Wednesday, December 19, 2012
MPAC Convention at All Saints Episcopalian Church in Pasadena
On December 15, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held their 12th annual convention at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. All in all, I would guess there were about 500 people attending. It was advertised as the first time a Muslim organization had held a convention at a Christian church, a point MPAC speakers made repeatedly during the day. I was also in attendance for the convention as well as the evening banquet.
The host for the convention was Pastor Ed Bacon, who has worked on interfaith issues with MPAC for several years now. In the days prior to the event, the church received several e-mails protesting the church's invitation to MPAC, which many consider linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The church and MPAC held a press conference complaining of "vile" e-mails and "threats".
I arrived an hour before the event in order to register. On the sidewalk outside the church were about three people holding anti-Islam posters. One man was in a wheel chair. Two others were alternating speaking while about a dozen church supporters lined up on the church lawn facing them (lower photo). The two speakers, who looked like Hulk Hogan look-a-likes, were making insulting comments about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the church for hosting the event. Eventually, an atheist guy joined them and much of the debate was between these three guys doing all the talking. Private security and police were on hand, there were no incidents, and the protesters left once the event began.
The opening remarks were made by Salaam Marayati, the director of MPAC. A moment of silence was held for the victims of the massacre in Connecticut this week.
Bacon, in his opening remarks referred to the negative feedback from his co-religionists, and said, "Christians can be very hateful". He also quoted his friend, Maher Hathout of MPAC, who reportedly had stated, "Peacemaking for Muslims is not an option. It is an imperative."
Bacon also spoke of his "heart breaking visit" to Gaza a few years back. When visiting a Red Crescent office, he asked an official what the central mission of Islam was and was told, "Without a doubt-justice".
The event then went on to the first of three sessions. The first was a panel discussion moderated by local news reporter Beverly White, joined by Maher Hathout and Nayyer Ali of MPAC. White proceeded to lob up one softball question after another to the panelists.
"What does this day mean?"
White, Hathout, Ali
Hathout, as he always does, wins his audience with humorous quips. In one remark, he asked, "What is all the fuss about?" He referred to extremists who cannot see Muslims as normal people. "When they see normal people like us, they don't know what to do with us. He also referred to people who want to know if "we pass their litmus test on the Palestinian-Israeli issue". " He divided Americans into two groups-"us" (referring to those in the room) and those who don't want us at the table due to racial-religious bias (I am paraphrasing.)
Hathout also referred to criticism that the Islamic Center of California (Los Angeles) had books authored by Islamic cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi. He noted that universities have books about Hitler and Marx. Yet, he ignored the reason why such books are in libraries for historical research. Most people who read Qaradawi do so to apply his words to their own lives.
White also asked Hathout about the claims of protesters that he had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hathout stated that many decades previous when he was in Egypt as a young man, he was associated with the Brotherhood in opposing the British occupation of Egypt and trying to keep (Gamal) Nasser from becoming a dictator. He stated that he has lived in the US for 40 years and has had no ties (to the Brotherhood).
In response to a question from White about the events in the Middle East, Ali addressed concerns about Islamist movements being involved in politics. He explained that for 200 years, the Middle East was under colonialism and there was no discussion about religion and state. After de-colonization, there were dictatorships and now comes democracy. He added that countries are trying to find their way to democracy. These are the first steps. He added that he felt the new constitution was flawed, that he wouldn't vote for it, but it was for the Egyptians to decide.
After this session, a letter was read to the attendees by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) congratulating them for the event. At that point, the Muslim guests adjourned to a separate room for prayers.
The second session featured a series of 10-minute talks by young Muslim activists. The moderator was Haris Tarin of the MPAC ofice in Washington DC. During his remarks he stated, "We have made a church our home" and talked about "Fast Forward" they way young Muslims see America two decades from now.
The first speaker introduced by Tarin was Yusuf Abdul-Qadir. This young man from the Bronx talked of his growing up there and the contrast between midtown Manhattan and the Bronx. He attended Syracuse University and is involved in various community causes. During his slide presentation he showed associations with Siraj Wahhaj and Daisy Khan, the latter of whom is the wife of Faisel Abdul Rauf, the would be leader of the Ground Zero mosque in New York. Qadir made no mention of having been contacted by the FBI for an interview, a subject that he has previously been vocal on.
