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Mohamed Elibiary: We can't afford to ignore opposing opinions

Activism is strengthened by being open to distinct views

07:54 PM CST on Tuesday, December 21, 2004

By MOHAMED ELIBIARY

I've been invited to the Metroplex Organization of Muslims in North Texas at least three times before, all around the Friday Jumma prayers, to speak about the importance of voting and participating in the American public square. I was always warmly hosted as a visiting guest.

In regard to the Dec. 11 event, I was invited by a youth member of the MOMIN Center for a typical 15-minute talk. I was informed that Dr. Yusuf Kavakci, imam of Dallas Central Mosque, had also been invited, as well as an imam from Seattle whom I didn't know. I also did not know the gathering would be labeled a tribute to Imam Khomeini.

My speaking engagement was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. I arrived about five minutes late and found them praying Asr prayers, so I prayed in the last row. During the time I was there I didn't hear much of a tribute to Imam Khomeini. The theme, as their promotional flier showed, was Muslim unity. That's why three local Sunni community leaders were invited by the Shiite leaders of the MOMIN Center to share in their program.

Since I began my political activism 13 years ago at the age of 16, I have never been associated with any form of radicalism, simply because those are not the views I believe in. Being raised a Sunni, I must admit, has left me fairly ignorant of Shiite thinkers. I have not read any work by a Shiite religious scholar, much less Imam Khomeini.

Over the past couple of days I finished a CD course from the University of Chicago that taught me quite a bit about the man's political views and accomplishments. I also finished another CD by Karen Armstrong called The Battle for God. Her analysis of Imam Khomeini's fundamentalism certainly enlightened me.

Since the event, I have learned in my conversations with one organizer that the date chosen for this event was Imam Khomeini's birthday and their aim was to highlight "the aspect of Imam Khomeini's life that promoted Muslim unity." I would liken that to choosing the birthday of Martin Luther to discuss his fight against corruption in the church, without bringing up his anti-Semitic views.

I was informed that Imam Khomeini said: "If you call yourself a Sunni or Shiite, then you're neither Sunni nor Shiite. There are only Muslims."

I have been asked whether, if I had realized before I spoke that the event honored Imam Khomeini, I would have left immediately. I don't know. My activism, which is designed to bring Muslims into the mainstream, calls upon me not to cede any territory to radical views without presenting a moderating counterpoint.

I have learned that, to his supporters, Imam Khomeini is not the hostage crisis, or the one who hated America as the "Great Satan," but a liberator from the shah's hated dictatorship. As Natan Sharansky correctly points out in his book The Case for Democracy, people flock to promises of freedom, because all human beings desire to be free.

I have been asked what I would say to someone who believes that there is no good reason to attend a tribute to Imam Khomeini. If their concerns revolved around the American experience of him, I would say that I echo their feelings. But if anyone wishes to learn about their opponent, they must listen, or they'll remain ignorant and make mistakes that cost them in their struggle to defend their values and views.

Just because I listen to Osama bin Laden's tapes and agree that the West routinely insults Muslim dignity, that doesn't make me al-Qaeda. By listening I gain a better understanding of a philosophy I wish to counter. Just because I agree with Che Guevara that nonregulated capitalism is exploitive of the poorest in a society, that doesn't make me a communist – just one who sees the benefit of Teddy Roosevelt's crusade against business monopolies.

Imam Mohammad Asi, who also spoke at the MOMIN event, is more troubling than Khomeini, in my opinion, because his views are a direct threat, not just a historical one, to our American way of life. He does believe that America is the "Great Satan" and opposes the reformers in Iran who are calling for a dialogue between Islam and the West. He sees "Zionist Jews" as controlling the entire world (outside Iran, of course) and strongly ridicules full political participation by Western Muslims.

I don't know what to say about all this other than that it's diametrically opposed to the views of the invited speakers – Imam Kavakci, Iyas Maleh and myself. Mohammad Asi's beliefs run counter to the very existence of our organizations, decades of activism, everything we said and saw from the leadership at the MOMIN Center.

Mohamed Elibiary is president and CEO of the Plano-based Freedom and Justice Foundation. His e-mail address is me@freeandjust.org.

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