Panelists contextualize Islam in wake of recent hostilities

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by Jordan Green

Panelists at Wake Forest University attempt to set the record straight on Islam following a recent anti-Muslim incident directed at the Muslim chaplain and a backlash against a plan to issue the Muslim call to prayer at Duke University.

Many of the questions submitted to panelists on notecards were framed in a manner critical to Islam, underscoring the need for a program entitled “Islamophobia: The Anatomy of Intolerance” at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University on Monday evening.

Is Islam an inherently violent religion? Are sharia law and the Constitution compatible? Is it fair to say that Islam leads to the oppression of Muslim women? And are Muslims oversensitive to texts, movies and cartoons that make fun of the Prophet Muhammad?

Taking the first question, Michaelle Browers, co-director of the university’s Middle East & South Asia Studies Program, said social-science studies have shown there’s not more violence in Muslim-majority countries than anywhere else.

“You would have to consume a lot of network television and a lot of American movies and spend no time in Arab majority countries to believe that that was the case,” she said.

Imam Khalid Griggs, associate chaplain for Muslim life at Wake Forest University, said sharia law is misunderstood and “deliberately distorted” by some.

“Sharia law is presented in this country as if it’s something that’s contained in law books, Islamic law books, and you just take them off the shelf and apply it the same way every time and every place,” he said. “This is not the case at all. Sharia law is the rules of Islam, the governance of Islam, based on the Koran and based on the tradition of the Sunnah of Muhammad the Prophet, peace be upon him. That’s what sharia law is. But sharia law is not a static law. It’s something that at various times and various places it changes. There are some overriding values and principles about sharia law that do not change, but based on necessity, based on tradition, based on the custom of the people, laws are put in place based on all these factors and considerations. So to me, this scare about sharia law is just a solution looking for a problem.”

North Carolina was the seventh state to pass a low prohibiting state court judges from considering sharia law in 2013.

Griggs said in his opinion, there is no Muslim-majority country on earth that genuinely follows sharia law.

“In North Carolina we have such a microscopic population, it’s absurd that this kind of hysteria would be whipped up and people feel that the larger society’s in danger of Muslims imposing something on people,” he said. “I can’t impose it in my mosque with the few people I have in my mosque.”

Imam Adeel Zeb, Muslim chaplain and director of Muslim life at Duke University, cited Chapter 2, Verse 256 of the Koran, which says: “There shall be no compulsion of the religion.”

“So it’s actually part of sharia law to forbid Muslims from imposing sharia law on non-Muslims,” he said.

Browers said she gets worried when she hears people talking “about saving Muslim women, because usually it has a lot of weapons behind it. As we all know, the wars fought under the justification of saving Muslim women lead to lots of deaths of Muslim women.”

Manzoor Cheema, founder of Muslims for Social Justice, said conditions for women in Iraq deteriorated under the US occupation, and noted that Islamic State emerged in Iraq following the US military intervention.

Griggs said Muslims take offense at any prophet, whether it be Mohammad, Jesus or Moses, being defamed. He added that autocratic regimes in the Muslim world that otherwise deprive their people of freedom often tacitly encourage protests against Western movies as a “pressure valve.”

“As horrible as the reaction to Charlie Hebdo and the drawings that they were doing of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, there’s no justification for killing innocent people, and this is just a cardinal rule in Islam — you don’t do that,” Griggs said. “So, getting that out of the way, France was holding up, ‘Well, we have to do something,’ and it was wonderful for the leaders to come together and march in the streets and talk about how this is such an affront to democracy. So holding up freedom of speech — and it should be held up — and what those Muslims did is condemnable from an Islamic perspective, but if we talk about freedom of speech, it should be for everyone. It should not just be a one-sided freedom of speech. So in the aftermath of what happened with the Charlie Hebdo situation, there were Muslims who said, ‘They got what they deserved’ — the workers, the editors. And they’re in jail now. They were arrested for what I saw as freedom of speech.”

Hostility against Griggs as a Muslim chaplain gained attention across the state when it came to light in December that someone had placed a bucket of urine outside his office.

The NC Justice Center in Raleigh began circulating a petition in support of Griggs last month, while noting that alum Donald Woodsmall has waged a public campaign against the imam.

“He has threatened financial blackmail against Wake Forest University in an effort to force the university to fire Imam Griggs,” the petition reads. “Code words like ‘sharia’ and ‘jihad’ are used to scare the general public against Imam Griggs and vilify his position at Wake Forest University.”

Muslims for Social Justice is also circulating the petition, and Cheema said they have collected more than 450 signatures.

Imam Zeb, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, said Muslims around the United States felt scrutinized after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but the level of fear he felt recently when three Muslim students were murdered in nearby Chapel Hill was magnified way beyond what he had experienced before.

The killings were shocking to Zeb because he had agreed to back down from a plan to issue the Muslim call to prayer from the Duke University Chapel bell tower partly because he didn’t want to expose students and staff at his campus to that type of violence.

“Fox News and Franklin Graham got a hold of it and there was a financial threat,” Zeb recounted. “And after that things got really messy because that financial threat turned into physical threats.”

Browers displayed a bar graph showing an explosion of hate crimes against Muslims in 2001, the year of the Sept. 11 attacks. Afterwards, anti-Muslim hate crimes dropped, she said, but still remained roughly five times higher than pre-Sept. 11 levels.

Imam Griggs said Muslims had remained largely invisible in the United States until 2001, but said Islamophobia dates back to colonial times, when the Anglican theologian Humphrey Prideaux published a text called The true nature of imposture, fully displayed in the life of Mahomet.

“Islamophobia did not grow out of a clash of civilizations,” Griggs said. “It grew out of militarism and imperialism.”

The final question in the program came from a student who identified herself as being born and raised in a Southern state and who said she “continuously struggles with her public Muslim identity.”

“Don’t ever think that because you are a Muslim that you are any less of a human than anyone,” Zeb said. “God has blessed you with this faith. God has blessed you with a purpose and a direction. And your job now is to serve God, to worship God and to serve humanity. Regardless. Be proud of who you are. Be extra proud, especially if you’re in the South. And be extra Southern to your neighbors.”

panelists
Michaella Browers, Adeel Zeb, Jade Brooks, Manzoor Cheema, Dani Moore and Khalid Griggs (l-r)