In retrospect, it was inevitable.As a person's speaking engagements increase, and his audience becomes increasingly larger and more diverse, its only a matter of time before he begins to attract media publicity, positive and negative. And these days, being a national Muslim speaker is just asking for trouble. So I guess it was just my turn to be smeared and publically embarrassed. But I go ahead of myself…
Earlier this year, I had accepted an offer to speak at the Global Peace and Unity (GPU) event in London, England. This is the largest gathering of Muslims in the Western world. It attracts a large number of international speakers, politicians, and (for better or for worse) nasheed artists and comedians. I had been participating in the GPU since its inception four years ago (except for last year when it clashed with the Peace Conference sponsored by Dr. Zakir Naik in India). My ticket had been booked and my lecture prepared, when, just three days before my flight to London, I received a call from a rather frantic representative of Islam Channel, the sponsors of GPU. Apparently, certain elements in the media and the internet world were trying to prevent British politicians from participating by claiming that the entire conference was a cover-up for 'extremists'. Matters were getting tense, I was told, and a number of senior politicians had threatened to pull out, fearful of appearing on the same stage with 'radical' Muslims or associating with dubious figures. As she continued explaining the situation, I honestly wondered what this had to do with me. I have a very clear and public track record of preaching peaceful coexistence in our societies. I have always warned against extremist interpretations of the Qurʾān or Sunnah that lead to and justify acts of terrorism. I have on numerous occasions spoken out against those who kill innocents in the name of Islam. My stance is so well known that certain websites and internet blogs deem me to be an American sell-out because I do not agree with their overzealous and under-informed interpretation of our religion.
So what did all of this charge of 'radicalization' possibly have to do with me?
Well, it turns out that while certain other speakers who had been invited to the GPU were indeed accused of promoting or sympathizing with people or groups who allegedly had radical agendas (the new McCarthyism, if you ask me), and yet other speakers were accused of 'promoting wife-beating (!!), my charge appeared to be far more heinous and dastardly than that. Nothing to do with terrorism, mind you, and I honestly thank God for that (although I can't help but fear that its only a matter of time before one plus one is made to equal five for me as well). Nope, it wasn't terrorism that I was being accused of. “You've been accused of denying the Holocaust and being an anti-Semite,” I was told. Hence, in my case, apparently politicians felt that their appearance with me on stage might jeopardize their relations with their Jewish constituents.
I honestly could not help smile at this outlandish accusation. My specialty is Islamic theology, which I frequently teach. I also speak about Quranic exegesis, the life of the Prophet salla Allau alayhi wa sallam, the sciences of the Qurʾān, the explanation of the hadith traditions, and other such topics. I rarely get involved with Christian or Jewish polemics because I do not view it as being my area of expertise. In fact, out of the thousands of lectures and sermons that I have delivered, I do not recall ever delivering an entire talk about Christianity or Judaism. When I hardly mention these other faiths, how could I be accused of being an anti-Semite?
Apparently, this was a charge that was being spread by an obscure internet site, and which had then been taken up by other sites (including David Horowitz's Frontepage magazine), growing and magnifying along the way, until finally it reached the offices of British politicians, as an undeniable fact: 'Sheikh Yasir Qadhi was a Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic Hitler-sympathizing extremist fundamentalist radical Muslim preacher'.
Well, to make a long story short, I was asked by Islam Channel to write up a brief statement that could be passed along to these politicians in order to explain my stance on the matter. The other speakers who were smeared with different charges were asked to do likewise. Since the matter was so simple, I wrote up a few paragraphs, sent it in, and thought the matter was over.
But I am still new to the public limelight, and have to yet learn that a smear shall remain a smear regardless of how untrue it is, or how long you deny it, or how many times you attempt to clear your name. On the very day of GPU, Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Home Secretary of the British Parliament, gave a lecture in which he criticized the GPU, while speaking from their platform, for a number of reasons. Of them, of course, was that they had invited none other than yours truly, a 'Holcaust-denying anti-Semite'. (For those who are not from England, the 'Home Secretary' is one of most important positions in the British parliament; the Secretary is responsible for national security and other critical matters, similar to the 'Attorney General' in America. The 'Shadow Home Secretary', currently Dominic Grieve, is the second-in-charge and typically the one who takes over after the current Home Secretary leaves).
Perhaps I should have been honored that such a high-member of government actually verbalized my name (albeit pronounced incorrectly). Or then again, perhaps I should have been fuming that he had the audacity to accuse me of anything when, earlier on in the day, he had actually been sitting in the same room as me (the speaker's lounge), and thus could have easily chosen to ask me directly to confirm or deny the rumor, but instead chose to believe a radical website (Frontepage magazine) that itself had no direct knowledge and was hardly an honest or neutral source of information.
Instead, I was neither honored nor angry. Once again, I really couldn't help be bemused. Is he serious? Does he not realize how foolish this will make him look? How utterly desperate must he and his ilk be to try to create problems when there are none? Isn't his job as a true politician to try to solve problems rather than create them?
