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Thursday, June 22, 2006

American Muslim Clerics Seek a Modern Middle Ground

Please read the following article that appeared in New York times, quite an
enlightening piece. It gives us the boost in our confidence that we need
today. I have drafted a letter in a hurry and sent it to the New York Times.
Kindly send your own letter, at least 10 words, or improve on my draft, but do
it. We need to encourage the magazine to do more positive write ups....The
more letters we sent, the more chance we have of similar coverage in the future.
I am pleased to acknowledge Claudia Martins for forwarding this promptly
for action.

It is in your hands, just write to them whatever comes to your mind,
criticism, encouragement or appreciation. Next time I see your posting, do I have
the right to ask you, if you wrote?

To the Editor
New York Times
June 16, 2006

Laurie Goodstien
Well done!

99% of Muslims are moderates: they want to get along with all, they want a
hassle free life and they respect all that God has created, humans as well as
the environment. Our Imams are a representation of this group. Thanks for
putting together this article.

You may have encountered disbelief reading the first word of this letter.
Figure out 1% 1.3 Billion Muslims and check out the figures released by the
Department of State last year in May - all combined they had figured 450,000
Muslims world wide who are possibly involved in insurgent activities. Of that, a
small percent is hard core terrorists. Run the numbers, the insurgents make
up 1/30th of 1% of Muslim population and terrorist possibly 1/50th of 1% of
less. Statistically they are not representative of Muslims or Islam in any

The responsibility for the goof up falls squarely on Muslims as well as the
media. Muslims because, just like the silent majority of any group, Muslims
mind their own business and go on with lives. They have condemned them bad
boys, but not enough to shut them up. The media, on the other hand feasts on
terrorism, look at TV anchors and the neocons, they come alive on television.
They give birth to terrorism experts on every channel which encourages the
bullies by giving them the flood light, it is wrong, dead wrong to shine the
light on those who are not representative of Muslims.

Given this, I am pleased to read NY times reflecting the mood of the
majority. We, the World Muslim Congress is forming to represent the voice of the
silent majority. Silent no more, better yet, we are developing a board of
advisors representing every faith. Every one is a neighbor to every one else, we
aspire to nurture the concept of good neighborliness in the world. Our
advisory board will be represented by individuals from every faith. It is time for
us to be equal citizens of one world, our home. This is a major paradigm shift
in how the religious organizations would conduct their business in the
coming years. (Press release pasted below)

Mike Ghouse, President
World Muslim Congress

(214) 325-1916 | (214) 731-1044

In a message dated 6/17/2006 2:57:42 P.M. Central Standard Time,
c.gaspar@terra.com.br writes:

American Muslim Clerics Seek a Modern Middle Ground

Published: June 18, 2006

Every seat in the auditorium at the _University of Houston_
.html?inline=nyt-org) was taken, and the crowd was standing in the back and
spilling out into the lobby, straining to hear. The two men onstage began to
speak to the crowd in Arabic, with such flawless accents and rarefied
Koranic grammar that some audience members gaped when they heard the Arabic
equivalent of the king's English coming from the mouths of two Americans.
Sheik Hamza Yusuf, in a groomed goatee and sports jacket, looked more like a
hip white college professor than a Muslim sheik. Imam Zaid Shakir, a lanky
African-American in a long brown tunic, looked like he would fit in just fine
on the streets of Damascus.
Both men are converts to Islam who spent years in the Middle East and North
Africa being mentored by formidable Muslim scholars. They have since become
leading intellectual lights for a new generation of American Muslims looking
for homegrown leaders who can help them learn how to live their faith without
succumbing to American materialism or Islamic extremism.
"This is the wealthiest Muslim community on earth," Mr. Shakir told the
crowd, quickly adding that "the wealth here has been earned" — unlike, he said,
in the oil-rich Middle East. As the audience laughed at Mr. Shakir's flattery,
he chided them for buying Lexuses — with heated leather seats they would
never need in Houston — and Jaguars, and made them laugh again by pronouncing it
"Jaguoooaah," like a stuffy Anglophile.
And then he issued a challenge: "Where are the Muslim _Doctors Without
(http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/d/doctors_without_borders/index.html?inline=nyt-org) ? Spend six months here, six
months in the Congo. Form it!"
Most American mosques import their clerics from overseas — some who preach
extremism, some who cannot speak English, and most who cannot begin to speak to
young American Muslims growing up on hip-hop and in mixed-sex chat rooms.
Mr. Yusuf, 48, and Mr. Shakir, 50, are using their clout to create the first
Islamic seminary in the United States, where they hope to train a new
generation of imams and scholars who can reconcile Islam and American culture.
The seminary is still in its fledgling stages, but Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir
have gained a large following by being equally at home in Islamic tradition
and modern American culture. Mr. Yusuf dazzles his audiences by weaving into
one of his typical half-hour talks quotations from St. Augustine, Patton, Eric
Erikson, Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Auden, Robert Bly, Gen. William C. Westmoreland
and the Bible. He hosts a TV reality show that is popular in the Middle East,
in which he takes a vanload of Arabs on a road trip across the United States
to visit people who might challenge Arab stereotypes about Americans, like
the antiwar protesters demonstrating outside the _Republican National
(http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/r/republican_party/index.html?inline=nyt-org) .
Mr. Shakir mixes passages from the Koran with a few lines of rap, and
channels accents from ghetto to Valley Girl. Some of his students call him the next
_Malcolm X_
(http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/m/malcolm_x/index.html?inline=nyt-per) — out of his earshot, because he so often
preaches the importance of humility.
Both men draw overflow crowds in theaters, mosques and university auditoriums
that seat thousands. Their books and CD's are pored over by young Muslims in
study groups. As scholars and proselytizers for the faith, they have a much
higher profile than most imams, as Muslim clerics who are usually in charge
of mosques are known. Their message is that both Islam and America have gone
seriously astray, and American Muslims have a responsibility to harness their
growing numbers and economic power to help set them straight.
They say that Islam must be rescued from extremists who selectively cite
Islamic scripture to justify terrorism. Though Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir do not
denounce particular scholars or schools of thought, their students say the two
are challenging the influence of Islam's more reactionary sects, like
Wahhabism and Salafism, which has been spread to American mosques and schools by
clerics trained in Saudi Arabia. Where Wahhabism and Salafism are often
intolerant of other religions — even of other streams within Islam — Mr. Yusuf and
Mr. Shakir teach that Islam is open to a diversity of interpretations honed by
centuries of scholars.
Mr. Yusuf told the audience in Houston to beware of "fanatics" who pluck
Islamic scripture out of context and say, "We're going to tell you what God says
on every single issue."
"That's not Islam," Mr. Yusuf said. "That's psychopathy."
He asked the audience to pray for the victims of kidnappers in Iraq, saying
that kidnapping is just as bad as American bombings in which the military
dismisses the civilians killed as "collateral damage."
"They're both sinister, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "One is efficient,
the other is pathetic."
Both Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf have a history of anti-American rhetoric, but
with age, they have tempered their views. Mr. Shakir told the Houston audience
that they are blessed to live in a country that is stable and safe, and in
which they have thrived.
When it came time for questions, one young man stepped to the microphone and
asked, "You said we have an obligation to humanity. Did you mean to Muslims,
or to everyone?"
Mr. Shakir responded, "The obligation is to everyone. All of the people are
the dependents of Allah."
When Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf stepped off the stage, they were mobbed by a
crowd that personified the breadth of their following. There were students in
college sweatshirts, doctors and limousine drivers in suits. There were
immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and the grown children,
grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the immigrant generation. There were plenty
of African-American Muslims, and a sprinkling of white and Hispanic converts.
There were women in all kinds of head scarves, and women without.
Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir posed for pictures and signed their CD's, books and
DVD's, of which the two of them combined have more than 80 on the market. A
young couple thanked Mr. Yusuf for his CD set on Muslim marriage, saying it
had saved theirs. A family from Indonesia asked him to interpret a dream. An
older woman from Iraq begged him to contact Muslim scholars in her homeland and
correct their misguided teaching.
After waiting for more than an hour to greet the scholars, Sohail Ansari, an
information technology specialist originally from India, marveled, "I was
born a Muslim, and these guys are so far ahead of us."
Encouraging Tolerance
Mr. Yusuf lives on a cul-de-sac in Danville, a Northern California suburb, in
a house with a three-car garage. The living room is spread with Persian
rugs; it is mostly bare of furniture. He held a dinner with guests in traditional
Arab style — on the floor, while the smallest of his five sons curled up in
the rugs and fell asleep. His wife, Liliana, tired from a day of
home-schooling and driving the boys to karate lessons, passed around take-out curry. She
converted to Islam after meeting Mr. Yusuf in college, to the chagrin of her
Catholic Hispanic parents. The couple married outdoors, in a redwood grove.
Mr. Yusuf received the Arabic title of sheik from his teachers in Mauritania,
in West Africa. There the honorific is usually given to old men with a deep
knowledge of Islam who serve their communities as wise oracles, but Mr. Yusuf
was only 28. His given name was Mark Hanson, and he was raised Greek
Orthodox in a bohemian but affluent part of Marin County, just north of San
He converted to Islam after a near-fatal car accident in high school sent him
on an existential journey. He said that the simplicity of "no God but Allah"
made far more sense to him than the Trinity, and he found the five daily
prayers a constant call to awe about everything from the sun to his capillaries.