The next speaker was a young lady from Houston named Wardah Khalid. She is a blogger and is involved with a local radio show. For visual aids, she showed two pictures used by Pamela Geller.
Speaking of the controversy over the word, "jihad", she stated that "some folks want you to believe jihad means conducting acts of terror, and that is not all jihad means. That is not what Jihad means" (Italics mine).
As to the second picture above, Khalid stated "That is not the case" and said that the (Koranic) phrase refers to "not being with God" as she spoke of Muslims' belief in a monotheistic God. She referred to critics as
"spreading a message about Islam that is not entirely true" (Italics mine). Left unexplained is who "We" refers to in the second ad. Perhaps, the above two quotes from Khalid were innocent slips of the tongue.
Khalid went on to refer to the Peter King hearings (who was often singled out for attack during the day), as well as anti-Sharia legislation which "would make it impossible for Muslims to practice their religion". She mentioned the National Defense Authorization Act and the New York Police Department "spying on Muslims simply because of their faith". "Jihad means struggle", she said and encouraged Muslims to get involved with blogs and other activities and "redefine the narrative". Below is her presentation: (Hat tip Joseph)
The next speaker was Alejando Beutel, a convert to Islam from a Catholic/Jewish home. Beutel spoke of the year 2050 in America and the changing demographics to a majority-minority population. He emphasized the importance of research and told of a project he was involved in at Missouri State University on the identity of Muslims as Americans.
The next speaker and the most interesting one was a young lady named Darakshan Raja from New York, who is involved in family abuse work. As she opened her talk a picture of murder victim Shaima Alawadi flashed on the screen. Raja talked of how the community came together when it was thought that Alawadi was the victim of a hate crime. But when it turned out to be a case of domestic abuse, "we withdrew".
Raja went on to call domestic abuse the number one problem in the community.
She then showed a picture on the screen of a ten year old boy named Abdifatah Mohammud, and told how he was abused by his step-father for 9 months and nobody did anything. Then in 2012, the boy ran away from home but was returned to his family by someone in the community. The step-father then tied the boy to a chair stuffed a sock in his mouth then used a rolling pin to beat him to death separating his scull from his spinal column.
"How many people in our community protested this?' she asked. "When an imam tells a woman to go back to her abusive husband, nobody hears from them again."
Raja also said, "I can count the number of shelters for Muslims on my hand."
She also blamed the legal system for being indifferent to cases of Muslim abuse. She said when Muslims call 911, there is no response. She referred to judges who don't give protective orders because "Islam permits it." (in their view).
Raja added that the Muslim community has to address this and that the imams need to be trained.
Dustin Craun, another convert to Islam and community organizer was next. Among his memorable quotes was a tribute to the Dreamers. Thanks to them and our present administration, "we are about to give amnesty to 11 million people."
Craun also talked of the influence of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on his life. He also said that after his conversion, he became temporarily disillusioned and left his original mosque (not named) because it was intolerant. He eventually moved to the Bay Area to be mentored by Zaid Shakir. He also mentioned his involvement with the PICO National Network.
White racism seems to be a big issue for Craun (who is also white). He seems to be a classic product of that anti-Western civilization, post colonial education that dominates in our universities. If he wants to link white racism to Islamophobia, there are millions of non-white people he can talk to around the world who have been victims of persecution by Muslims or even ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Craun was followed by two high schoolers, one a Muslim and the other a Catholic. They did a school project on attitudes of Islamophobia and said that MPAC helped prepare brochures for them to hand out.
After this, Tarin posed questions to the speakers as a panel. (The audience was able to write questions and pass them to the front.)
During this session, Craun referred to "mass incarceration" and said that there were 350,000 Muslims in prison. He also said we cannot accept one trillion dollars of our money going to the military. He also mentioned the use of drones and the possibility that they may be used by US police forces.
In answer to a question about women in mosques, Raja stated that men are taken more seriously, and when she enters a mosque not wearing a hijab, she is not taken seriously as a Muslim. (Raja was not wearing a hijab when she spoke.) She also complained about the Violence Against Women Act not being re-authorized. there was an oblique reference to Congress since 1994 and "If you are not a white woman, you are not protected."
