This interview is exceptional from at least five reasons. This is conversation with an influential Islamic thinker in Christian (in the sense of un-Islamic) media. The interviewer is an expert in Islam and Middle East from prestigious journal Middle East Quarterly. Thirdly, the conversation took place a year before an terrorist attack on WTC and Pentagon that so dramatically changed the reality that today such an conversation seems to be an impossibility. Lastly, this is an unique opportunity to learn an opinion of a high representative of the Mohamedanism.
This dialogue addresses some questions that arose after the wave of Islamic terror inflicted by the Islamic terrorist on Western liberal democracies.
Muhammad Hisham Kabbani is the chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, a religious organization founded in 1997 with offices in Washington, D.C., and Michigan. A scholar and Sufi sheikh of the Naqshbandi order, he was born in 1945 in Beirut, Lebanon. He received an undergraduate degree from the American University of Beirut in chemistry, studied medicine at the University of Louvain in Belgium, and earned a degree in Islamic law from Damascus University. In 1991, he moved to the United States to establish traditional Islamic teaching and the Naqshbandi Sufi order, opening Islamic centers, founding a humanitarian aid organization, and engaging in interreligious dialogue. Sheikh Kabbani lives in California and the Midwest. The Middle East Quarterly interviewed him in Washington, D.C., in July, 1999, and conducted follow-up discussions with him in March, 2000.
America and Islam
Middle East Quarterly: What is distinctive about your message of Islam to Americans?
Muhammad Hisham Kabbani: Perhaps the most distinctive quality has to do with my emphasis on love, peace and tolerance. Others can emphasize politics and activism but we present a historically authentic version of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad always extended his hand to all people, regardless of their beliefs, and so do we.
MEQ: What is your view of Muslim relations in America with other faiths?
Kabbani: We all aspire to the same goal: to worship God in a way that satisfies us and that pleases the Lord. Looking at it in this way provides a basis for all people of faith to find common cause and find a way to achieve harmony and to work. It is like we are all together inside a big black box with many pinholes along the exterior. We look out and see pinpoints of light shining in. Each person picks one source of light and says “that is the one I follow.” But outside the box, there is only one sun shining.
MEQ: You respect non-Muslims and their faiths?
Kabbani: Of course. Why should we be closed? We live in the United States, a country where people generally are very open to learning about other faiths and cultures. We Muslims must reciprocate by sharing our faith in a way that others may understand and appreciate, without being close-minded or insensitive to their beliefs.
MEQ: What do you see as the proper role of Islam in the United States?
Kabbani. We Muslims are now people of this country, so we have to be a part of the political system and work within it. We practice our religion as others practice theirs, under the protection of the Constitution and the freedom of religion it affords all citizens.
MEQ: At a conference hosted by your organization in August 1998, you were quoted saying that “America is a major reason for the spread of Islam. Without the freedom the United States provides, Islam would not be growing the way it is.”1 Please explain.
Kabbani: The United States is, to give one example of many, the only country in the world that has created a commission on religious persecution. As a Muslim, I see in this and much else the deep roots of Islam. The Prophet never wanted anyone in his city — not Jews, nor Christians, nor idolaters — to be mistreated; he always extended his hand to everyone. We now see here a non-Muslim country that supports Muslim peoples who are religiously persecuted around the world. America is supporting, for example, the Muslims in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and in Algeria. That shows how America respects human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. We do not see this in other countries.
MEQ: Does the freedom that exists in this country make it possible for Islam to develop in new or special ways – in ways that might lead to a new relationship between mosque and state?
Kabbani: The Muslim experience in the United States is unprecedented, although it can be compared to the experience of Muslims in Western Europe. It has to do with our being a minority religion here, in a non-Muslim country explicitly founded in religious liberty and civic tolerance. We have here a situation new to the Muslim experience. This makes Islam’s American experience especially important.
In the Muslim countries, where nearly everyone is a Muslim, with whom can you have an interfaith dialogue? No one. And in fact there is no dialogue.
MEQ: What is your attitude toward spreading Islam in the United States?
Kabbani: There is a spiritual vacuum in countries like Australia, parts of Europe, and America, places Islam did not reach until now. We need to educate people about Islam – but we don’t necessarily have to convert them. If people want to convert, it is up to them. No one is going to harm them if they do not. As Allah said to the Prophet, “You are only a messenger. You give the message.” If they take it, they take it. If they do not take it, that is fine too. We Muslims should speak about Islamic moderation, about the Islamic way to a better life, and we should leave the rest to the people themselves. We have a responsibility not to impose an ideological agenda on the political scene.