The American seminary was Mr. Yusuf's idea. His diagnosis of the problem with
Islam today is that its followers lack "religious knowledge." Islam, like
Judaism, is based in scripture and law that has been interpreted, reinterpreted
and debated for centuries by scholars who inspired four schools of Islamic
jurisprudence. Mr. Yusuf laments that many of the seminaries that once
flourished in the Muslim world are now either gone or intellectually dead. Now, he
said, the sharpest Muslim students go into technical fields like engineering,
not religion.
He said he believed that if more Muslims were schooled in the their faith's
diverse intellectual streams and a holistic understanding of their religion,
they would not be so susceptible to the Osama bin Ladens who tell them that
suicide bombers are martyrs.
"Where you don't have people who have strong intellectual capacity, you get
demagoguery," he said.
Mr. Yusuf once was a source of the kind of zealous rhetoric he now denounces.
He said in 1995 that Judaism was based on the belief that "God has this bias
to this small little tribe in the middle of the desert," which makes it "a
most racist religion." On September 9, 2001, he said the United States "stands
condemned" for invading Muslim lands.
He has since changed his tune — not for spin, he says, but on principle. "Our
community has failed, and I include myself in that," he told an audience in
a downtown theater in Elizabeth, N.J., this year. "When I started speaking in
the early 90's, our discourse was not balanced.
"We were focused so often on what was negative about this country," he said.
"We ended up alienating some people. I've said some things about other
religions that I regret now. I think they were incorrect."
He added, "A tree grows. If you're staying the same, something is wrong.
You're not alive."
An Enthusiastic Following
Mr. Yusuf named his school the Zaytuna Institute — Arabic for olive tree, and
also the name of a renowned Islamic university in Tunisia. The site,
adjacent to a busy boulevard in Hayward, Calif., is an unlikely oasis, the air
scented by jasmine bushes and flowering vines.
Five times a day, starting around 5 a.m., a teacher or a student stands
outside the prayer hall and warbles the call to prayer. In the mornings, few
respond, but by evening, the hall is filled with the rustling of men and women
dropping to their knees, divided by a wooden screen.
The prayer hall was once a church. There is also a yurt and a high backboard
used as a target for archery, because the Prophet Muhammad recommended it as
an athletic activity. (The backboard will soon come down to avoid alarming
neighbors who might balk at seeing Muslims with bows and arrows).
On a sunny day, one student, Ousmane Bah sat outside the yurt, washing the
ink off a polished wooden slate on which he had written his lesson for the past
week, which he had committed to memory. The lesson, written in Arabic
poetry, was about what makes a fair trade. Near the yurt, BART trains sped by.
"The United States is the capitol of modernity," Mr. Bah said, "and you have
this very traditional Islam, which is 1,400 years old, being taught in this
modern world."
Many American universities have Islamic studies departments, and a program at
Hartford Seminary accredits Muslim chaplains. But there is no program in the
United States like Zaytuna.
Hundreds of Muslims come to Zaytuna for evening and weekend classes on the
Prophet Muhammad, the Koran and the Arabic language. The institute's full-time
seminary program is in the pilot phase. With only six students; it is
expected to double its enrollment next fall.
Besides Mr. Bah, there are two women — one a former software engineer, the
other a former prenatal genetic counselor — and three men — a former jazz
musician from Maryland, a motorcycle mechanic from Atlanta and a son of
Bangladeshi immigrants in New York City who chose Zaytuna over the _Ivy League_
(http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/i/ivy_league/index.html?inline=nyt-org) .
"Sheik Hamza and Imam Zaid have grown up here after having studied abroad,
and you can really connect with them," said the New Yorker, Ebadur Rahman, who
is 19. "The scholars who come from abroad, they can't connect with the
people. They're ignorant of life here."
Islamic studies experts say that what Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir are teaching
is traditional orthodox Islam, and that it is impossible to characterize their
theology as either conservative or liberal. They encourage but do not
require women in class to cover their heads. They have hired a woman scholar, who
teaches women only. Last year, Mr. Shakir published a rebuttal to a group of
