CAIR NATIONAL BANQUET SPEECH

Washington, DC. Nov. 18, 2006

As-salaam Alaikum. Greetings of Peace.

In his inaugural address in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 73 years later today we are a nation griped and paralyzed by fear.

The most recent Gallup Poll affirms my point. Four out of 10 Americans admit to feeling prejudiced against Muslims. 22%, say they would not like to have Muslims as their neighbors. 31% say they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim man on their flight.

During this past congressional election, this same fear led some candidates to use anti-Islamic rhetoric to win favor from a fearful electorate.

It was the politics of fear that drove President Bush to use ill-defined and outrageous terminology like “Islamic fascists.”

That is the bad news. The good news is, as Presidential hopeful Sen. Barrack Obama said, “The fever is breaking.” The election results illustrate that the American public is not going to be swayed anymore by cheap political tricks and dirty political ads. “Swift-boating” worked before but that boat has sunk, hopefully for good.

What drives such changes in attitudes? Two words - Education and Outreach.

Anti-Muslim sentiments are significantly reduced when our fellow Americans come in contact with Muslims or know about Islam. For example 31% of people who have never met a Muslim do not want to live next to Muslims. In contrast, among those who know Muslims, only 10% express this bias.

In the past election, candidates that resorted to anti-Islamic rhetoric and Muslim-bashing lost, partly due to organized efforts from the American-Muslim community.

Even President Bush backed off using terms like “Islamic fascists” after Muslims mounted a vigorous challenge. In Florida Gov. Bush and the new Governor elect removed Islamophobes from their campaigns after protests from the Muslim community.

My dear sisters and brothers, our problems and solutions all come wrapped in one. Our problem stems from ignorance and its solutions is sustained and effective outreach. This outreach is not just about educating others about how we practice Islam but also educating the broader society about Islamic values, which truly enrich all of humanity. In Chapter 16 verse 125 God says,

Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful exhortation; and reason with them in ways that are best and most gracious.”

This is a calling that each one of us must respond to individually and collectively. It is not important to win an argument rather we have to win peoples hearts.

Let me illustrate this idea for you – following reports of desecration of the Holy Quran at Guantanamo and the publications of the outrageous cartoons of our beloved Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, we too were outraged. However at CAIR we choose to respond with positive energy attempting to connect with those people who refuse to live in ignorance and fear.

Thus were born two major CAIR projects – “Explore the Quran” and “Explore the Life of Prophet Muhammad.” Tens of thousands of Americans responded. These campaigns received positive media coverage from the likes of ABC News, CNN and USA Today. But most importantly these educational projects had a transformative impact. We polled about 10000 people who received a copy of the Quran from our campaign and here is what we found:

  • 89% said they read some part of the Quran.
  • Nearly 60% found the contents of the Quran similar to their beliefs.
  • 92% found our “Explore the Quran” campaign vital in preventing misunderstanding and conflict.
  • 77% said that their knowledge of Islam increased as a result of reading the Quran.
  • 69% said that they shared the information that they learnt with friends and family.

The politics of fear also contributes to cases of discrimination and harassment against the American Muslim community. Arrests of Muslims, with or without cause, often get blown out of proportion. Muslims are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent. As individuals and as community we are convicted in the court of public opinion well before we get to legal courts. Even when we do see the light of the courts it is often under extreme prejudice, such as situations where testimonies are extracted via torture.

Despite living under this onerous situation we are standing tall. Sometimes we are winning. On Aug 17 U.S. District Judge Taylor struck down President Bush’s program that allowed the NSA to wiretap phone calls without court warrants. Judge Taylor said that the NSA program violates freedom of speech, privacy rights and the separation of powers doctrine mandated by the Constitution. CAIR was a co-plaintiff in this lawsuit joining the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to defend and protect the US Constitution. This recent court victory shows that in 21st century America, rights have to be earned the old-fashioned way - through struggle, perseverance and fortitude.