MEQ: Do you accept that this country is not now and presumably will not ever become an Islamic state?
Kabbani: America was founded on the principle of a separation between church and state. Therefore, I presume it is not legally possible by virtue of the Constitution of this country.
MEQ: How does the religious “marketplace of ideas” that exists here affect Islam?
Kabbani: The American religious environment, where anyone can freely preach any religion is new to Muslims. We have to understand that this freedom implies a certain responsibility, beginning with a high degree of respect for the civic institutions of this country.
MEQ: You worry that the freedom in this country is a problem in that anyone can get up and start talking about Islam?
Kabbani: Well, it is something very different. In Muslim countries you have to be an `alim [educated religious leader] to engage in da`wa [proselytization of Islam] – it’s not something you can just do after reading a few books. To be a scholar of the Islamic sciences requires pursuing a course of studies at least as that of a medical doctor or an engineer. You earn the equivalent of a Ph.D. You progress from your studies to the mosque, then you begin to speak out on issues. In the Muslim countries, imams of mosques are appointed by a religious body that knows their credentials.
Muslim countries give freedom, but not as much as is practiced here. America offers not only the novel experience of an environment of religious freedom, but a situation in which anyone can more or less do anything. Here, without the requisite background, you can create a non-profit organization and become a Muslim “leader.” American freedoms give you the right to do that, which is okay, but you have to use it in the right way.
MEQ: The deep freedoms available here also imply responsibility?
Kabbani: Correct.. I sometimes think we Muslims are not ready for that. If you give a child a diamond ring he does not understand it. If I give him candy, he will trade the diamond ring for it. When you are given freedom, you have to be intellectually mature and, educated. You cannot abuse this freedom for political gains and the like.
MEQ: Politics and religion don’t mix?
Kabbani: In a nation composed of people of disparate cultures and religious beliefs, a religious person takes his religious values into politics, but he keeps his religion out of it. Islam is not a political movement.
MEQ: Your magazine recently contained the following statement: “The American Constitution has been taken from Islam, including the Bill of Rights and its guarantees of freedom of speech, press, and religion.”2 You surely don’t mean the Founders had an Islamic inspiration when they wrote the Constitution?
Kabbani: No. The sense of that article was that the American Constitution conceptually matches Islam. The Founders felt instinctively what the Prophet preached about Islam, which is a belief in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom for everyone to live in peace.
MEQ: The basic nature of the United States is compatible with Islam? Does that also mean that it creates a climate that is favorable to Islam?
Kabbani: Certainly. In some Islamic countries, just going about your religious obligations can get you into trouble. For example, in one country, if one spreads out a carpet when it’s time for prayers, you may risk being arrested as a fanatic. In another, if you miss prayers at the mosque, you may get into trouble with those with extreme views. Religion is an issue precisely because there is no environment of freedom.
MEQ: Why is Sufism weak in the United States?
Kabbani: It’s stronger than you might think; it is just more difficult to assess. One way to gauge the success of Sufism is by noting observance of the Prophet’s birthday, a distinctly Sufi practice. When I arrived in the United States in 1990, no more then thirty or forty mosques observed the Prophet’s birthday. As a result of our work – in lectures, mailers, publications, and on the Internet, many mosques in America now commemorate and observe the Prophet’s birthday.
The problem for many self-appointed spokesmen for Islam in this country is precisely that, according to the Prophet, Sufism is the very essence of Islam. Spirituality is the only attraction that appeals to non-Muslims, that interests them in Islam.
MEQ: The direction is a good one?
Kabbani: Yes, in sha’ Allah [God-willing]. If Sufism does well, Muslims will stop receiving negative press – you won’t hear anything bad about Islam or Muslims. Sufism is the message of love. If the leadership of Muslims would get this message, Muslims around the world would live in peace, among themselves and with their neighbors.
An Americanized Islam?
MEQ: What developments do you see taking place in the practice of Islam in America?
Kabbani: The articulation of a specifically American Muslim culture and outlook. That takes time – two or more generations, perhaps. Essentially, American Muslims will move beyond the immigrant mentality. At the same time, the converts continue to grow in numbers. When you develop a leadership which looks at the world in an American way, rather than a Lebanese or Pakistani or Egyptian way, then you will have a culturally Americanized Islam. This does not mean there is a different Islam for every country – only that culture influences how the religion is practiced and viewed. This process is already underway. If you tell my son he is a Lebanese, he’ll reply, “No, I am an American.”
