By: Br. Farrukh Siddiqui
Tampa, FL – One of the most anticipated highlights after marriage is the arrival of the wedding album from the professional photographer. Newlyweds get together with family and friends to once again celebrate the most transformative day of their lives. Deah and Yusor, no doubt were hoping for just that on February 11, 2015. But they never got the opportunity, just days later when their wedding photos were released, to re-experience beautiful memories and make new ones because they, along with Yusor’s sister, were killed when a neighbor entered their home in Chapel Hill, NC and shot them dead.
Muslim Americans remain confident that the senseless deaths of Deah Barakat, Yusor Al-Salha, and her sister Razan Al-Salha at the hands of a domestic terrorist occurred because of hate and time will validate their beliefs but nothing can stop the relentless march of life. Even as many remain frustrated, angry, and fearful, others in the Muslim American community are mobilizing and taking action based on the emerging realization that hate not only manifests in the action of others but also from our own inaction.
At the Islamic Society of New Tampa (the Society), this insight has permeated the collective thinking of leadership represented by the leader of the Executive Committee, Bilal Saleh who made it clear that the Muslim American community has historically “took the back seat and really played the victim role and withdrew, did not reach out.” This has resulted in a pervasive, organized, and well-funded movement designed to create a perpetually negative rhetoric against Islam that has come to be known as Islamophobia.
Muslim Americans believe that Islamophobia has no regard for the diversity, beauty, and practical wisdom of Islam. Instead, it paints all Muslims with the same distorted brush and has even greatly succeeded in hijacking Islam’s sacred terminology such as “jihad”; a concept rooted in spiritual ascension based on the lifelong struggle, against ones egoistic desires, aspiring towards the utter devotion to and love for Allah (God).
Having decided that the best defense is a sound offense, the Society decided to host a town hall meeting led by Bilal not only to counter Islamophobia but also to quell the growing fear emanating from the tragic shootings in Chapel Hill. As one town hall attendee from Riverview, FL, Kamil Shahab put it, Muslims have developed a “phobia of Islamophobia.” Recognizing this, the Society invited local government and law enforcement officials to the town hall meeting so that they could participate in a panel discussion with community members.
Being the first event of its type, the Society leadership was cautiously optimistic hoping for a good turnout and a productive discussion. They got just that. The attendance far exceeded the seating space in the meeting area and the questions poured in stimulating a healthy and heartfelt discussion.
Buoyed by the success of the town hall meeting, the Society has decided to take the next step and invite neighbors and other local area non-Muslims to an open house scheduled for May 17. Bilal believes this will serve a dual purpose, “...it is an opportunity for our [community] to break the ice with their neighbors to invite them to come to the mosque and for our non-Muslim friends and neighbors to come and see us. See our house of worship, see what we do inside the center, have some
fun, eat some of our ethnic foods and just talk to each other as friends and neighbors and two human beings exchanging some personal stories.”
Religious people have become quite good at preaching and sloganizing. “Islam is the solution!” has been uttered by many but what does it really mean. In the end, what is most important is to practice what you preach. For Muslim Americans, Bilal believes “it’s just really simple, live your life as a Muslim and let people see you.” That’s right, “let people see you” by learning to play offense based on consistent outreach and engagement instead of a self-imposed defensive approach from within the apparent safety of one’s home or the local masjid (mosque).