By Susan Schwartz, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
One of the most active, dedicated and effective Muslims in California is Imam Ali Siddiqui of Corona.
Imam Siddiqui, who has immersed himself in the â€œliberation philosophyâ€ of Islam, will be a familiar name to those who know interfaith work, the struggle for economic justice and the struggle for peace within an honorable framework. He is a teacher in his essence and therefore a supporter of Islam, for teachers counteract ignorance, the basis of Islamophobia.
Imam Siddiqui is a management scientist by profession, having studied at Cal State Poly in Pomona. While there in the 1970â€™s he founded an interfaith group, a virtually unknown concept during that decade. It was successful and in a short while won the respect and admiration of those at the University.
Shortly after graduation, he became business manager for the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT).
He is a founding member of the Islamic Peoplesâ€™ Movement, a co-originator of New Trend Magazine, and the founding director of the Orange County Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
Following is a partial list of Imam Siddiquiâ€™s affiliations: Imam Siddiqui is the Vice Chair of the Peace with Justice Center of Pomona Valley, a group which dates back to the end of the Vietnam war, which he chaired for three years; a director of the Corona-Narco Interfaith Association, a group that he chaired during 2005-2006; a director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a justice advocacy group for low wage workers; a director of the United Nations Association of Pomona Valley, and a member of the Religious Advisory Board, Walmart Watch.
Imam Siddiqui is a writer and poet and prison chaplain. He began his prison work at a time when there were few Muslim chaplains. When speaking of this work it became apparent that he had been deeply touched by his contact with those incarcerated. He spoke movingly of counseling a Muslim prisoner on Death Row.
On a somewhat lighter note, Imam Siddiqui told of a time when he honored a request to counsel a prisoner who was a member of the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group. What began as an unlikely duo ended in a successful session in which the prisoner seemed to benefit from Imam Siddiquiâ€™s listening and his counsel.
The imamâ€™s manner is soft spoken and direct, and his presentations indicate a powerful intellect and a vast body of knowledge at his disposal. The effect on the audience, whether one person or a small or large group is, is rapt attention and a sense that one is a student learning a lesson.
He has traveled and lectured throughout the world. His venues have included (among others): Belgium, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, India, Iran, Pakistan and throughout the United States. Imam Siddiqui spoke of the segregation of Muslims in Belgium, France, Germany and to a lesser extent in the UK.
Imam Siddiqui has organized workshops, seminars, retreats and conferences to pursue his fields of interest.
During the course of his activities he has confronted Islamophobia and has been exposed to death threats. When speaking of these incidents there is no trace of bitterness, rather he seems to rededicate himself to his work as an antidote to the ignorance and fear, albeit entirely unwarranted, that feeds Islamophobia.
His awards include (again among others): Islamic Teacher of the Year in 1982, 2000 and 2004; Giant of Justice Award given by CLUE in 2005; the Community Leadership Award given by the Human Relations Council in 1997, and the Distinguished Service Award of the United Nations Association in 2001.
When asked to comment on the decision by Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA) to rescind an award given to Bassim Elbarra of the Sacramento CAIR office, Imam Siddiqui said: â€œBoxer is AIPAC aware and influenced.â€ It is important, he continued, to bring Muslim influence up to the level of AIPAC.
Imam Siddiqui spoke with great feeling of the incarceration of Ahmid Adnan Chaudhry, a prisoner presently at a correctional facility in Blythe. Chaudhry was a young Pakistani MBA student at the California State University in San Bernardino in 1999 when he was falsely accused of attempted murder in an altercation with two of his roommates, an altercation in which they were the instigators. In the following travesty that was his trial, the prosecutor presented him as a â€œfanatical Muslimâ€ who had tried to conduct his â€œprivate jihad.â€ His story was covered extensively by The Muslim Observer and The Minaret Magazine. Despite overwhelming forensic evidence to the contrary, Islamophobia prevailed and he was convicted. He is due to have a Habeas Corpus hearing in Los Angeles later this year. Imam Siddiqui knew Ahmid Chaudhry and followed his case.
The Imamâ€™s recent activities include a leading presence in this summerâ€™s Immigrant Rights March; a panel presentation at the ISNA Conference (western Zone), and a panel presentation in Irvine on the subject: â€œBeing Muslim in America,â€ an event which enjoyed church and synagogue support.