MEQ: How do you feel about that?
Kabbani: I am happy with it. The Prophet said, “The love of your country comes from faith.” This is my son’s country because he was raised here. He and his peers see this country as their homeland. If anything goes wrong, they have to stick with their homeland. The new generation, both the children of immigrants and converts to Islam, will change the approach of Muslims to the surrounding polity.
MEQ: The United States has a history of changing religion. Catholicism and Judaism, for example, changed on reaching this country. Do you think that Islam will be Americanized? Will there be an American Islam?
Kabbani: Islam is a perfect religion and does not need to “change” to accommodate American culture. It’s stretchable; it expands. There already is an “American” Islam in the sense that culture influences practices, as I mentioned earlier.
MEQ: Let me be more specific. One of the great challenges to Muslims in the modern era is the call to apply the law of Islam, the Shari`a. What do you expect to happen in America? Might it be possible to live a fully Muslim life without living by the Shari`a?
Kabbani: Islam’s obligations and conditions do not change, but the approach to implementing them might. There is already a lively debate in American Islam, one that can be compared to the evolution of American Judaism or American Catholicism. Some claim it is all right to dispense with jum`a[obligatory congregational prayers on Friday] if that causes a problem at work; or that a Muslim may defer his prayers to the evening after work. Such fatwa s [legal rulings] contradict Islamic norms, however.
For example, one American Muslim organization fired a secretary – a single mother raising three children – for wearing a head scarf, which is in fact an Islamic obligation. I heard that an Islamic center in southern California was telling women, “Don’t cover, it’s not necessary. The headcover is only for the Prophet’s wives.” This is another adaptation to the environment.
American Converts to Islam
MEQ: How important are American converts in your organization?
Kabbani: Very much so, in fact I’d go so far as to say that our organization is made up mainly of converts. It is primarily converts that I meet and whom I try to serve. They are much more focused on the United States than are immigrants. With immigrants, if there’s anything they don’t like, they can sell their homes and fly back to their own countries. They don’t have the same feeling for America that converts have. American converts will play an important role in the development of Islam because they do not have to overcome an immigrant mentality.
Conversely, converts take little interest in international affairs, nor are they necessarily knowledgeable on these subjects. They come to me and ask, “Where is Afghanistan?” They don’t know anything about these places and they ask, “What do we have to do with the problems in these places? This is our country.” Converts want to be proud of being Muslim, but they don’t want to inherit problems from the outside, or be associated with the problems of the Middle East or other areas. They want to be neutral, moderate, and integrated, and I can’t blame them.
MEQ: Converts must face special problems.
Kabbani: They do indeed. Perhaps the most dramatic is that they may be the only Muslim in their family.
MEQ: Islamic and American cultures are both powerful forces, and quite different ones. Can American Muslims reconcile them?
Kabbani: Yes, and that will be the achievement of either this generation or the next one. Muslims born and growing up here will ask, why can’t I be a member of Congress or well established in the political system? We are seeing the beginning of this now on Capitol Hill, with many Muslim staffers recruited by members of Congress.
Allah said in the Holy Qur’an: “Obey God, obey the Prophet, obey your leaders”3 – meaning those who are in authority. Some scholars try to give this a different meaning – obey those who are Muslim authorities. But the verse does not say “Muslim leaders,” it speaks generally of “leaders.” So if I am in America, I have to abide by American law. Why should I not? As an immigrant, I should still work with the system and be part of the system. A boy growing up in America will want to participate in the life of this country– at least if he is not brainwashed by immigrant parents. It might take more than one generation – the immigrant leadership has contact with the first generation and has influence over it. They might still have power for a while, but eventually it will be completely gone.
And, I should note, the situation here is not like in Europe. Most American-born Muslims are well-educated and quite active in social and political arenas, which is less common there.
MEQ: You spoke last year, at a forum sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, of a “threat that will grow” if Americans do not “quickly stop the kind of extremist ideology that is filtering in.”4 What is that threat?
Kabbani: This is a delicate point, so allow me to make a couple of introductory comments. First, we should remember that the problem of extremism is not confined to the Muslim community. Extremists come out of a variety of traditions and focus on a variety of issues – paranoia about the growth of the federal government and obsession with abortion being two well-known issues that have led individuals to the kind of extremism I am talking about, sometimes with violence resulting.