Craun, who has a Masters degree in Ethnic Studies, talked about "whiteness", and people who don't want to discuss race. He said that "White supremacist Christianity is on the rise."
Lunch was from 3-4. During the break, I approached Marayati and asked him about the subject of apostasy. I also mentioned the Freedom Pledge letter, which he and many other Muslim leaders in the US had received from Former Muslims United asking them to sign a pledge that American apostates not be harmed. He told me he vaguely remembered seeing the letter a couple of months previous but had not signed it. The reason he gave is that Nonie Darwish (the head of FMU) had a political agenda while MPAC had made its views known, that there is no punishment for leaving Islam, and there is nothing about that in the Koran. I asked him specifically if that also pertained to public apostates who spoke out critically against the religion as well as those who quietly left. Marayati reiterated there was no punishment for leaving Islam for either group. I then gave him another copy of the letter addressed to him, thanked him, shook hands and left.
In addition, during the morning, I also spoke with Hathout and asked him if he had signed the same letter, which I had given him in June. He said he had not because nobody is going to tell him what to sign and that he had already said he did not believe in death for apostates. The below video shows Hathout being interviewed by a local NBC reporter, myself, and two other private citizens.
From 4-5:30, a panel discussion was held in the sanctuary moderated by Edina Lekovic of MPAC. The panel members were Bacon, Hathout, Narinjan Singh Khalsa, a Sikh minister and member of the LA Human Relations Commission, and Rabbi Sarah Bassin of New Ground-A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
Rabbi Bassin is involved in a group devoted to interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. She made a reference to the relationship between the Jews in the diaspora (US) and Orthodox Jews who, according to her, should not get to say who is a Jew and who isn't. She told of a visit to Israel years back when she saw the grave of the young Israeli who had opened fire in a mosque killing several Muslims. She was outraged that the gravestone was covered with pebbles-a Jewish tradition to honor the dead. She also said that as Jewish numbers decline, they must engage in interfaith activities with other faiths.
Mr Khalsa spoke of the challenges facing Sikhs in America from those too ignorant to know that they are not Muslims. He also said that Sikhs were mandated to dress in traditional garb and this was a hindrance to getting a job. He, of course, spoke of his recollections of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
When Lekovic asked why Muslims have problems getting mosques built, referring to the Murfreesboro, Tennessee mosque, Hathout said that the other is afraid of us, but added certain Muslims don't represent Islam well.
Lekovic asked Pastor Bacon for his reaction that he was under fire from "right-wing Christians". He said that after the election, he flipped to Fox News ('which I don't watch") to see what (Bill) O'Reilly said. Bacon quoted O'Reilly as saying, "the white establishment is over". "It was news to him", said Bacon. He then referred to the handful of protesters who had been outside the church in the morning, and said they were "asleep" referring to a "revolution of compassion".
Bacon also stressed the importance of religions being politically involved for justice. He used the term "justice" more than once. One might wonder if his concept of justice is based on the Bill of Rights and if he sees that justice based on sharia might be something much different.
Lekovic then raised the issue of freedom of speech and the video controversy over, "The Innocence of Muslims". She asked Bassin where was the line between freedom of speech and hate speech?
Bassin told of her reaction as a child to the Skokie, Illinois march by Neo-Nazis. Looking back, she thought it was correct to allow the march due to "American exceptualism". She referred to the "3 protesters" earlier in the day and said that people can rise up and reject it.
Lekovic then referred to the effort by the Organization of Islamic Conference to get legislation passed through the UN to outlaw "defamation of religions" "What is the Koranic take?" she asked Hathout.
Hathout replied that he had criticized the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie (over "The Satanic Verses"). He added that we should consider all the complexities and all the poor masses who don't have the sophistication (my word) we do, and we ought not to provoke these people to respond. ("Low expectations, Sir?)
In another question, Lekovic asked Hathout if he agreed with the death sentences hounded down by Egyptian courts to those in the US involved in the production of the above-mentioned video. Hathout said he opposed the sentences and hoped that higher courts would overturn them.
