Recently a Tulsan who is a member of one of our city's evangelical megachurches wrote a guest editorial condemning abortion-clinic bombers and others who call themselves Christians and commit violent acts in the name of Christ.
A couple of Sundays after his article appeared in the newspaper, his pastor and the chairman of the board of deacons confronted him in the sanctuary after the Sunday morning service, calling him "anti-Christian," while several other church members circled around in a menacing way.
A couple of days later, he received word that he was not welcome to return to the church until he apologized during a church service for writing bad things about Christians. There was talk of filing a restraining order to keep him away.
That didn't actually happen, but if it had happened, what would you conclude about that church and its leadership?
Something very much like that did happen, and the story has received national attention, but it didn't involve a Christian and an evangelical church.
The incident involved a Muslim and the local mosque, and while the story confirms the good opinion I have of the individual Muslims I've known and worked with, it has caused me to reevaluate what I thought I knew about Islamic organizations in Tulsa.
The al-Salam mosque (salam is the Arabic word for "peace") is operated by the Islamic Society of Tulsa (IST), which also runs Peace Academy, a private school which shares the old Stevenson Elementary School campus with the mosque, and a small mosque located on the University of Tulsa campus.
At the center of the story is Jamal Miftah, who emigrated from Pakistan in 2003 with his wife and four children. As a devout Muslim, he was incensed by the violent reaction of some Muslims to the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed which appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. He began to write an article about it, but the demands of his job didn't allow him time to finish it.
But Miftah took up the pen again after seeing a videotaped speech in late September of this year by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second in command of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terrorist movement.
Zawahiri's arrogance, defending terrorism while "portraying himself as a champion of Islam," incensed Miftah, and he submitted a "reader's forum" article which appeared in the Oct. 29 edition of the Tulsa World.
(Editor's Note: Since you probably didn't see it in the daily, we have reprinted Miftah's letter in this edition. See Page .)
Rather than blaming western critics for their negative portrayal of Islam, Miftah blamed Zawahiri and his ilk for causing the West to associate terrorism and Islam. He called on Muslim youth and Muslim clerics to "help the civilized world to bring these culprits to justice and prove that Islam is not a religion of hatred and aggression."
What seemed to cause the most controversy was this statement: "Even mosques and Islamic institutions in the U.S. and around the world have become tools in [terrorists'] hands and are used for collecting funds for their criminal acts."
Miftah was not condemning all mosques, but was referring, for example, to Brooklyn's al-Farooq mosque, which had been an incubator for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and to a mosque in Bridgeview, Illinois, which had been investigated for funneling money to terrorist organizations.
On Nov. 18, Miftah was attending prayers at the mosque. After prayers, Miftah says he was chatting with friends when he was confronted by the imam (prayer leader) of the mosque, Ahmad Kabbani.
Kabbani told Miftah that he should be ashamed of himself for writing the article, saying bad things about Muslims in front of non-Muslims. After Kabbani called Miftah "anti-Islamic," Miftah walked away from the confrontation into the corridor.
There Miftah says he was confronted by the president of the mosque's operating council, Houssam Elsoueissi (also known as Abu Waleed). In a loud voice, Elsoueissi called Miftah "anti-Muslim" and a "traitor" for writing against Muslim organizations.
Miftah defended the accuracy of his article. During the confrontation, 10 to 15 Arab men gathered around in a threatening way, some of them waving shoes and cursing him. A friend of Miftah's stepped in and rescued him from the confrontation.
Miftah says there are witnesses and security cameras that will corroborate his version of events.
In our conversation last week, Miftah explained that there is an implied threat in the label "anti-Muslim." In some parts of the Muslim world, apostates, those who abandon Islam, are deemed worthy to be put to death.
(In March, Abdul Rahman, an Afghan citizen who converted from Islam to Christianity, was prosecuted for apostasy, a crime with a penalty of hanging. Several Islamic organizations in the U.S. condemned the prosecution, and Rahman was released and left Afghanistan. There are also many untold accounts of Christians in Moslem-ruled countries being persecuted, tortured and put to death for their faith.)
Miftah told me he was shocked by the incident. "At least here, I thought there would be more appreciation from the mosque and IST; that at least some member is taking the pain of doing some research and writing... On the contrary it was a totally different reaction." He says that friends of his who are long-time contributing members of IST were just as shocked.
It was from one of those friends' homes that he called Tulsa police and filed a report.