Now let me turn to the issue of America-Muslim world relations. Currently opinions about America are at their worst ever. A recent Gallup World Poll shows that from North Africa to Southeast Asia overwhelming majorities (91-95%) do not believe the U.S. to be trustworthy or friendly. 80% believe that America does not care about human rights.

Another poll shows that despite such misgivings, Muslims worldwide admire our political freedoms. Overwhelming majorities of Muslims support freedom of speech, religion and assembly. Majorities in virtually every country also feel women should have the same legal rights as men. Muslims are also critical of their own societies, citing "extremism, terrorism, and lack of political freedom” as some of their major roadblocks to progress.

Despite a convergence of common aspirations for freedom and dignity, this has not translated into a common agenda progress on matters of mutual security. The U.S. government’s lack of any serious attempt to forge people-to-people dialogue with Muslims both at home and abroad is both a source and indicator of our misguided policies.

To overcome this spiraling of misunderstanding it is time for our policy makers constructively engage mainstream Muslim voices both at home and abroad. If we listened to these voices, they will tell our policy makers three priorities that need addressing:

  1. Recognize that there is a paradigm shift in the Muslim world. The future of the Muslim world depends on the organized efforts of common citizens and not the goodwill of ruling elites. The young and restless want better relations with the America and the west, but not at the expense of trading away their religious aspirations and identities. This rising religiosity need to be engaged, not marginalized.
  2. Make Muslims partners in America’s future. A recent CAIR poll shows American Muslims to be highly educated, well integrated and patriotic. They have deep appreciation and love for America just as they have empathy and understanding of the Muslim world. Thus American Muslims can serve as a perfect bridge between America and the Muslim world. Our hands remain outstretched to help.
  3. American policy needs to reflect American values. America is best served when our policies are rooted in the fundamental but forgotten American value of justice. The dictates of special interest groups such as the pro-Israel lobby or the neo-conservative establishment are harming America’s national interests. It is at the urging of the neo-cons that America went to war with Iraq and it is the dictates of the lobby that presents a road-block to America’s constructive and balanced engagement in the Middle East. It is time for American policy makers to realize that our continuing disregard for the plight of the Palestinian people remains the number one source of anti-American hostility in the region. To regain our moral standing we need a fresh approach one that is rooted in empathy and concern for human dignity and valuing of all human life equally.

So in my conclusions, people today are beginning to shun the politics of fear. A new morning seems to have broken.

In this morning light I see Americans wanting our foreign policy to be rooted in compassionate idealism. We all want safety but not at the expense of our cherished civil liberties. We want to see our executive, judiciary and legislative branches of government operate as co-equals within the framework of our cherished constitutional checks and balances.

In this new morning I also hear our fellow Americans desiring to see Muslims step up and help in alleviating the most urgent common challenges of our times. To much of humanity our most urgent problems are – poverty, disparity in wealth, lack of health care, and catastrophic global climate changes.

History will judge us the same way we judge our predecessors. Will the Muslim community rise and liberate America from the politics of fear? Do we have the will to remain steadfast on the path of educating others about Islamic values and Muslim aspirations? I believe we can. I also believe that in your hour of need you will find CAIR by your side as your most vital partner. Together we will build a brighter a tomorrow, a tomorrow liberated from fear with equality and justice for all, inshaAllah.

Islam is the exertion of human will and effort in surrendering to the Will of God. From this surrender (taslim) comes peace (salaam). The Qur'an, taken as a complete text, conveys this central message of peace through submission to God, and the uncompromising pursuit of justice among fellow human beings. It is time for each one of us to dedicate ourselves in reviving this core Islamic message of peace and justice.

God in the Holy Quran reminds us: "So give counsel, for you are the one to counsel; you are not meant to compel them." (88:21-22).

I leave you with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s best known and loved 19th century poet, “Peace cannot be achieved through violence. It can only be attained through understanding.”

I appreciate your patience in hearing my thoughts this evening. May God’s peace and blessings be upon you all. Thank you. Enjoy the rest of the evening.