence on the media. The TV evangelists bring millions of dollars to TV corporations every week by buying time for their ministries. On the other side, coincidently at the time of 9/11 tragedy, the White House was occupied by the most fundamentalist Christian government in American history. Therefore, the propaganda of TV evangelists and the pressure from the fundamentalist government in the White House encouraged the media to create greater fear against a religion that was foreign to the ordinary Americans. Moreover, we should realize what makes for interesting news. If a Muslim person gives her neighbour a bouquet of flowers, it does not make the news but when a person kills the other person it makes news.
Looking to American history once more, at one point the Americans financed and trained Muslim warlords in Afghanistan. At the end of the cold war, The US lost interest in financing these Muslim warlords leaving them frustrated and restless. They reacted by turning against the Americans and attacking them instead.. The American fundamentalist Christian ministries and the government used this clash with the Muslim warlords to demonize the religion of Islam and the entire Muslim community. The media loves sensation and controversy and they got it.
One of the greatest misconceptions is that the American media is free from censorship and bias. Various interest groups and the owners of network stations, newspapers and other media forms exert significant influence on what is reported in the media. Moreover, concentrated ownership of media results in less diversity in the views represented. Thus, mainstream media do not want to run stories that will offend their advertisers and owners. In this way, the media end up censoring themselves and not reporting on many important issues.
In his article on media monopoly, Michael Parenti, a political scientist and author writes about further problems with the media in the US. He highlights the various techniques, intentional or unintentional used by the mainstream media that contradict its claim to be free, open and objective. These include suppression by omission, labeling, preemptive assumption and others. To read his complete article: http://www.michaelparenti.org/MonopolyMedia.html
In Canada we have the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) which is funded using tax payer’s money and even the CBC is not free. In the east media is controlled by governments and dictators and in the west it is controlled by the interest groups and the owners. These interest groups either are secular or the fundamentalist Christians and both of these groups share their hatred for Islam.
What is Jihad?
The word jihad literally means to “struggle or strive.” The Arabic root of the word is jahada “to strive for.” This is a struggle against evil and wrong. This struggle (Jihad) is the most integral part of Islam. In the holy Qur’an, the most frequently occurring orders from Allah are those for the establishment of prayer (Salat) and those for the struggle in His path (Jihad Fi Sabilillah). There are three levels of struggles in Islam.
First Level: The struggle to acquire, sustain and foster the righteousness within ourselves. In other words, the struggle within a person to keep him/her away from sins and evil beliefs or actions.
Second Level: A struggle by using one’s speaking or writing power to acquire, sustain and cultivate righteousness within a community. In other words, if a person sees or hears any wrong doing in the community, the righteous person stops that wrong by creating awareness about it through his/her speeches or writings.
Third Level: The struggle against evil by using force. In other words, fighting a war against evil. A further explanation of this level of Jihad follows.
Jihad – The Holy War
The difference between Islam and other religions is that the Islam provides complete and specific guidance to its followers in all possible aspects of life, while the other religions provide guidelines only in a few aspects of life. Islam tells its followers how to run a government, how to run a community, how to run one’s own house and how to run one’s own life. From world affairs to the affairs concerning one’s neighbours and family members, Islam tells its followers what to do in nearly all human situations.
Just like any sovereign nation, Muslims are required to defend the sovereignty of their country. In other words, a Muslim country should not initiate any aggression against any other country but should defend itself against the aggression of the other country. Similarly, Muslims are also required to help the needy and the oppressed and bring freedom to the people. Therefore, the defence against the aggression and arrogance is called Jihad.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has given very clear guidelines to Muslims regarding wars. A Muslim must not do the following at any time including war time (Jihad);
- Kill or hurt women and children even if they are from the enemy
- Kill the sick and elderly people even if they are from the enemy
- Do not destroy hospitals
- Do not cut down green tress
- Do not contaminate water sources
- Do not destroy the places of worship of other religions
Where else do we find these great ethics during war time except in a religion founded over 1400 years ago – that of peace loving Islam.
What are the requirements and conditions for proclaiming Jihad?
If Jihad (War) is needed then the head of an Islamic government can proclaim jihad. The head must consult with the appropriate advisors / military experts (in today’s time parliament or cabinet) before announcing Jihad. An individual or an organization of few individuals can not declare Jihad (war). Moreover, when Jihad is declared by the head of an Islamic government, the war must be fought with strict enforcement of the above mentioned guidelines. Biological, chemical, or nuclear warfare, hijacking of planes, indiscriminate killings of civilians is NOT allowed in Islam.