The next day at the mosque, Elsoueissi told one of Miftah's friends that he had obtained a restraining order prohibiting Miftah from returning to the mosque unless he were to apologize in front of Friday congregation.
Miftah says he was told that on Nov. 20, after the final prayer service of the day, Elsouessi discussed Miftah's article, which he said contained "anti-Islamic things."
Elsouessi announced to the assembled faithful that there was a restraining order against Miftah and anyone who saw him in the mosque should call the police.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, KOTV aired an interview with Miftah, in which he told the same story you just read.
The same story ran later on KWTV in Oklahoma City. The station posted the video at newsok.com, the website KWTV shares with the Daily Oklahoman.
Following the taped story, KWTV anchor Amy McRee said, "And we spoke with one of the leaders of the mosque. He told us Miftah was being loud in the prayer hall and that is why he was asked to leave. He also said Miftah can come back to the mosque, if he apologizes."
The video gained the attention of several bloggers in other parts of the US. (It was a California-based blogger who let me know about the situation a couple of days later.)
Over the next week, dozens of blogs picked up the story, including two which are widely read for their coverage of the global Islamofascist movement, littlegreenfootballs.com and jihadwatch.com. Neil Boortz read Miftah's op-ed on his nationally syndicated radio program. Eteraz.org, a progressive Islamic blog and web community, posted an interview with him.
Finally, on Wed., Nov. 29, the mosque's governing board decided to lift the ban on Miftah, as long as there was no disturbance. Miftah only learned of the decision when he saw it in an article in the Fri., Dec. 1, daily paper.
Miftah says he can't guarantee that there will be no disturbance, because it isn't up to him--the previous disturbance was caused by the mosque's imam and council president angrily confronting him.
Before he would be willing to return, he wants mosque leaders to make three public statements: that he is not anti-Muslim, that he didn't cause any disturbance, and that no one can stop any Muslim from coming to pray at the mosque.
While Miftah waits for an apology, the story continues to gain attention. Last Friday, he was interviewed on Fox News' "Hannity and Colmes."
You might think this is just an internal mosque dispute, and it shouldn't be of concern to outsiders. But the incident ought to make us wonder if our assumptions about the nature of local Islamic institutions are in line with reality.
Over the years, I've known, studied with, and worked with a number of Muslims. They came to the U.S. from places like Pakistan, Jordan, Malaysia, Iran, and Lebanon. They came to the U.S. for educational and career opportunities. They love this country, and they appreciate the freedom and prosperity they enjoy here.
While they continue to worship and live and raise their children in the Islamic faith in which they were raised, these immigrants are happy to live in a country where there are no religious policemen, where they can live out their Islamic faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, not the dictates of some mullah. For these immigrants, Islam is the way they worship God and the way they serve others, not a system of government to be imposed upon everyone at the point of a sword.
Jamal Miftah seems to be that same sort of Muslim, the sort that, in my experience, has been typical of Tulsa. While big-city mosques may become gathering places for disaffected young men who see America as the great Satan, surely that can't be happening here in the Heartland of America, can it?
The way Jamal Miftah was treated by mosque leadership makes me wonder. And Miftah told me something else that amplifies my uneasy feeling.
In July, shortly after Israeli troops went into Lebanon following the kidnapping of two soldiers, he was at a special prayer service, part of a series called "Know Your Muslim Neighbor," sponsored by the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance.
During prayers, Nuredin Giayash, principal of Peace Academy, began a prayer called Dua-e-Qunut, a prayer for the deliverance of Muslims from their adversaries. According to Miftah, he followed the set prayer with prayers (in Arabic) for the destruction of Christians and Jews.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri.org) has documented how some leaders in the Middle East will speak peace and tolerance in English while spewing hatred for the West in Arabic. It's stunning to think that the same thing may be happening here.
I have heard that the moderate approach to Islam that characterized Muslim immigrants to America in the past is being displaced by a wave of money from the government of Saudi Arabia in support of a once-obscure jihadist sect known as Wahhabism or Salafism. That money has been used to build mosques and schools and to distribute hate-filled anti-Western literature. The extent to which this movement has affected Islamic organizations in Tulsa deserves further research.
If nothing else, this incident should make non-Muslims realize how little we know. I invite Muslim Tulsans-- whether you are a leader in the mosque, a contented member, or a discontented member--contact me at email@example.com and let me know your thoughts on this incident and your insights into the internal dynamics of our local Islamic community.
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