Today, I attended an appearance by imam Muzammil Siddiqi at Cerritos College in Norwalk, a community near Los Angeles. Siddiqi is currently the head imam at the Islamic Center of Orange County. The topic of this presentation was sharia. Siddiqi was hosted by moderator Professor John Haas of the Global Consortium for Sustainable Peace, which was videotaping the event as part of a teleconferencing project. Approximately 100 students attended plus some community members. During the q and a, I had a chance to ask Siddiqi about how apostasy is punished under sharia law and personally hand him a copy of the Freedom Pledge letter sent out by Former Muslims United to some 100 leading Islamic leaders including Siddiqi. This letter contains a written pledge that can be signed by the recipient that Muslim apostates in America should not be harmed.
Note: I am paraphrasing Siddiqi's comments using words he used as much as possible as I wrote my notes.
To start the program off, Haas asked Siddiqi to explain to the audience what Sharia was. He defined it as a "path" for Muslims to follow-a way of life, with rules and laws which cover many aspects of Muslims' lives including prayer, fasting, charity, food, business transactions, and so on. He quoted the Koran and the Hadith (traditions of Mohammad) as the sources for sharia.
Haas followed up by saying that he heard nothing objectionable, but why was sharia so controversial? In his question, Haas referred to graphic images he had seen of acts carried out by the Taliban and others.
Siddiqi stated that he also objected to practices by the Taliban. He added that fear of sharia is fear of the unknown, which is exploited by anti-Islamic people in Europe and the US.. He called them "a small group of Islamophobes", who are well-financed. He added that some Muslims themselves misinterpret sharia.
"Islam is a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of harmony. Islam is a religion of co-existence", said Siddiqi. He said that Muslims are living peacefully with non-Muslims and other faiths in many countries including (his native) India.
As for the US Constitution, he said that Muslims in the US respect the Constitution and don't want to change it.
As for 9-11, Siddiqi said that this was against sharia and reminded the audience that he had gone to Washington and prayed with President Bush after the tragic events.
After a brief account of his recent Hajj (pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia) Haas asked Siddiqi to explain "jihad". Siddiqi said that it has nothing to do with holy war, which was a term coined by the Christians during the Crusades. "War is not holy", said Siddiqi. Jihad is a struggle of morals and for justice and against oppression He conceded that sometimes war or self defense when attacked is justified for Muslims, but there are strict rules and principles for war. Muslims should not attack others but fight only in self defense and never attack non-combatants. War is not for conversion because under Islam, there is no compulsion in religion, rather war is only for self defense. Siddiqi concluded that answer by saying people should all get together in conjunction with the UN and talk it out.
Haas then opened the floor for questions from the audience. I got the first question.
I reminded Siddiqi that when we last spoke several months earlier, I had asked him about the Freedom Pledge letter that he and others had received in 2009 and again this year. I stated that to date, only 2 people had signed it and that he had informed me then that he never received it. At this time, I produced a copy addressed to him and handed it to him. As for my question, I asked under Islamic law (Hudud sharia) what is the penalty for one who leaves Islam and in addition, speaks out publicly against the religion.
Siddiqi said that different people had different opinions; some say kill the person, or put them in prison, if they repeatedly offend or if they don't repent, kill them. "This was ancient law, which some people believe", he said. The majority say that it is the person's choice. Siddiqi also said that the Prophet did not punish (apostates), but some people have extreme beliefs. He added that if an apostate "fights" Islam, that is treason and compared it to Afghanistan, where some Muslims joined forces with the Soviets. (This is a similar answer to what he gave me previously at Loyola Marymount College.)
Another questioner wanted to know what steps are being taken in Muslim countries to protect women. In response, Siddiqi said women in Arab countries are advancing and are speaking out about certain practices. He said that Islam does not promote violence against women, that they should be allowed to contribute and have the same rights.
Another woman asked a similar question and what extremists who do violence to women base their reasons on? Siddiqi responded that these were crimes and not sharia. It was a small group of people doing these horrible things-not Islam, not sharia. It was, he called it, an abuse of sharia.
When Dr Haas raised the issue of the video , "The Innocence of Muslims", (actually produced by a man living in Cerritos) Siddiqi tried to make the point that the number of people who were out on the streets protesting was actually very small.
Another questioner asked about unequal treatment for non-Muslims in Muslim countries and a woman's testimony counting for half that of a man. Siddiqi said that dated from a time when women were not allowed to participate in civil proceedings. "Time related" was the term he used. He said there was much debate about this point, but that some Muslims interpreted the Koran literally.
A woman asked Siddiqi what was being done to make women more equal in the home. Again, Siddiqi said there was the subject of a great debate and spoke of the centuries of poor education. He said that Islamic scholars were working on it, and he agreed there was a lot of discrimination and abuse. He added that some Muslims even in the US objected to women coming to the mosque.
A question came from a gentleman described as "The Dean" (presumably from the History Department at Cerritos). He said that in his opinion, many Muslims would disagree with Siddiqi. He mentioned the Buddhist temples that were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He also mentioned Salafists. He asked Siddiqi how he would reconcile that. In his answer, Siddiqi said that Muslims came to Afghanistan in the 7th century, and the statues lasted until the 20th century. He referred to those who did such acts and 9-11 as "foolish people". He then quoted a Muslim proverb that "a wise enemy is better than a foolish friend", to whit the Dean asked, "How do you deal with your foolish friends?"
"We are working on that," replied Siddiqi.
I have listened to Siddiqi speak about 5 times. It was vintage Siddiqi. He has an explanation for everything in his commentary that Islam is peace and that all those acts we hear about around the world everyday is not Islam. I don't know how many of these young students were buying into it. Lord knows too many of their elders are only too happy to hear his soothing assurances and statements that defy credulity. Most of the questions indicated that they had genuine concerns about Islam and sharia.
I expect to get a copy of the event's video, which I will post.