What is martyrdom in Islam?
When a Muslim dies while defending his or her religion, country, life, honour or property he or she is called martyr. Just like a US soldier, when he/she dies while defending USA or US interests abroad, the soldier is recognized as a hero by Americans, similarly, when a Muslim dies while fighting for his country, that fighter is acknowledged as a martyr and honoured as a hero by Muslims.
What is the future of the Palestinian State? Will it be possible for Muslims and Jews to live side-by-side in a peaceful existence?
The outlook looks very bright and promising for a future Palestinian State. I am quite optimistic that very soon an independent Palestinian state will be established with East Jerusalem its capital. However, the extremists on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides will continue creating all possible obstacles to stop an independent Palestinian state. It is the duty of the overwhelmingly peaceful majority on both sides to come forward and defeat the fanatics on both sides.
Yes, two sovereign independent states of Palestine and Israel can live side by side in peace provided that the standards of justice remain the same for Palestinians and Israelis. The principle of “peace with justice” is the key for successful settlement. History provides us with many instances where Muslims and Jews coexisted in peace within their shared communities. When Jews were getting persecuted by Christians in Europe, they found shelter in Muslim countries, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, etc. and were easily integrated into the daily lives of the communities. Today, Jews and Muslims live side by side in Canada, USA, Europe, etc… Why can’t they live in peace in the holy land?
Can Islam and Christianity truly co-exist peacefully?
The holy book of Islam, Qur’an recognizes Christianity and Judaism as religions and calls them the people of the book. Qur’an asks Muslims to establish dialogue with Christians and Jews on common ground; the monotheistic belief in one common God (Allah).
In holy Qur’an, chapter 30, Allah favoured Christians over pagans and gave them victory over their enemies.
In 637, when the second caliph of Islam, Omar Ibn Al Khattab (May Allah be pleased with him) entered Jerusalem as the victorious head of the Islamic army, the Greek Patriarch Sophronius received him. While Caliph Omar was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the time for Muslim prayer came. The Patriarch invited him to pray where he was, but Caliph Omar courteously refused. “If I pray here in the church”, he explained, “the Muslims would want to commemorate the event by erecting a mosque here, and that would mean that they would have to demolish the Holy Sepulchre.” He said, “I will pray outside so that your church remains as it is.” Sure enough, directly opposite the Holy Sepulchre there is still a small mosque dedicated to the Caliph Omar.
Saladin’s lasting reputation among Christians during the crusades, as a man of chivalry and honour, derives above all from his treatment of the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem. There is a stark contrast with the behaviour of the crusaders, eighty-eight years earlier. Instead of pillage and massacre, there was an orderly handing over of the city. Holy places were respected and a reasonable ransom amount could be paid for each Christian to depart in freedom. Among those who could not afford it, many were released by Saladin instead of being sold into slavery. Not only did Saladin treat the Crusaders with kindness, he ensured that Muslims and non-Muslims lived in peace and harmony with each other.
In the history of Jerusalem the most peaceful period was the period when Muslims ruled the holy land. Christian, Muslims and Jews lived side by side under the Islamic rule. Muslims have lived side by side with Christians in peace not only in the holy land but in other parts of the world too. Muslims treated Christians and Jews with respect. Muslims did not try forceful conversion of any conquered peoples as there is no compulsion in the religion of Islam.
Father George Qanawati in his book, Christianity and Arab Civilisation, has stated that “in order to understand how Christians could live within Arab Islamic civilisation and feel part and parcel of it …constituting an active element in its development and helping their Muslim brethren to safeguard their beliefs and views in scientific fields and in the requirements of civilisation, we must refer to …Common grounds and meeting points between the two religions, for instance; ‘One God’ , the One Living Self-Subsisting Eternal’, ‘God who loves human beings’ and ‘God the Forgiver and Compassionate’…”
Islam and Christianity did coexist peacefully in the past and these two great religions can coexist in peace today provided that the Muslims follow the teachings of Islam and the Christians follow the teachings of Christ (peace be upon him).
Why are there sectarian differences in Islam? Is this good or bad?