progressive American Muslims who argue that Islamic law allows women to lead
men in prayer.
Mr. Yusuf says he has become too busy to teach regularly at his own school.
He writes books, translates Arabic poetry, records CD's, tapes his television
show. He meets with rabbis, ministers and the _Dalai Lama_
) , and travels annually to the _World Economic Forum_
) in Davos, Switzerland.
His fame grew after he was invited to the White House nine days after Sept.
11, making him the only Muslim leader along with five other religious leaders
who were called to meet with President Bush. He suggested that Mr. Bush
change the name of the military's impending operation in Afghanistan, "Infinite
Justice," because it would offend Muslims, who believe the only source of
infinite justice is God. Mr. Bush responded by changing the operation's name, to
"Operation Enduring Freedom," and in the news media Mr. Yusuf gained a title
other than sheik: "adviser to the president."
Mr. Yusuf, however, said that Mr. Bush since then "hasn't taken any of my
Persuasion Over Violence
Three years ago, Mr. Yusuf invited Mr. Shakir to teach at Zaytuna as a
scholar in residence. Mr. Shakir had recently returned from his second stint of
studying Islam abroad — a total of seven years in Syria and Morocco.
One recent Sunday afternoon, Mr. Shakir had 50 students in his Zaytuna class
on marriage and family. The women brought their babies and their knitting,
and everyone munched on homemade cookies brought for a cookie-baking contest.
"It's going to be hard to beat this oatmeal raisin," Mr. Shakir said between
swigs of organic milk.
The real topic at hand was whether polygamy, which is permitted in Islam, is
appropriate in the modern context. Mr. Shakir mediated a heated debate
between the men and women who sparred across the wooden divider that separated
One man said that having more than one wife was good because some women are
so "career orientated" that "they don't want to be cleaning up all the time
behind the man." At that, one woman shouted out, "Get a maid!" and everyone
dissolved in laughter.
Mr. Shakir told the students that Islam allows polygamy because it was a
"practical" and "compassionate" solution in some cases, as when women are
widowed in war. But in the modern context, he said, "a lot of harm ensues."
Mr. Shakir said afterward that he still had trouble believing how a boy from
the projects could have become an Islamic scholar with students who are
willing to move across the country to study with him.
He and his wife, Saliha, became Muslims in the Air Force. He had joined the
military as a teenager in the lull after Vietnam because his mother had died
and he had no means. His name was Ricky Mitchell, and his mother had raised
him and his siblings in housing projects in Georgia — where he remembers going
to his grandparents' farm and picking cotton — and in New Britain, Conn.
A Goal for America
While leading a mosque in New Haven, Conn., in 1992, he wrote a pamphlet that
cautioned Muslims not to be co-opted by American politics. He wrote, "Islam
presents an absolutist political agenda, or one which doesn't lend itself to
compromise, nor to coalition building."
While he did not denounce Muslims who take part in politics, he pointed out
the effectiveness of "extrasystemic political action" — like the "armed
struggle" that brought about the rule of the _Taliban_
in Afghanistan. A copy of the pamphlet was found in the apartment of a suspect
in the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993. Mr. Shakir says he was
questioned by the _F.B.I._
(http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/f/federal_bureau_of_investigation/index.html?inline=nyt-org) ,
but had no link to the man, and that was the end of it.
While studying in Syria a few years later, he visited Hama, a city that had
tried to revolt against the Syrian ruler, _Hafez al-Assad_
) . Mr. Shakir said he saw mass graves and bulldozed neighborhoods, and
talked with widows of those killed. He gave up on the idea of armed
struggle, he said, "just seeing the reality of where revolution can end."
Asked now about his past, he said, "To be perfectly honest, I don't regret
anything I've done or said."
He added, "I had to go through that stage to become the person that I am, and
I'm not willing to negate my past."
He said he still hoped that one day the United States would be a Muslim
country ruled by Islamic law, "not by violent means, but by persuasion."
"Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a
Muslim country," he said. "I think it would help people, and if I didn't
believe that, I wouldn't be a Muslim. Because Islam helped me as a person, and
it's helped a lot of people in my community."