Second, I used the word extremist in an ideological sense. I did not intend to imply that much of the leadership has engaged in acts of violence, or could be described as terrorists. In Arabic, my native language, extremism and terrorism have very different meanings and cannot be used interchangeably.
MEQ: How do you define extremism?
Kabbani: Extremism is an unwillingness to accept any viewpoint but one’s own. It is un-Islamic. In Arabic, ghulu means ideas that deviate from the center. The Prophet Muhammad specifically stated, “Do not go to the extreme in your religion.” Extreme ideas are not violent in themselves but they do on occasion lead to violent acts. That is the context in which I used the word “extremism” to describe ideas currently expressed in Islamic centers across America.
Ideological extremism can result in an act of violence when an individual pursues his ideas to such an extreme that he thinks only his ideas are correct and must therefore be enforced on everyone else.
MEQ: Is there a specifically Islamic quality to this extremism?
Kabbani: No, such extremism is found in every religion and ideology. In fact, in Islam it is specifically stated that “There is no compulsion in religion.”
Of course, the majority of Muslims are not extremists. Like any other group in America, Muslims as a whole are a peaceful people simply pursuing their lives and do not constitute a threat to anyone. But Islamic doctrine can be perverted by ideologues to justify harming others. The threat represented by those willing to use violence to pursue their goals—to terrorize people by throwing bombs and killing innocents—is a danger to all peace-loving people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Such acts, I should add, are expressly forbidden in Islam.
MEQ: What should Americans do to protect themselves from this threat?
Kabbani: The responsibility is on the American Muslim community to reject extremism and to condemn any act of violence. We must keep to a moderate line, as Prophet Muhammad said, “We are a moderate nation.”
MEQ: What specifically is the outstanding difference between you and other American organizations who claim to represent Muslims?
Kabbani: There are many differences between my work and that of the other organizations in the United States who claim to represent the majority of Muslims. I cannot speak for others but some believe they must work primarily for the political objectives of vigilante groups overseas. They mobilize people and resources to promote the agenda of these groups amongst U.S. government officials and the society in general. In sharp contrast, we focus primarily on the promulgation of traditional teachings of Islam to educate non-Muslims about the true nature of our faith and to provide religious guidelines for Muslims in America.
MEQ: Why do you suppose there is such a high proportion of Muslim leadership here with extremist tendencies? Has it something to do with the Middle East or with the Americans who convert to Islam?
Kabbani: It’s a good question but I don’t know the answer. You have to go back and study the pattern of immigration to America, to understand the gradual build-up of a Muslim leadership from the Middle East, which, in effect, brought its problems to the U.S. At one of the first jum`a [Friday] services I attended on arrival in the United States, at a New Jersey mosque, I was struck by the fact that I could not be sure whether the khatib [preacher] was giving a religious sermon or a political harangue. Today, I hear many people complain about that very issue, especially from the converts who want nothing to do with overseas politics.
MEQ: You are suggesting that preachers who come from undemocratic countries do not adapt to American mores, least of all its system of separating politics from religion?
Kabbani: Millions of peaceful Muslims who immigrated to this country from all over the world have adapted to the ways and mores of this society and contribute positively to the fabric of our multicultural society. Then, look at who built the mosques in America? Who came first? In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a flood of Muslims from overseas came on government scholarships from India, Pakistan and some Arab nations. They were mainly intellectuals. Many decided to stay and make America their home.
The Indo-Pakistani community initially constituted the majority of Muslims in the United States. They had problems, but not Middle Eastern problems. They came with a good heart. They came here and they wanted a place to pray. They collected money and they built mosques in their community. Slowly, certain Middle Eastern groups seized these mosques, promoting political and ideological agendas rooted in their home countries’ problems, where Islam did get intertwined with politics. Slowly, such groups took over many mosques either directly, or by unseen pressure on the moderate board members, and now an antagonistic mentality controls them. The extremists—not ordinary believers—changed the use of American mosques into centers of intolerant political dogma, rather than of worship.
MEQ: Of course, places of worship in America have traditionally served as centers of civic or political agitation.
Kabbani: Yes, but, generally speaking, American churches have functioned as a way to bring communities into civic or political affairs. Church leaders, for example, demand that America live up to its own laws, its own ideals. The mosques can and should play this role, as well. But what we are seeing is something quite different — the use of some mosques to preach an anti-American point of view, which is counterproductive to our success and prosperity in this country.