During the first century of Islamic history, Muslims were divided into two sects. The division was purely political, not religious or theological. The minority group called Shi’a believed that the Caliph-hood should remain within the family of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), while the majority of Muslims called Sunni believed that the Caliph must be elected by the community. However, this political division never created a widespread animosity among Muslims. The differences remained very strong at the level of intellectuals / scholars but ordinary citizens were never affected by it.
During the last days of Ottoman Empire, as the European colonization of Muslim countries increased, sectarianism among the Muslims also increased. However, the followers of these sects did not exhibit violent behaviour towards each other until a new sect was founded during the 1800s in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Currently, out of the 1.5 billion Muslims, only a very small percentage of Muslims have been involved in sectarian violence.
The sectarian extremism was planted among Muslims by a small number of fanatics funded and trained by the European imperialists and colonialists during the fall of Ottoman Empire. This sectarian extremism took root in Saudi Arabia and slowly spread through out the Middle Eastern countries. It reached Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s after the US had begun the practice of fighting the Soviet Union through Muslim men recruited from these countries. This sectarian extremism is now on the rise in Iraq, once more driven by the American occupation policy of “divide and rule” . It is heartbreaking and very disturbing picture for all Muslims.
How is a terrorist defined according to Islam?
A government, a military, an organization or an individual that employs terror as a political, economical, social or religious weapon is called terrorist in Islam. An individual or a group of individuals are considered to be terrorists if the individual or group of individuals;
- Indiscriminately destroy properties and /or kills civilians
- Kidnap or hijack civilians for ransom or hurt them or kill them
- Attacks a country in order to occupy the country with the intent of controlling its resources and institutions to further their own purposes
A terrorist is a terrorist regardless whether the terrorist is an ally or a foe of US government. US government or the US media has no right to declare anyone as a terrorist or part of an “axis of evil”. Terrorist individuals, organizations, militaries and the governments should only be declared as such by the United Nations. Unless and until the United Nations declares someone to be a terrorist, it should be illegal to label that individual or organization as a terrorist. Let me explain why I am saying this.
When the American government wants to use someone to fight against American enemies, then that individual is an honourable “freedom fighter.” When the individual refuses to fight for the American cause OR fights back against America, the American government identifies the very same “freedom fighter” with the shameful label of a “terrorist.” For example; when Saddam Hussein was killing civilians and throwing chemical and biological bombs on children and women in Iran during 1980s, he was regarded as a hero by the American allies in the region and the USgovernment supported him. When Saddam Hussein , intoxicated by his mighty power, started attacking American allies in the region, the same Saddam Hussein was declared as a terrorist. Why was Saddam Hussein not declared as a terrorist when he was killing Iraqis and Iranians?
Yet another example is that of the Talibans in Afghanistan. While the Taliban were oppressing the Afghani population, they continued to receive funds, weapons and the training from the American government but as soon as the Taliban refused to follow the American orders, they were declared as terrorists. Why were they not declared terrorists when they were working with US intelligence and the government?
When Osama Bin Laden and his army were fighting for America against the Russian forces, they too received money, training and weaponry from the US. They were the heroes for US government. But when Osama Bin Laden and his army turned their backs on America they became the terrorist. The only difference between then and now is that before they were killing and destroying under the American orders, now they are killing and destroying against the American orders.
For a Muslim, one of the conditions of faith is that a Muslim should like for others what he/she likes for himself/herself. Repentance of a Murderer is not accepted unless the Murderer receives punishment for his/her crime OR unless the immediate relatives (parents, children, spouse, etc.) of the victim forgive the murderer. Therefore, a terrorist must be punished for his/her crime.
Has Islam been hijacked by the likes of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Jihad, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc?
Islam cannot be hijacked by any individual, government or an organization. In order to hijack Islam 1.5 billion Muslims need to be hijacked. However, the increased aggression against the Islamic faith by a few followers and the enemies of Islam has put increased pressure on the faithful Muslims to be responsible citizens and safeguard the “true” way of Islamic life.
The worldwide Muslims and particularly Canadian Muslims condemn the recent kidnapping of two Canadians in Iraq. I would like to remind the kidnappers (if they are Muslim) that the kidnapping civilians (Muslims or non Muslims) is a crime in the sight of Allah and His messenger (peace be upon him). If the kidnappers cause any harm to these Canadians and other civilians, they will be facing Allah with His wrath and anger. It is in the interest of kidnappers to release these innocent Canadians and other civilians immediately and get reward from Allah for saving peoples life. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Be kind to those who live on earth and the one who is in the Heavens will be kind to you”.
