THE LIFELINE OF MUSLIM communities in Canada and the United States has been Islamic conferences, particularly in the 1980s and 90s. Conferences in turn gave rise to a cadre of jet-setting Muslim scholars. No one in government ever batted an eye at these speakers in the years before Sept. 11, 2001. But since then, this loose assortment of charismatic speakers have come under intense scrutiny by intelligence organizations and lobby groups in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The squeaky clean Yusuf Islam was put on a U.S. no-fly list and denied entry into the United States. It appears the United States has reversed its position on him, but has not accorded the same to Professor Tariq Ramadan or Dr. Zaki Badawi when the latter was alive. These two were invited by respected universities and organizations in the United States, but Washington crossed their names off the guest lists.
The situation is so tense that in the last five years many speakers have wisely declined invitations to speak in the United States out of fear that they may be arrested or worse, end up in the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In the post-9/11 years, Canadian authorities have been relatively easy going, allowing into the country a variety of speakers from Tarek Suwaidan to Tariq Ramadan. That all changed when the popular British Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul-Haq was invited to speak at Islamic conferences in Montreal and Toronto in late June. Riyadh ul-Haq never made it across the Atlantic.
Riyadh ul-Haq has visited Canada and the U.S. many times before and there have hardly been any substantial complaints either about his lectures or his religio-political views. In the world of Muslim bloggers, he was lightly flogged, after speaking in Toronto last December, for objecting to clapping as a form of applause as well as the playing of anasheeds (Islamic songs) before or after his lectures. Although his objections may come from a strict application of Islamic legal rulings, they are hardly grounds for Ottawa to bar him from entering the country.
The trouble for Riyadh ul-Haq started when Judeoscope, a Canadian website (www.Judeoscope.ca) that describes itself as being “dedicated to shedding light on anti-Semitism, antiZionism, and militant Islam in Canada,” published audio excerpts from a few of his hundreds of lectures.
It is difficult to verify the authenticity of the excerpts and Riyadh ul-Haq himself has tried to explain three of the 1 1 in a lengthy interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
In the first excerpt, he appears to be extolling the virtues of martyrdom (shahadah) and calling for the liberation of Masjid Al-Aqsa. In another he bemoans the fact that Muslims are forbidden from using the “J” word and anyone who supports Muslims who engage in jihad, “their blood is made halal.” In a few of the clips there is no mistaking Riyadh ul-Haq’s admiration for the Taliban and his disdain for homosexuals.
In an excerpt, Riyadh ul-Haq cites a verse of the Qur’an that says “the most intense in their hatred and enmity toward the believers are (a/ yahoud wa-al-ladhina ashraku) the Jews and the idolaters.” There is no doubt that Riyadh ul-Haq is well aware of the social context in which the verse was re-vealed. Apparently ignoring that context, something the vast majority of traditional scholars will never do, he says “the chief idolaters in our times are none other than the Hindus.” Excerpts by their nature are misleading – whoever selects them gets to decide what conclusions they lead a person to make.
Riyadh ul-Haq’s most questionable comments are reserved for Jews. He seems to repeat conspiracy theories found in the imaginary “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” In another quote, he prays that God “expose the Jews for what they truly are and give all Muslims the understanding and the sense to see through their propaganda, their lies, and deceit and to view them as they really are and thus treat them accordingly.”
Perhaps in the actual lecture from which this excerpt is taken, he goes on to explain what he means by “treat them accordingly,” but since he hasn’t in the excerpt, people are left to imagine the worst. The excerpts on Judeoscope of Riyadh ul-Haq’s talks are certainly controversial, even inflammatory.
If these are the worst things he has said – and one has to assume they are since the person who put them together is not interested in making him look good in the public eye Riyadh ul-Haq is not inciting violence or hatred. If he was, that might have been sufficient grounds for Ottawa to deny him entry, even though his British citizenship does not require him to obtain a visa.
Newspapers quickly jumped all over Riyadh ul-Haq basing their reports on information obtained from Judeoscope. A coalition of Hindu, Jewish, and a “moderate” Muslim organization led by Tarek Fatah aggressively lobbied Ottawa to deny Riyadh ul-Haq entry to Canada on grounds that his views were unCanadian and detrimental to the mental health of Canada’s Muslim youth. Canadians were already tuned into the affairs of Muslim Canadians because 1 7 young Muslim men in Toronto had been arrested in June on terrorism related charges.
All of a sudden, leaders in the fairly large and influential Indo-Pakistani Canadian Muslim community, which admires Riyadh ul-Haq, went into damage control and made a desperate attempt to quell the storm that was starting to brew.
