Substance of the luncheon lecture giving to the National Imam’s Conference in Washington DC on June 7th, 2003.
Surely Allah does not change
the condition of a people
if they do not change themselves.(Quran 13:11)
We all must have a personal vision of America. I believe that America is a metaphor for freedom and the promise of human dignity, intellectual progress and prosperity. If being an American means to respect rights, value knowledge and work for progress than even though I was born in India, I am a born American. I see America’s greatness in its pursuit and commitment to knowledge and in the fact that the gap between American values and American realities is far less than the gap between Islam and the Muslim World. America is great also because, American values have room to accommodate my values and me. This is metaphor worth fighting for. It is important that all of you, individually, develop a personal vision and relationship with America. I see my relationship with America as similar to my relationship with my wife – I share my children with both of them.
America is changing. From a power committed to multilateralism and multiculturalism, it is becoming a power that will increasingly act unilaterally overseas and become more and more circumspect towards diversity at home. Anti-Americanism overseas will engender xenophobia at home and no one is more foreign than Muslims. There is a distinct possibility that American democracy and civil rights protection will continue to decline, Attorney General Ashcroft recently petitioned the Congress for more freehand in violating American Muslim freedoms. American Muslims must now fight for their rights and for American democracy. They are, ironically, now in the position to save American democracy from some paranoid Americans. American Islam and American Muslims alone can save democracy in America.
American Muslims are changing. For decades we American Muslims took our civil rights and their status in this country for granted and essentially focussed our energies on foreign issues. Now that our rights are in jeopardy, the very administration we endorsed and thought would protect us, is determined to undermine our rights. We cannot take American freedoms for granted and must restructure our priorities, our institutions and our discourses. Imams, you must ensure that your sermons and your teachings emphasize the struggle for Muslim civil rights.
American Muslim community is expanding. It is no more mosque-centered. The general atmosphere of suspicion about Muslims and Arabs is having a de-assimilation effect returning to the fold those who were already assimilated. They are returning with new ideas, fat checkbooks and a very pro-reform agenda. Imams, you must become more tolerant, more open and more willing to accept new ideas, otherwise you will witness the denominization of Islam in this country.
There is a demand for liberalization from within the community and from outside. On issues of women, on relations with other faiths and other communities, you must interpret Islam with utmost compassion and acceptance of others. If you remain rigid and resistant to change, then you will be marginalized. Change cannot be avoided. If you wish to manage change, you must change your outlook and the parameters of your discourse. Every week for thirty minutes you are kings. You can use your Friday sermons to either become the leaders of the community or remain office managers of the mosques. Those and only those who can offer an empowering and liberating vision of America and American Muslims will lead. Go bridge the gap between your communities and the larger community. That is where our future is.
Imams must become forward looking: Dear Imams remember, the future belongs to those who think the deepest about it. And the past belongs to those who remember it the most. If you remain focussed on the past, the past will embrace you and you will become irrelevant to the present and the future. But if you become forward looking, the future will await you and the present is yours. The community, I am confident will eventually make the right choices and will march forward. It is up to you to lead or follow.
May Allah bless us all.