Imam Siddiqui consented recently to an interview with TMO reporter Susan Schwartz.
Would you please explain to our readers what is meant by the â€œliberation philosophyâ€ of Islam?
IMAM: Allah commands the believers in Quran to stand up and liberate the victims of injustice and oppression (Q 4:75) especially those who are crying out to their Lord to send a liberator and a helper to free them from the town of tyrants. Allah also commands the believers to stand up for justice against all odds even if it is against themselves or their loved ones and even for the support of the victims of injustice among their enemies. (Q 4:8, 135).
This is the philosophy of liberation of Islam that every Muslim must understand and live by.
You began your interfaith work as a college student. At that time you were somewhat of a pioneer. What guided you to that work?
IMAM: In Quran, Allah told us that all human beings are descendants of Adam and Eve. It makes us all brothers and sisters or at least cousins (Q 49:13). Moreover Allah also told us that Islam is not a new faith. It is the faith of Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed and the rest of the 124,000 prophets and messengers (Q 3:84). When we all have the same beginning it is in our own interest to work together for the betterment of humanity and the earth we live on. This was my motivation to know other people through their faith, culture and history and strengthen our deep seated spirituality. For that purpose I have also founded and co-chaired the Annual Spirituality Emphasis Week at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. The effort was very successful. It also helped in developing a better understanding about Islam and Muslims.
What have you found to be the common misconceptions about Islam?
IMAM: Most of our fellow Americans do not know any Muslim personally. Knowledge of religion is really a challenge to many of us, specially the world religions other than of our own. What they know is what they view daily on the television or read in daily newspapers.
It has created a very negative image of Muslims and Islam. Hollywood didnâ€™t help it either.
Continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict and loss of American influence in Iran didnâ€™t help, too. [The] tragedy of 911 made the matter worse.
There are many common misconceptions including â€˜Islam is a new religionâ€™; â€˜it is a religion of Arabsâ€™; â€˜every Muslim man has four wivesâ€™; â€˜every Muslim is out to get usâ€™; â€˜Muslims are backwardâ€™; â€˜all Muslim women are oppressedâ€™; â€˜Muslims do not believe in Jesusâ€™ and the latest â€˜they hate our freedomâ€™.
The tragedy of 9-11 also became a silver lining and it created an interest in Islam and Muslims. A campaign started: â€˜Engaging Muslimsâ€™. Many opportunities are opening up for Muslims to teach about Islam and Muslims.
Many schools of higher learning and seminaries started offering graduate programs in Islamic studies and hired Muslim scholars to teach. It will minimize these misconceptions and eventually create a beloved community (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr).
Can you cite specific examples of people you have reached with your teachings and caused them to abandon Islamophobia?
IMAM: Abandoning Islamophobia! It is deep seated and it didnâ€™t happen overnight. It will not go away over night with wishful thinking.
I started the discussion and opened the avenue to further discussion. In this process I have met many wonderful persons who encouraged me a lot with their friendly and openness.
As Muslims, it is the responsibility of every one of us to become active in our community. We need to come out of our homes and masjids and participate in local community including City Council, School Board, County, Police and volunteer at local neighborhood watch, library and hospital. We need to become genuinely concerned in the welfare of others. Keep our Masjids open and invite neighbors.
Not knowing the neighbors creates suspicion, which breeds hate and hostility. What I and my family have done is only that. We have become very active and visible in our community outside of Masjid. We invite our neighbors and welcome the new ones in the neighborhood. We do find a change. We may not have eliminated Islamophobia, but, I believe created a process to minimize it over time.
What advice would you give to a member of a Christian Church or a Jewish temple or synagogue in the matter of countering Islamophobia in his or her institution?
IMAM: Well everyone has to fight their own demons! However, I would like to urge them to invite their Muslim neighbors to their churches, synagogues and temples like Beit Shalom in Corona; Church of Brethren in La Verne; Disciple of Christ Church in Pomona and Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont and the like who have already done it. I will still urge Muslims to continue to invite their neighbors to their masajid and homes to help the process. It should not be only one time effort, but a process–a new trend in our relationship. What we need is a paradigm shift in our communities.