MEQ: The leadership is not interested in integration into the American mainstream, even though it works within the political system?
Kabbani: Some leaders came to establish themselves here, and the more extreme may follow a rigid ideology. There is a possibility they might use mosques under their control for their own benefit, their own kind of leadership, and to mobilize people who listen to them. That’s what is going on now. The result is that the moderate majority become silent in the face of continuous intimidation and thus are unable to oppose those in power.
MEQ: What do you have in mind when you say that the “big national [Muslim] organizations [in the United States] have a certain agenda.”5
Kabbani: When you want to know someone, you listen to what he is saying. In the case of these organizations, I hear them articulating a single agenda. For example, rather than endorse the legitimacy of the Palestine Authority led by Yasir Arafat, and call on Hamas to resolve its problems with him and become united in one opinion through peace talks, they legitimize only the opinion of Hamas.
MEQ: That’s in the Middle East. What does an extremist agenda imply in this country?
Kabbani: Only Allah, only God, knows what really resides in men’s hearts. But if you ask me, they seek recognition.
MEQ: For what purpose?
Kabbani: For the same reason as Islamic ideologues everywhere – to impose their ideology on everyone, including the government. Maybe they want one of theirs to be president of the United States and turn the United States into an Islamic state.
MEQ: That is preposterous, no?
Kabbani: In the sense of being totally unrealistic, of course. But it is not preposterous within the intellectual and political frames of reference that these people use. Some of them are part of an international movement that has great energy and ambition. As a practical matter, they see imposing their narrow interpretation of Islamic law, Shari`a, as a final goal. While that is suitable in a nation where the majority seek it, Shari`a is not something which should be imposed by a minority.
MEQ: And they would force application of the Shari`a?
Kabbani: I cannot speak for others on an operational level or say how far they might be willing to go in pursuit of their goal, even assuming this proposition is correct. But conceptually speaking, yes, they believe one must take steps to enforce Shari`a wherever there are Muslims. And there are, of course, Muslims in the United States, but the majority of Muslims do not subscribe to this ideology.
MEQ: They are not willing to participate in American public life as it exists?
Kabbani. No, some extreme ideologues say that before they discuss anything to do with this political system or work with it, they have to see Shari`a imposed for marriages, inheritance, etc. In other words, they demand that all civil laws concerned with their daily life must be accepted by America before they participate.
MEQ: Do the national Islamic organizations coordinate among themselves?
Kabbani: Oh yes, and that’s something I know about personally.
MEQ: You mean that seven of them6 got together and signed a letter against you in early 1999, right?
Kabbani: Yes that, but the joint efforts against me started much earlier. Eight years ago, soon after I began lecturing in this country, they decided, “Let’s oppose this individual.” When the attacks started on me, I soon realized that what at first seemed to be attacks by individual organizations were in fact coordinated. A youth association, and other national associations attacked me in very similar ways. I could see this in the media campaign against me. Also, when they sponsored major conferences throughout the years they prevented me from even entering the premises.
The concerted action by these groups prompted us to research who their board of directors are, who are their officers, and we found that they’re all in effect like a single institution. It looks like just one organization with seven manifestations.
MEQ: On what basis did you say in the State Department speech that “Extremism has been spread to 80 percent of the Muslim population” in the United States?
Kabbani: On the basis that a large percentage of the population has been exposed to extreme ideas, due to the leadership. This does not imply that the majority of the Muslim population accepts these ideas they have been exposed to – in fact, most of them reject it, as it is so contrary to the faith. I find that many Muslim leaders have this kind of uncompromising, hard-line mentality —”follow us or you are not with us. If you don’t follow us, you will be rejected from the community.” This is completely contrary to the spirit and practice of mainstream Islam, which is one reason they are hostile to the traditional teachings which I am attempting to make known. On the other hand, the majority of the Muslim community itself is peaceful, loving, and wants to live a normal life without conflicts.
Unfortunately, it is often young adults who are inclined toward radical ideas, and are attracted to extremism. Some hard-line extremist groups, on the pretext of “looking after the affairs of Muslims,” search out such people among worshippers and invite them to private, secret meetings to brainwash them in extremist ideas. They organize small cells of four or five. The people who are recruited into these cells don’t know each other but the leaders do know each other. These cells are becoming networks of extremist thinking, and they can become a big problem in America. What I see, travelling around this country, is that places of prayer – mosques – are increasingly turned into places of politics, and extremist politics at that.