World Muslim Congress

Islam is not a monolithic religion and has allowed diversity from its very
inception. Justice, Liberty and freedom are its core values. God could have
made us desire-less and sinless angels, instead he chose to make us human,
giving guidance on one hand, temptations on the other – then giving room to make
mistakes, and room to correct ourselves thru repentance. Forgiveness is a
full cycle concept and not merely utterance of words. Hence, Islam is a deed
based religion.
I ask whether I should seek any god besides God--when he is the Lord of all
things. All people will reap the harvest of their own deeds; no one will bear
another’s burden. Ultimately, all of you will return to your Lord, and he
will resolve your disputes.

-Qur'an, Al-An'am, Surah 6:163-164
Our silence has done a lot more damage to us than the damage done by the
extremists. We have a forum now to speak up and present the majority view to
the world.
Our silence has done a lot more damage to us, our faith, and our community
and our World. Silence no more, we have a forum now to speak up and present
the majority view and hope to take back our faith. Insha Allah

World Muslim Congress
Carrollton, Texas . Thursday, May 25th, 2006. All praise to God. We are
pleased to announce the formation of The World Muslim Congress, a non-profit
organization with a commitment to work towards forming a just world.
Our Mission is to create a better world for every human being, through
inclusiveness and participation, as members of a diverse family. Our efforts will
be directed towards justice and equity to attain a sustainable peace and
goodwill. We believe communication is a two way street. We cannot have advantages
at the cost of others. Such benefits are temporary and deleterious to
lasting peace.
Our Prophet (pbuh) described a good deed as an act which benefits others,
such as planting trees that serve generations of wayfarers with fruits and a
shade. The world is a better place today because of the good legacy bequeathed
to the humanity by people of all faiths that came before us. We owe it to
coming generations to leave the world little better than we found, to usher an
era of justice and peace.
Our goal is to inspire Muslims to be actively involved in the larger global
community and be productive citizens as well as peace makers to the world.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) set the example of good citizenship early on in his
life. The people of Makkah, non-Muslims at that time, called him Al-Amin -
the truthful and the trustworthy, because of his unwavering commitment to
honesty in word and deed. The goal of the World Muslim Congress is to instill
the humane values of Islam and to aspire to be Al-Amin to all.
The World Muslim Congress aims to give voice to the silent majority of
Muslims, those who believe in leading a good life by contributing their time,
effort and energy towards shaping a just society. A society where helping
families, building bridges between communities, and foster love, justice and peace.

Through the revolution in travel and communication the world has indeed
become a global community. Every one is a neighbor to every one else, we aspire
to nurture the concept of good neighborliness in the world. Our advisory board
will be represented by individuals from every faith. It is time for us to be
equal citizens of one world, our home. This is a paradigm shift in how the
religious organizations would be conducting their business in the coming
Insha Allah, the organization will officially come into full operation on
Tuesday, July 4th, 2006.
Contact: Mike Mohamed Ghouse - _MikeGhouse@gmail.com_
(mailto:MikeGhouse@gmail.com) | Mirza Akhtar Beg - _mirza.a.beg@gmail.com_
(mailto:mirza.a.beg@gmail.com) Website to be ready in August: _www.WorldMuslimCongress.com_


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