Monthly Archives: May 2012

Reposted from:

When Interfaith Goes Sideways 

By Imraan Siddiqi
Interfaith events have always represented a paradox to me – yet, I find myself  attending more and more of them.  On one hand – these events do give an  opportunity to bridge religious gaps.  Conversely, the tenor of the  events sometimes tend to be too sugary sweet – and representatives from  all faiths have been guilty of toning out the other side while smiling,  only to tune in when their religious group weighs in.  Even though you  enter the events with the best of intentions, only to walk away asking  yourself – “Have I really accomplished anything today”?
Last  Tuesday, I was one of two Muslim representatives at an event hosted by  the Arizona Interfaith Movement – entitled “Texts of Terror”.  The  purpose of the event was to highlight verses within the 3 major  monotheistic scriptures (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Quran) that  contain violent imagery and have possibly been used to justify violent  acts.  The title was a red flag to me – when I received the invitation  to attend, I knew this was going to be a lightning rod event.
A few days before the event took place – we received word that the  already controversial subject matter had just added a new wrinkle – an  infamous local pseudo scholar named Carl Goldberg would be attending the event with the hopes of stirring up the crowd and turning the dialog  into the debate.  This just added to my hesitance, but I knew I would  have to pull through.
Imam Anas Hlayhel and I both sit on the  board of CAIR-AZ, and we have attended multiple events held by the  Arizona Interfaith Movement as representatives for the Muslim community. Usually, the attendance is relatively sparse – but on this day, we were told we would be walking into a capacity crowd at the Arizona Jewish  Heritage Center.  As we walk toward the entrance, a familiar face greets us – the director of the Heritage Center.  “Hey guys, I just want to  let you know that we have a weird crowd today, so I apologize in advance for anyone who may say offensive things to you.”  As the two Muslims  walk into the room – I felt like the scene in Gladiator when  Russell Crowe and Djimon Honsou were first thrown into the arena,  waiting for the carnage to begin.  At first glance, it was hard to tell  who was friendly and who was there in the hopes of seeing the Emperor  give the “thumbs down” signal to us.  I have never seen the Goldberg  figure before, I have just read his hateful, manipulative and inaccurate discourses on my religion – Which one was he?  I scanned the room  looking for someone who looked like they were coming with an agenda –  but it was hard to tell who was who.
Looks like we would have  to wait until the lions were released…and then the Tea Party Patriots walk in.  How did I know that these people were with the AZ Tea Party  Patriots movement?  Well one of them was wearing a pin that said “AZ Tea Party Patriots,” so that sorta gave it away.  You see Dr. Goldberg  along with other virulently Islamophobic speakers such as Pamela Geller  are extremely popular among Tea Party groups – especially here in  Arizona.  These groups like to get worked up and amplify violence conducted by Muslims – assigning guilt by association to the religion and all its adherents due to the acts of a few.  Here are just a few links to the  events they put on:
As the event commenced, it became clear that the organizers wanted nothing to do with the Tea-Partiers and their self-described “expert on  Islam.” The organizer (Dr. Paul Eppinger) set the ground rules from the  beginning – this event was for our selected clergy to cover the topic of violence in holy scriptures.  This was not going to turn into a debate  or an opportunity to bash a religion – basically an Islam-bashing fest.  He also stated that each audience member was only allowed to ask one  question – and no speeches or diatribes were going to be accepted.  It  is then, we saw Goldberg and the other Tea-Partiers look at each other,  scrambling for a backup plan.
When it came to the program itself – each clergy member did a great job of covering and giving an  explanation of so-called “violent” verses in their scriptures, while  providing the historical and social context.  For example, the rabbi  read from the book of Deuteronomy – where the believers are instructed to wipe out the 7 nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites,  Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 
Next, the Methodist pastor/scholar covered material from the Book of  Revelations – where many of the verses that appeal to fighting refer to  “The Beast” – which in historical context represented the Romans.   Finally, the imam read from Surah 9 (al-Tawbah) which many extremists  misuse to justify acts of violence – and which many Islamophobes misuse  to label Islam as inherently violent.  All three clergy presented great  cases as to why their faiths’ respective verses should not be taken out  of context, while highlighting recent cases of violence done in the name of almost every faith – and some in the crowd seemed to agree.  But  what were Goldberg and the Tea Party doing while the actual program was  taking place?
After their wings got clipped with the one-question limit, the provocateurs in the crowd were scrambling for a solution.   This was going to be Dr. Goldberg’s big moment – he brought a binder  full of material, and had a list of questions that he was ready to shout out.  What was he going to do next?  He started coaching the people  sitting next to him and the Tea Partiers on what questions to ask during the Q&A portion.  As the Q&A started, the “expert on Islam”  jumped out of his seat in anticipation to be the first questioner.  This is where the wheels started to fall off  – as Goldberg accused the imam of being apologetic and obscuring information, while praising the  pastor and the rabbi for being so honest.  “I now have a comment if you  will allow me” said Goldberg
The moderator of the session shut him  down -and Goldberg’s time was up.  He now went to other audience members to try and coach them on what questions to ask.  There was a poor old  guy sitting next to Goldberg – (I sat directly behind them) and Dr. Carl was kept pointing to the piece of paper in his hand on what question to ask.  The elderly man wasn’t very quick on the uptake, so it took about 5 minutes for him to get properly coached by the anti-Islam  polemicist.  In the meantime, our Tea Partiers shouted out questions on  how all Muslims want “Sharia Law,” and screaming out cases of where  Muslims have done bad things.
The interfaith event was officially sideways.
In the dozen inter-religious events I have attended in the last few years, this was the first time we have encountered hostility – and boy did it  come strong.  Thankfully, we only had to endure about 10 minutes of  wild-eyed, out-of-context, unhinged questions – although it seemed like  it lasted an hour.  The members of the clergy did a great job of  extending their answers – sort of like the 4-corners offense in  basketball lingo.  The event came to a close and the Dr. Eppinger  thanked everything for coming.
At this point, I didn’t know if I would have to play the role of secret service agent, and exit – stage  left.  Would this be the moment where the crowd joins up with Goldberg’s crew and starts screaming “Go back to where you came from”?  But a  funny thing happened – instead of being taunted with jeers, chants and  madness – we were greeted by hugs, handshakes and gestures of goodwill  streamed from the majority of the crowd.  The Tea Party reps were still  looking for a confrontation after the event was over, but their  hostility was completely overshadowed by the warmth and compassion from  the rest of the attendees.  As the angry Tea Party lady peered in the  distance, the rabbi asked us – “You have time to go to lunch?”  We  obliged the rabbi on his offer, much to the chagrin of our  counterparts.
For the hour and a half that we sat in the  auditorium, the question “what are we doing here?” kept resonating in my mind. It was impossible to shake the feeling that we were on the road  to accomplishing nothing but increasing our anxiety levels.  But as we  are taught in our faith, if you approach a potentially negative  situation with the best of intentions – there is always a positive that  will arise from it.  Thankfully, the ensuing lunch with the rabbi opened up such positive avenues.  After leaving the tension of the previous  environment, it was great to just sit down and have meaningful dialogue with another member of the faith-based community.  In this brief but  meaningful conversation, we were able to discuss myths and  misconceptions about our respective faiths along with the organizations  that we represent.
More importantly, we all reached the conclusion that while interfaith events are great and have their place, the more  important work will be “hands-on” and educating our communities on a  grassroots level.  As many activists and clergy who have participated in interfaith events have said before, we shouldn’t be trained to just  “tolerate” each other.  Its time to transcend those lines and advance  the conversation past the uncomfortable smiles, selective hearing, and  simply going back to business as usual after the event is over.  Thankfully, with the  relationships we forged on this day, there is definitely hope for a  greater and more meaningful level of participation in the future.  And  while the detractors attempted to steer this event off the tracks, they  actually helped strengthen the bond between faith leaders, and ensure  that we will work together to defeat the forces of hate and intolerance.
Imraan Siddiqi is a CAIR-Arizona Board Member, Editor of, & an Entrepreneur.  He writes on the experiences of Muslim  Americans as well as the subject of Islamophobia.  He has been published in outlets such as The Dallas Morning News, The Oregonian, Huffington  Post, CounterPunch,, altMuslim, among many other media outlets.  You can follow him on Twitter @imraansiddiqi.