The Montreal conference organizers cancelled Riyadh ulHaq’s invitation to speak. A university in Ontario cancelled his speaking event as well citing a scheduling conflict. But the Islamic Foundation in Toronto stuck by its invitation. A prominent member of the federal parliament in the mosque’s district had endorsed Riyadh ul-Haq’s invitation and the mosque administration believed that it stood on a solid foundation.
Three days before his arrival, Air Canada allegedly issued an internal memo requesting that Riyadh ul-Haq obtain clearance from the Canadian High Commission in London before being allowed to board any of its flights to Canada. Riyadh ul-Haq, to his credit, met with officials at the High Commission in London, but details of their discussions have not been made public.
By this time it was evident that Riyadh ul-Haq was not going to attempt to enter Canada, although he did speak at the Toronto conference via a video-Internet hook-up.
I have met with my share of preachers who have incited hate and violence over the last several years. They range from the strident Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza to the crafty Sheikh Omar Bakri and the not-so-subtle Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican with a violent streak and once a teenage acquaintance of mine. El-Faisal is serving an eight-year sentence in the U.K. for preaching hate and inciting to violence. Two of the London suicide bombers last year were said to have been inspired by El-Faisal’s message of hate.
If any of these men ever tried to visit Canada, even so much as to pick strawberries, I could understand why Canadians would be alarmed. But Riyadh ul-Haq is not in their league. He is not a preacher of hate and certainly not a scholar who incites to violence. If so, he would have run afoul of his country’s judiciary a long time ago.
In December 2001, 1, like hundreds of other worshipers, crammed into the prayer hall at the Birmingham Central Mosque to listen to Riyadh ul-Haq deliver his Friday sermon. It was to be my first meeting with him. I was doing a radio documentary on “Divided Loyalties” – how British Muslims were attempting to reconcile their allegiance to faith with their obligations to citizenship. I wanted to interview Riyadh ul-Haq because I had heard he was openly condemning his country’s role in the “war on terror,” labeling it instead a “war on Muslims.”
I asked Riyadh ul-Haq to explain why he believed that the “war on terror” was a “war on Muslims.” Riyadh ul-Haq answered by referring to what he described as “the premeditated murder of Muslims in Srebrenica, a U.N. safe haven.” He listed a litany of grievances of Muslims at the hands of their enemies. “Terror,” he said, “is being practiced by Israel against the Palestinians, by India in Kashmir, by Russia in Chechnya, and now by America in Afghanistan.”
But clearly, I found myself saying, the United States was aggressed against when the USS Cole was attacked, when two American embassies in Africa were bombed, and with the attacks of 9/1 1, all of which were committed by people who took their orders from leaders residing in Afghanistan. He didn’t let me finish. “There is no evidence of this,” he said. “More evidence is required to prosecute a shoplifter than what has been offered by the Americans to start a war against the Taliban.” He said, “the Taliban acted honorably and yet the U.S. is bombing a Muslim country whose guilt is yet to be proven.”
It was clear to me that, despite the fact that he lived in the U.K. and evidently seemed comfortable at the time, Riyadh ul-Haq’s allegiance was with Mullah Omar and the Taliban, not with Tony Blair or the people who voted his Labor government into power. I pressed on. Is it a jihad in Afghanistan? I asked. “We totally agree with the Taliban that this is a jihad,” Riyadh ul-Haq said.
What obligation does this place on Muslims living in the United Kingdom, I asked. Riyadh ul-Haq said that even if an aggression was happening elsewhere, Muslims in the U.K. are obliged to stand up for truth and justice. “It is a principle of their faith (iman) to feel the pain and suffering of their brothers ‘as if they are a single body.’ ” He made it sound as if this was a legal principle, when in reality it is a spiritual state.
I prefaced my next question by telling him I had heard that many young British Muslims were going off to fight for the Taliban and AI-Qaeda against American and British troops in Afghanistan. I asked him whether he advocates this course of action.
“Muslims,” he said, “are allowed to protest, lobby, campaign, but they should not do anything that would endanger the lives of innocent people in Britain, nor should they do anything to create anarchy. They should act within the confines of the law.” He didn’t answer my question but his answer was important because he had made a clear distinction between what he considered to be “jihads” in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, or Gaza, and the limits of resistance at home in the U.K., and I assume, by extension, Canada and the United States.
This is a very important distinction and one that unfortunately gets lost in translation especially among Muslims who are born and raised in the West and who, it appears, are more determined now than ever to latch on to a foreign cause.
The experience of Riyadh ul-Haq is significant and it should be discussed. Words shape outlooks and inform the decisions people make in life and ultimately their actions. Those who are put in the privileged position of addressing Muslims must first recognize that they have been given an amanah (trust), and by taking it on, they should strike a fair balance between an already existing and instinctive allegiance to the cause of Muslims abroad, and the overriding obligations all Muslims have to citizenship at home.