Then Lekovic asked if there was a double standard when it came down to Islamophobia vs anti-Semitism. She referred to weapons being sent to Israel by the US funded by US taxpayers.
Bacon responded that the history of the (Christian) church was "littered with evil" listing the Crusades, slavery, the Holocaust, and "evangelical Zionism" He then condemned a comment just made by Mike Huckabee in response to the killings in Connecticut.
Bassin told of an experience when she was working with the Jewish Federation and there was a protest outside their hqs by pro-Palestinians. People were urged to go outside and support the Jews/Israelis.
"We can't stand on opposite sides of the street shouting at each other."
In response to a question about sharia law in America, Hathout said that "we abide by the Constitution and the law, and we don't want to deviate from it. We don't want to enforce sharia in the US or anywhere".
That ended the conference. The last event was the dinner banquet, which I also attended. The moderator was again Lekovic. At one point, she read a letter from Thomas Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to MPAC congratulating them on their event. Perez apparently had spoken at the 2010 convention and said that his office proudly displayed a certificate of appreciation from MPAC on the wall at Justice hqs.
Among the attendees at the banquet were LA Sheriff Lee Baca, Michael Downing chief of LAPD's Counter Terror squad, at least one of his officers, as well as some of Baca's deputies from LASD's corresponding unit. (No, they were not there covertly. They were honored guests.) The principal speakers were Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), whose district includes Pasadena, Pakistani Consul General Riffat Massod, who received an award, and Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA). Both Chu and Honda got their political shots in and bitterly attacked Congressman Peter King (R-NY) over the recent hearings he held on radicalization within the US Muslim community. Honda, who spent his earliest years in a WW II relocation camp for Japanese-Americans, told the audience that had there been an MPAC in 1942, Japanese-Americans never would have been interned.
After Honda's speech, I left missing a talk by a couple of brothers playing in the NFL who had taken the 2012 season off to go on the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
The above-mentioned younger speakers were impressive and will be heard from in the future. (I don't mean that necessarily in a negative sense.) The ordinary Muslim people who attended were nice, and I assume they are decent people. I had a chance to chat with some of them. It is their leadership I worry about. Once again, MPAC played the victim card complaining of Islamophobia. Pastor Bacon is clearly an activist cleric who gave away his animus toward Israel with his comment about "evangelical Zionism", whatever that means. All Saints Church has a long history of political involvement in various issues, both laudable and maybe not-so-laudable.
Here is what was missing; while several speakers distanced themselves from Islamist extremism, there was no mention of Islamic intolerance throughout the outside world toward non-Muslims, whether it be Copts in Egypt, Christians in Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan, Baha'i in Iran, Jews in Europe and on and on. It was the proverbial gorilla in the back of the room. Ultimately, MPAC would have us believe that it is all a big misunderstanding or a figment of our imagination. The most courageous speaker was Ms Raja, who, with emotion in her voice, called out the Muslim community and its male leadership when it comes to domestic violence. For me, it was the highlight of a long day. In contrast, the Rabbi Bassin had not one word to say about Islamic anti-Semitism, nor did Pastor Bacon have one word to say about the Islamic intolerance and persecution directed towards Christians and other non-Muslims in the Islamic-majority world.
Ms. Khalid's statements about jihad were to me disingenuous. Her two slips of the tongue may have been innocent, but jihad in part means to go to war against infidels to establish the religion. There may have been truth to what Muhammad is reported upon returning from a battle to have referred to as the "greater jihad" of becoming a better Muslim, but if that statement is true, he also referred to the "lesser jihad" (of battle against infidels).
As for the assurances that there is no death penalty for apostates under sharia from Messers Marayati and Hathout, I am sorry, but it is a part of (Hudud) sharia law as "punishments for crimes against God". It is especially universally recognized when one talks about an apostate who publicly criticizes the religion. These men both recognize that such a penalty is illegal in America and that they are bound to obey American laws where they live. However, speaking theoretically, were this to become an Islamic nation under sharia law, that is what we would live under.
As for the Hulk Hogan type protesters, in my view, they acted like idiots. The LA Times and Channel 4 (NBC) were covering the event, and it is these guys they will base their reporting on. It is this handful of people who will make the headlines. How unfortunate.