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Muslim Scholar addresses Interfaith audience in Grand Rapids

October 8, 2010

Yesterday, I attended the keynote talk at a conference organized by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute on the campus of Calvin College. The keynote speaker was Dr. Omid Safi, a professor, author and Muslim scholar.

During the introductory remarks it was mentioned that Dr. Safi was the first Muslim to be a keynote speaker, despite the fact that this interfaith event has been held since 1991, although not on an annual basis.

The title of Dr. Safi’s talk was Islam Beyond the Headlines. He began his remarks by saying that we are living in difficult days. “Americans are struggling in many ways, economically and without health care.” In North Carolina, where Dr. Safi lives, roughly 10% of the population that is actively looking for work cannot find work.

Dr. Safi then put the difficult days in context by saying, “We are seeing the crumbling of an American Empire. The US is the most heavily militarized society in the world, even while our roads crumble and basic social services are limited.” He went on to say that the country’s excessive spending on militarism while people’s basic needs are not being met is what will drive the end of the American Empire, a sentiment shared by Dr. King who said, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Dr. Safi then spoke about how the US public’s perception of Islam has been constructed in recent months, with much of the headlines in August and September focusing on the opposition to the Mosque that was being built at “ground zero” and the Christian pastor who wanted to have a public burning of the Koran.

He said that when talking with the US news media he asked them why even bothered to report on the pastor? They told him it was because their editors wanted them to make it news because it would get people’s attention. Dr. Safi asks why are the news media not focusing on the good actions of Muslims, Jews and Christians around the country? “This is not to overlook ugliness,” he said, “but as people of faith we are called to have faith in the things that are unseen……the good deeds that we do every day.”

Dr. Safi then tells the audience how his kids come home and ask him, “why do people say that your daddy is a terrorist?” His son, who looks like his mother (blonde hair and blue eyes), is Muslim and every day in school he gets to hear what his classmates think about Muslims. The kind of stereotyping that exists for Muslims has on become worse since 9/11. Dr. Safi said, “If the actions of the 19 Arab/Muslim men who committed acts of terror on 9/11 makes all Arabs & Muslims terrorists, that equates to collective punishment.”

The speaker went on to say that much of what motivates action against the US is global poverty, which is not a new things, but the gap between the haves and have nots is larger than at any other time in the modern world.  “Poverty is an unacceptable reality for people of faith, since the Creator has provided enough of what is necessary for all of us to go without.”

Dr. Safi said, “people of faith have a responsibility to do more than just quarantine the evil in the world, we have to do whatever we can to eliminate it.” One of the best examples of a person of faith that does this for Dr. Safi is Martin Luther King Jr. However, when he speaks about King to students, they say act bored by what the perceive Dr. King represents. “This is due to King being made into an icon, which has allowed us to not hear the critical words of King. King was a prophet and the prophetic tradition challenges us about the fundamentals of our faith.”

We can either idolize Dr. King one day a year or we can manifest King’s message by standing against war and militarism today.” Dr. Safi mentions King’s triplets of evil – racism, militarism and capitalism. “We cannot keep spending the amount of money of weapons while people starve and have not health care.”

When addressing how people of faith ought to think about militarism, Dr. Safi stated, “When people are killed by bombs or bullets it is the same as killing the living, breathing scriptures. Our faith tradition treats the written scriptures with great reference, often wrapping the book in clothe and this is how we need to treat human beings, with the same reverence.”

He began hi concluding remarks by speaking about the importance of love in the religious traditions and said that love is necessary for justice to occur. “Unless our spiritual quest is directly linked to social justice, neither of them will do well.” Dr. Safi said that Islam teaches that we have to come to the aide of the oppressed and oppressor. “You come to the aide of the oppressor by stopping him from continuing oppressive behaviors and policies.”

He ended his presentation with a re-telling of Dr. King’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan story. Dr. King said the question shouldn’t just be “should I stop to help someone victimized, the question should be what do we do about the system that victimizes people.”

In some ways the speaker made some important points that challenged our stereotypes about Islam, questioned US militarism and called people of faith to act with justice and compassion. However, nothing that Dr. Safi said could be considered terribly radical. He framed his comments within a very conciliatory fashion and even used humor to disarm the crowd.

Despite his talk being very moderate, the first could of questions that were posed to him were from people who clearly felt threatened by Islam and its practitioners. The first person asked if Dr. Safi could have given this same talk in Iran. Dr. Safi, who is Iranian, stated that he could give this talk but would probably be arrested. Having said that he made the point that just because other countries may not respect freedom of speech the same way it is respected in the US doesn’t mean that people here shouldn’t speak out about injustice.

Other people asked why Muslims don’t speak out again Islamic terrorism? Dr. Safi said that they did, that he does on a regular basis, but that the media doesn’t report on it. These questions and other comments made by some of those in attendance clearly reflected the unwillingness to hear Muslim voices or to examine US exceptionalism.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jorel permalink
    October 10, 2010 12:25 am

    This article has some excellent quotes. Thank you.

  2. July 29, 2012 7:02 am

    “Examine the fasting practices of Islam, Judaism and Christianity”

    August 8, 2012
    At: 5:00pm-7:00pm


  1. Anti-Muslim hysteria takes local toll « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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