MEQ: You have stated that “many” Islamic organizations in United States only collect money to send “to extremists outside the United States.” Please be more specific: Which organizations are you referring to? What evidence do you have to support these claims?
Kabbani: A great deal of humanitarian aid, sent by Muslim organizations in the U.S. and Europe, has gone to the Middle East. The bulk of this aid is sold on the black market and either profits individuals or vigilante groups based in those countries. I cannot specifically tell you what organizations here in America have done so, that is our government’s duty to investigate, but I know what we received back in the Middle East.
MEQ: You say that “more than hundreds of millions of dollars” have thus far been distributed in this manner and that 90 percent of that amount has gone for weapons rather than humanitarian purposes. How do you know this?
Kabbani: I know what I saw in the Middle East. We used to get lot of humanitarian aid from the United States sent by Muslim organizations and I used to see that this humanitarian aid is being used for other purposes.
MEQ: What is the money used for?
Kabbani: It profits individuals or groups of vigilantes.
MEQ: Do donors here know for what purposes their money is being used?
Kabbani: Some may, but most do not. People let themselves be convinced they are doing their duty as Muslims, and they tell themselves the leadership knows what it is doing. Immigrants, especially when they have substantially improved their material circumstances, as they usually do in the U.S., tend to be easy marks for activists who claim they just want to help the poor folk back home.
MEQ: The leadership is not candid?
Kabbani: That’s the story. There is a gap between what the leadership is doing and what the average American Muslim knows.
MEQ: The extremist ideologues of Muslim organizations are not representative of their membership?
Kabbani: Not at all. They do things in secret that the community – no, even their executive bodies – don’t know about. For example, when they condemned me, as I found out from one of their major figures, a man who sits on their Majlis ash-Shura [council], they had called for a meeting in Ohio at the Hilton Hotel in February 1999, to issue the condemnation. But when they found I had supporters everywhere, individuals who would expose their own actions, they backed off. Despite that decision, some individuals still got together and issued the statement against me, supposedly on behalf of their respective organizations.
MEQ: Please tell us about the “very compromising information” in your possession about “many of the organizations”7 that signed the early 1999 statement against you.
Kabbani: We have a lot of information which we are not yet revealing.. Though they do not hesitate to harm us, we do not feel it would be appropriate.
MEQ: What do you mean when you say you “have the means to expose each and every organization”8that attacked you?
Kabbani: We have a lot of highly detailed information that has not yet been made public..
MEQ: After the forum at the State Department last year, over one hundred Islamic organizations in the United States joined together to condemn your comments, claiming that your “false information” might “jeopardize the safety and well being” of Muslims. How do you respond to them?
Kabbani: First of all, virtually none of those 100 organizations had actually signed the boycott. One umbrella organization in Illinois took it upon itself to sign all of its members without consulting any of them. When we called a majority of these organizations, they resented being associated with the boycott and deemed it un-Islamic behavior. In fact, some of those organizations are our biggest, supporters, which makes it even less plausible. Moreover, I did not put out “false information.” What I find remarkable is how these people, who never read Arabic material and information, can claim to be Arab-American leaders.
MEQ: What about your jeopardizing the “safety and well-being” of the Muslim community in this country?
Kabbani: How could I jeopardize the safety of the Muslim community? If anyone puts the Muslim community at risk, it is the behavior of some so-called Islamic and Arab-American leaders. Their destructive screaming, their fighting, their shouting at government officials, their supporting all kinds of militant and violent acts, talking about freedom fighters, sending money here and there — those are the things that jeopardize the Muslim community. I try to protect the majority of Muslims from being associated with such behavior.
My critics are jeopardizing the Muslim community when they jump and shout, supporting vigilante movements and ideas. It is typical Middle-Eastern behavior – only this is not the Middle East. Instead, they have to sit, respectably, and speak in a constructive way, engage in dialogue. If they persist in these habits, our community risks losing all credibility.
MEQ: They seem to believe you provided information that…
Kabbani: I have no information that could possibly put anyone at risk. Believe me, the counter-terrorism experts don’t need me; U.S. security services have better sources of information than what an Islamic teacher like myself openly says. Some $10 billion has been allocated by the Clinton Administration to combat international terrorism, and that includes activities, sad to say, of radical Islamic groups. On-going investigations that began before my State Department statement in January, 1999, included those into Global Relief Foundation, Wadih El Hage in Texas, Ali Mohamed in New York, as well as many others.
