Muslims say 'not my faith' to ISIS attacks

Tue, Jan 12th 2016 03:00 pm
Staff Reporter
Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa explains the meaning of a script from the Holy Quran that hangs in the family home to her son Akram Shibly and Father Francis X. Mazur. (Patrick J. Buechi/WNYC Staff)
Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa explains the meaning of a script from the Holy Quran that hangs in the family home to her son Akram Shibly and Father Francis X. Mazur. (Patrick J. Buechi/WNYC Staff)

Members of the Buffalo Muslim community want the public to know that recent attacks at Paris and San Bernardino, attributed to ISIS, run counter to the true foundation of the Muslim faith.

"Terrorism has no faith," said Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, an orthodontist and Muslim scholar, who has led talks on Islam throughout Western New York.

"Salam means peace. It is a religion of peace," said Father Francis X. Mazur, ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. "The radicals think, 'Well, we're going to bring peace about in our own lives by violence,' which is contrary to all the teachings of Islam. It's against the sacred Scriptures, the Quran, and it's even against what the prophet Muhammad spoke about."

Tabbaa, born in Damascus, has lived in the United States for 25 years. She has been accused on the street of being a terrorist even before the 9/11 attacks. She makes her views clear.

"Not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslims."

During an interview in her home, she pointed to the Ku Klux Klan, who swore to uphold American and Christian morality, but is considered an anti-black vigilante group. In between the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs left three people dead and nine injured. The suspect is said to be an evangelistic Christian.
Akram Shibly, Tabbaa's 24-year-old filmmaker son, has a theory that terrorists hide behind religion because human nature wants to relieve the feeling of guilt.

"Human beings try to justify those horrible deeds in whatever way they possibly can," he said. "Our faith is very firm against killing innocents, but for those who want power and want to kill innocents to gain power, they will manipulate the faith to justify their actions and free themselves from guilt."

The family distances themselves from anybody that uses their religion as an excuse to kill.

"The moment someone commits a crime like that, which isn't found anywhere in Islam in those circumstances, just out of violence, you are not a Muslim anymore," said Serene Shibly, 13, Tabbaa's daughter. "Islam promotes peace and love and harmony. (Violence) is not Muslim, just like the KKK stuff. That's not Christianity."

Akram Shibly feels a sense of disappointment when attacks are discovered to perpetrated by people or groups claiming to be Muslim.

"Why does anybody do something so vile? We can go around in circles all day trying to explain, trying to rationalize. At the end of the day, there are criminals who have fallen off the radar of human compassion. We should view them as we view others. I can't explain to you why the people in San Bernardino did what they did. All I can say is that they are horrible people, horrible criminals. I'm disappointed that someone can take something so beautiful like Christianity, like Islam, and use that to do something so horrific."

Tabbaa sums up her views of the killings succinctly.

"Not in the name of my religion."

Islam has no central leader, like a pope. Muslims follow the direction of scholars and imams (community leaders). Muslims feel that text from the Quran cannot be isolated or even properly translated except by those scholars with a strong knowledge of the Arabic language, which can easily be misinterpreted. Without a central leader, Muslims rely on scholars to interpret the holy words from the prophet Muhammad. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaida have taken passages out of context to create their message. More than 120 Islamic scholars signed an open letter to the leader of ISIS, condemning the group's actions.

"Muslims are fed up with being a political talking point," said Akram Shibly. "When we're talking about terrorism, let's just talk about terrorism. Let's not associate it with any larger group of people or faith. Let's take the word Muslim and the word Islam out of ISIS and talk about the terror that these groups are perpetuating. Only then can we start to unearth the true root cause of these problems, which is not Islam, but poverty, you have power vacuums in the Middle East. We've disposed dictators and we've left these countries without a stable foundation to keep things together."

He continued, trying to answer the big question of why something like this happens.

"I think what we have here is a perpetuation of the cycle of hate that started not in our lifetime," he said. "We're starting our third world war now. This is the third iteration of a world conflict where we're senselessly bombing one another. I think that created a lot of power vacuums in the Middle East. So, people will use what people love and adhere to the most - their faith - in order to gain power and tip the scales in their radical favor."

The Shibly family has received their share of negativity. Serene and her mother get stares as they walk in public wearing traditional hajib headscarves. In Ireland, someone told Serene, "You should get killed, ugly women."

"I don't know what offended me more, being told I should be killed or being called ugly," she said.

Akram takes a pro-active approach on the subject of his faith.

"I don't wait to hear that garbage," he said. "I'm a filmmaker. I'll make a film to counter this before people can ask what's going on. My philosophy is take the first step. Don't wait for the hate rhetoric to come to you, present the love rhetoric first. It is often hard for him to explain his faith. On the Internet, people assume because he is a Muslim, he is a liar.

"I like to show my Muslim character by my actions, through my behavior, through my speech. I don't think it is necessary to preface everything I do by saying I am a Muslim. I want to be known as a human being, like everybody else."

Recently, presidential hopeful Donald Trump suggested putting a stop to Muslim immigrants coming into the U.S. Akram thinks Trump is aiding the radical cause "110 percent."

"Nobody could have helped ISIS more than Donald Trump by saying what he said," Akram said. "ISIS from the beginning has been trying to say the West and the Muslim world are incompatible. Here we have a figure giving a platform to anti-Muslim speech in the West, basically verifying their claim, giving fuel to their flame, motivating young people who have a lost sense of identity. 'Should I ally myself with the west and peace-loving people or with ISIS? Now they feel they don't have a place in America."

Father Mazur believes that refugees add to the quality of life of a community.

"They come, they understand what freedom is immediately, that they are free to worship, they're free to get a job," Father Mazur said. "This is a fact that 45 percent of Syrian refugees coming to the United States have college degrees. That's a big plus. Others are crafts people - woodworkers, furniture makers. They come and take some technical jobs that we have lost here in this country. So, they fit in very well. It's a known fact that they do not rely upon the Social Service system. They don't want that. They want to make it on their own."

As a Muslim in America, Tabbaa feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. "ISIS think we're infidels. Non-believers think we're ISIS."  

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