Here is a clip from our event at ICC Tempe Masjid on Friday, May 11, 2012. The panel discussion featured Imam Anas Hlayhel (CAIR-AZ President), Todd Gallinger (CAIR-National Rep) and Imraan Siddiqi (CAIR-AZ Board).
In this clip, Todd discusses the importance of knowing one’s Constitutional Rights as an American.

CAIR-AZ hosted a productive panel discussion with (from left to right) Chapter President Anas Hlayhel, Todd Gallinger – CAIR National, and Imraan Siddiqi – CAIR-AZ Board.

CAIR-AZ hosted a wonderful weekend of events – entitled “Why Should I CAIR?  How to Build an Activist Community” at two local mosques.  These events represented a great opportunity to discuss challenges that American Muslims are facing – and discussed solutions of how each member of the community can make their own personal impact.

Friday night’s event was hosted at Islamic Cultural Center of Tempe, while Saturday night’s panel took place at Islamic Center of the East Valley in Chandler.  The diverse panel gave insight as to how to stay active, ensuring knowledge of constitutional rights, and maximizing impact using new media/social media outlets.  Both evening events brought about a great interactive discussion, along with Q&A with the audience and panel.

CAIR-AZ also hosted a highly productive focus group with local AZ Community leaders, generating a great variety of input and ensuring coalition building within the Arizona community as we move forward.  As the chapter continues to grow, the local CAIR chapter leaders were very pleased with the participation during the weekend, along with securing plenty of new volunteers for the future.

Be sure to follow CAIR-AZ on Facebook, along with our Twitter @cairaz.  There, you will be able to connect and receive the latest news and opportunities to participate in helping this great chapter grow!