I also urge US army to leave Iraq and let the Iraqi decide their destiny. The presence of American forces in other countries is threatening the world peace.
How much support does Islam give to those named above?
Islam does not support these individuals or organizations. Islam only supports those who follow it and condones actions in line with its teachings. Any individual or organization that supports terrorism has no support from Muslims and Islam. Any individual or organization that kills innocent children has no support from Muslims and no place in Islam. In fact, Islam condemns and rejects them.
What is your opinion of the growing anti-Muslim sentiments in the US, the UK, elsewhere?
Indeed this is an unfortunate and a very disturbing situation created by anti-Islam and anti peace agencies (Note: If a person claims that he/she is a Muslim but does every thing against the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the holy Qur’an, I consider that person anti-Islam).
The US / UK governments and the western media are responsible for spreading these anti-Muslim sentiments. If they would have allowed the major Islamic scholars in the governmental institutions and the media programs, these sentiments would not have grown. The future will tell (God willing) that the current governments in UK and USA are responsible for producing more terrorists. The future will blame the current US and UK governments and the media organizations for taking USA and UK backward to the era of racism and discrimination.
All over the world, all major Islamic scholars and organizations have condemned those so- called Muslims who are creating terrorism in the name of Islam but media gives more coverage to the terrorists, not the peace preaching and practicing Muslim scholars.
However, Muslims do have a responsibility of educating the people. It is the duty of each individual Muslim living in the western countries to be faithful to his/her country and must reach out to his /her neighbours, classmates, coworkers and share with them the blessing of Allah. Muslims need to start their own TV and radio stations and newspapers and they need to make this as a priority. If the world is to see the true face of Islam; then we cannot depend on the sham that is the western media.
What is your a thought or opinions on the War on/against Terrorism?
I have written an article on this War on/against terrorism. Please visit http://www.islamicsupremecouncil.com/psychopaths.htm
I consider this war as a “War of Psychopaths”. This is a war of warlords and religious fanatics that is producing more terrorists and killing more innocent civilians everyday.
What are the aspects that are beneficial to Canada, etc, that you have seen?
No doubt that the tragedy of 9/11 has brought sadness and destruction, however, this tragedy also provided an opportunity to ordinary citizens, Muslims and non Muslims, to unite together as peace loving humans. Although, religious fanatics -Muslims, Christians and Jews do not want this union of peace loving humans to succeed but we must try our best to defeat the terrorists and the fanatics.
Although, there have been cases of racism and hate crimes against Muslims in Canada, however, overall the situation is very peaceful and respectful. All the levels of government in Canada work very hard to protect the lives and properties of all its citizens. So far, Canadians have proven themselves to be very responsible, multicultural, open, diverse, tolerant and antiracist. The awareness about Islam and Muslims is quite high and almost everyone knows who the Muslims are. Moreover, new courses on world religions and multiculturalism have been introduced in schools.
The media in Canada is still very biased (the influence from the south is huge) against Muslims but once in a while Muslims do get limited coverage.
What I am doing to help?
I travel across this huge country of ours on a weekly basis and educate the young and old, boys and girls about the true peaceful and loving nature of Islam. I have founded two organizations called; Muslims Against Terrorism (www.m-a-t.org) and Islamic Supreme Council of Canada (www.islamicsupremecouncil.com). By the way, MAT was founded long before 9/11 in 1999.
We produce two TV programs on a weekly basis. We have established an Islamic centre in Calgary and soon we will be establishing another centre in the City of Toronto. We offer four courses on Islam, free of charge:
Islam 101 – designed for non Muslims to learn basics of Islam
Islam 201 – designed for non Muslims to study the Qur’an and its interpretations.
Islam 301 – designed for Muslim youth
Islam 501 – Presentation and Communication skills
I am also writing two books, one regarding Islamic beliefs and other on the topic of issues faced by Muslims. These books will be published within the next few months.
I will be more than happy to present Islam 101 course to your group or anyone interested free of charge.
Thank you for asking these questions. I am looking forward to meeting with you soon.
(Acknowledgement: I am very thankful to Nadia Ahmed for proof reading this document. May Allah reward her with the best of the both worlds.)