Note that they accuse me of putting out false information without offering specifics. I am not responsible for giving the specifics, though others have begun to do so already. Take for example an article in The New York Times:9 It covered the exact same topic as I did and even named several Muslim organizations under investigation. My purpose was only to create a distinction between the unfortunate lawlessness of some groups, and the law-abiding majority of Muslims.
Then notice how they try to discredit me by saying that I am a CIA agent, a Mossad agent, or whatever. The truth always comes out in the end. I pray the entire American Muslim community will see the reality of who is working for their best interests.
MEQ: On that note, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reports that the FBI is “reviewing reports of death threats” against yourself via telephone and e-mail.10 Also, you reported that the employee of one Islamic organization “attempted to intimidate, embarrass and harass” you at the State Department.11 What is going on?
Kabbani: I don’t know what these aggressors want. Maybe they sent death threats to stop me, to scare me. Maybe it’s an irresponsible act from individuals who have been mobilized by other people. FBI agents have been investigating, and we have fully cooperated with the FBI.
MEQ: What do you make of the Islamic organizations’ call for a “boycott” of you and your organization?12
Kabbani: There is no boycott. If anything, our political successes and in the community were bolstered by this attempt at a boycott. They tried to get advertisers to boycott our periodical, The Muslim Magazine, which represents a moderate voice and is considered the best Islamic magazine in America. But, God is great and the effort did not work. We now have nationwide distribution on the newsstands, and more subscribers daily.
MEQ: You have announced an intention to form “a Muslim anti-terrorist council.”13 What is this?
Kabbani: The object is to create good moderate voice for Islam in this country.
MEQ: Does this organization exist?
Kabbani: Not yet, but we hope that it will in the future..
Middle East Politics
MEQ: Do you endorse or oppose the American efforts to contain or even topple Saddam Husayn?
Kabbani: We believe that when any regime becomes a dictatorship and wants to control his people, and the people around him, then efforts must be joined in order that this regime will go for the good of the actual and future victims. We believe that what America is trying to do, along with other countries, to control Saddam Husayn is a very good effort. It’s just important to make sure that the Iraqi people are not the victim of these sanctions.
MEQ: You are on record opposing sanctions on Iraq; but if the U.S. government gives them up, what leverage does it have over Baghdad?
Kabbani: I am no expert on foreign policy, so I cannot offer a strategy, but I know there is something wrong with the existing one. I do know that the Iraqi people are dying from these sanctions, while Saddam Husayn is in fine health.
MEQ: What is your assessment of negotiations between Israel and the Arabs?
Kabbani: Everyone is trying to push the peace process forward and complete it by November 2001. If all parties are reasonable in their way of approach, this problem will end.
MEQ: You endorse these efforts?
Kabbani: Of course. I support all efforts that end with a peace treaty and peaceful resolution with Syria getting its rights, Palestine getting its rights, Lebanon getting its rights, and Israel getting its rights.
MEQ: How do you see a resolution of the contending claims for Jerusalem?
Kabbani: I don’t think Jerusalem is going to be a big problem. As soon as the parties sign an agreement, Jerusalem will be easily resolved. We pray to God that this conflict will end soon, and everyone will live in peace and happiness and build strong relations.
1 Ed Warner, “Islam’s Future,” Voice of America, Aug. 12, 1998.
2 The Muslim Magazine, Shawwal 1419/Jan. 1999.
4 “Islamic Extremism: A Viable Threat to U.S. National Security,” An Open Forum at the U.S. Department of State, Jan. 7, 1999.
5 San Jose Mercury News, May 1, 1999.
6 American Muslim Political Coordination Council, American Muslim Alliance, American Muslim Council, Council on American Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Islamic Circle of North America, Islamic Society of North America, and Muslim Students Association of USA & Canada.
7 The Muslim Magazine, Summer 1999, p. 94.
8 The Muslim Magazine, Summer 1999, p. 95
9 The New York Times, Feb. 19, 2000.
10 Mar. 13, 1999.
11 The Washington Times, Mar. 2, 1999.
12 “100 Muslim Organization Condemn Kabbani’s Continued Attacks on Muslims and Islam,” Apr. 2, 1999 (issued by the same signatories as the Feb. 25, 1999, statement, as well as many local organizations).
13 Los Angeles Times, Apr. 15, 1999.