Dr. Amer Ahmed delivered a stirring Maytum Convocation lecture recently at SUNY Fredonia’s King Concert Hall titled “Islam: Beyond the Myths, Breaking Down the Barriers.”
Youthful, affable, charismatic, with a voice that regularly leapt from erudite to “street” in a single linguistic bound, Ahmed presented himself as the ideal spokesperson for a culture and religion that desperately needs one in this country.
The Muslim American educator, poet and Hip Hop activist” was invited to the convocation to offer “social, historical, cultural and political context about Islam and Islamophobia and the issues related to that in our society and beyond.”
Although born in the U.S., Ahmed’s parents are both from India, home of the second-largest Muslim population in the world.
The region with the largest population belongs to Indonesia.
In fact, and to the surprise of most people in the audience, “Only 18 to 20 percent of all the world’s Muslims are Arab,” Ahmed said. “That’s less than one in five.”
Before going through a list of popular misconceptions about Islam, Ahmed stressed the importance of recognizing the difference between “What a religion teaches and what people do. People do all kinds of things in the name of religion.”
Which led Ahmed to bust one of the more prominent myths about the religion: that Islam is inherently anti-woman.
“I don’t want to speak on behalf of Muslim women,” Ahmed said. “But it’s important for you to know that the Islamic tradition guaranteed rights to women 1,400 years ago, (rights that have) only come into Western civilization in the last 100 years at best, rights such as the right to vote.”
Women can own their own property, divorce is allowed and upon marriage, the dowry goes from the man’s family to the woman. “It’s not the woman’s family, but to the woman. She does not have to share that with anybody,” Ahmed articulated.
Ahmed refuted the claims that Islam is inherently violent, pointing to a misrepresentation of the word “jihad.”
“Jihad does not mean holy war,” he said. “Jihad translates into English as ‘struggle’. Here’s why that difference matters:
“There’s two types of jihad. There’s a greater jihad and a lesser jihad. The greater jihad is (about navigating) the moral and ethical dilemmas (of life), to navigate those struggles and be God-conscious in making those choices.
“The lesser jihad is a more physical interpretation of the term and that interpretation is that you have the right to defend yourself when you’re under attack. You have the right to defend your family and your community.”
Ahmed emphasized that this right to defend yourself does not extend to “unprovoked premeditated attack against non-combatants. We know that extremists are using (the Jihad) concept and manipulating (it) to meet their own political agendas,” he said.
Perhaps the most pervasive myth regarding Islam is that its followers are anti-American and that they want to impose Sharia Law, to impose their “set of beliefs on the rest of us.”
“I’ve been around American Muslims my entire life,” Ahmed said. “I’ve never met people who say, ‘You know what we need to do; we need to impose Sharia Law in the U.S.’ I’ve never met that person.
“American Muslims are very patriotic Americans who very much want to participate fully and do participate … and contribute to society in a number of different ways, however that’s not the perception.”
Ahmer cited the fact that, despite perceptions of many Americans (56 percent according to a 2015 poll) that Muslims in this country are dangerous, “as a demographic, American Muslims commit less crime than any other demographic in the country by far.”
Despite the fact that “hundreds of American Muslims died on 9-11 … (that event) created some kind of fixation on our community that there is something uniquely wrong with (us), despite the fact that we don’t really commit that much crime.”
As an example of the government’s fixation on the American Muslim community, Ahmed discussed the failed NYPD surveillance program which “stretched across the entire Northeastern seaboard.”
The NYPD targeted “every Muslim student association, every Muslim community center and every Muslim-owned business.
“They spent millions of millions of dollars on this program from 18 months after 9-11, until just a couple years ago,” Ahmed related, before asking the audience:
“Does anyone know how many leads they came up with in all that time? Zero. Absolutely none. They violated our civil liberties and our civil rights for absolutely no reason. Talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
In a lecture replete with illuminating information, the most intriguing part of Ahmed’s talk related to how the Crusades, colonialism and post-colonial practices have been integral in shaping the relationship between Islam and the West.
Ahmed began with the reconquering of Spain known as the Reconquista. Ahmed explained how Spain had been ruled by the Moors for over 700 years before the crusades successfully took over the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.
Ahmed characterized the Moors — who were African and Arab Muslims — as being “the most advanced civilization in the history of the world at the time. They were pluralistic, they were inclusive of various faith traditions and cultures.
“But the propaganda from the Crusades resulted in people trying to push back and fight the Moors. They were called dark-skinned subhuman savages by various Popes,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” the same year the Reconquista was complete. The conquering was not over, it was ripe with expansion-fever.
“If you think about Columbus, if you think about the Conquistadors, when they came across these indigenous peoples in the new world, what did they refer to them as? They called them savages. This idea of the dark-skinned subhuman savage was cultivated in taking back Spain and that’s part of what justified manifest destiny in the Americas.
“That led to an era of colonialism in which Europeans went all over the world, colonized the world. I think we all know the story.”
Ahmed leap-frogged to post-colonial practices, describing the era that was disguised as a time of independence for once-conquered nations, but the Europeans “divided the countries up and divided ethnic groups up and would appoint dictators who were from local areas … and falsely create a number of countries.”
All this resulted is a fractured Islamic world, Ahmed concluded, as he displayed two separate maps in his power point presentation.
“These countries got created strategically. The crown jewel of it was the creation of Saudi Arabia. If you know the story of Lawrence of Arabia you now the House of Saud was a marginal group in Arabia and were empowered by the British to fight the Ottomans of the Turks. The British promised the Saudis they would buy all this black stuff under the sand and in turn, the House of Saud would rule all of Arabia.
“So, for the last 100 years the holy center of the Islamic world has been ruled by this particular group of people who have a particular interpretation of Islam, which is literalist and very narrow.”
Saudi Arabia does not properly represent Islam, Ahmed stressed.
“Scholars who interpret their interpretation of Islam are killed,” Ahmed said. “And who is the Saudi’s greatest allies? We are. Where did Al-Qaeda and the Taliban come from? They were extremists from Saudi Arabia; they went to Afghanistan. Who supported them? The United States did.
“When we pathologize Islam and we point to different places…it’s important that we look at that context before we decide to say all these 1.7 billion people are part of a violent nature. We need that context.”
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