Well, it turned out that his tirade against me gave me material for another paragraph for my lecture later on in the day. His frenzied rant fitted in perfectly with the theme of my talk at the GPU, which centered around the rise of Islamophobia in Europe and the proper way to respond to it. Islamophobia is defined to be the illogical and irrational fear of Islam, and Dominic Grieve seemed to be a perfect example of it. Its as if he wanted the GPU speakers to all be extremist fanatics, to make a point that no matter how 'moderate' Muslims try to make themselves, they'll never be moderate enough for him and his party. (My talk was of course recorded and broadcast live on Islam Channel; hopefully it should be out on the internet soon). Well, of course he shot himself in the foot by showing the real problem is ignorance and bias on the side of politicians and the media; the real problem is the willingness, nay, the eagerness, to promote the stereotyping of 'the other' rather than engage in true and meaningful dialogue.
But what exactly was the basis of this nefarious charge against me? Quite simply, it was the result of a remark that was made in a lecture, in passing, almost a decade ago. The first time that I had ever been invited to England, I gave a series of lectures on the tafsir of Surah Yusuf. The Surah, of course, deals with the story of the Prophet Joseph, and its main theme is about patience and sincerity to Allāh. After delivering a series of lectures over a period of five or six days, in the last lecture, while trying to explain when and how the Jews finally returned to the 'Promised Land', I made some unfortunate comments that led to this charge. The comments were made in the context of the creation of the modern state of Israel. I claimed that Jews used the guilt of the Holocaust to extract from the UN the promise of a Jewish state, even though the Arabs from whom land was being taken had not been complicit in the crimes of the Nazis. I also said that Hitler never actually intended to massacre the Jews, he actually wanted to expel them to neighboring lands. I claimed that most European Jews (known as 'Ashkenazi') were in fact descendants of a non-Jewish race known as the Khazars. And, lastly, I claimed that Muslims need to study such topics, just like others study us – as an example, I said that a large percentage of 'Orientalists' were Jews, whereas no Judaic Studies professors were Muslims. All of this was done (believe it or not!) in the span of a few minutes.
Where did I get all of this information from? In the summer of 1999, someone had forwarded me a website of a group that called itself the 'Institute for Historical Review'. At the time, I found the articles on it quite fascinating; the pseudo-scientific style in which they wrote gave the impression that they were a serious academic research body. It was only later, after more research, that I realized that they were a front for a group of actual anti-Semites, and were the leading Holocaust-denial organization in the world. Remember that this was a pre-Google and Wikipedia era, and I was sitting on the internet in my apartment in Saudi Arabia, far away from academic institutes where I could have verified the real agenda of this group. So, unfortunately, my mind abuzz with articles from this site, and believing there was legitimate scholarly difference of opinion over such issues, I digressed to a topic that I had not actually intended to talk about and made some serious historical blunders.
I was a young, budding, twenty-something undergraduate at Madīnah when I gave that talk, during my very first cross-Atlantic da‘wah trip (I must have done over thirty by now). Its been almost a decade since that one-time mistake; I admit it was an error and an incorrect 'fact' was propagated. But even in that talk, I did not deny the actual occurrence of the Holocaust, or express any support or admiration for Hitler, or claim that all Jews were worthy of being despised or hated.
Just to clarify: I firmly believe that the Holocaust was one of the worst crimes against humanity that the 20th century has witnessed. Such a crime did not happen overnight, either. Rather, the systematic dehumanization of the Jews in the public eye of the Germans was a necessary precursor to this event. (As a side, all of this is food for thought, especially in the times that we live in, where some elements are trying to dehumanize all Muslims as well.) And while I as a Muslim believe that, on a theological level, the Jews are mistaken for having rejected the prophethood of Jesus and Muḥammad (as are Christians for rejecting the latter), I most certainly do not call others to despise them, support massacring them, or otherwise discriminate against them! In fact – and my students can attest to this – I have stated many times, and firmly believe, that Muslims in the West have a lot to learn from the experiences of Judaism. Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, are the closest religious group to Muslims in terms of practice and legal code. There's a lot to be gained from how they coped and survived in the Western environment.
To further clarify how my own views have changed since that talk, in that very talk I criticized the Western academic study of Islam (which I referred to by its antiquated name of 'Orientalism'). Yet here I am, many years later, proudly obtaining my PhD from Yale in Islamic Studies and seeing with my own eyes how incorrect I was. I honestly thank God for my time in Madīnah as I thank Him now for my time at Yale: both places have much to learn from, and I truly believe that a combination of East and West will help me be a stronger academic.
People change over time. Views develop, are modified, or discarded outright. Simplistic notions, especially those held in younger years, are typically shown to be stereotypical and false. And this is exactly what happened in this case as well, and I have no qualms admitting my mistakes, even as I criticize the exaggerated response it generated.
One final point of advice to speakers out there: realize that you never know when and how something you say may be used against you. When I gave that lecture, so many years ago, I was a completely unknown nobody. I honestly had no idea that one day I would be as recognized as I am today, so much so that the Shadow Home Secretary of the UK feels compelled to dissociate himself from the likes of me! I gave that lecture in a local masjid, to a small audience, and it was only recorded on audio cassette. To hear such material – a passing comment made so many years ago – exaggerated to the level that it has been, causing such a large scandal, is really quite amazing. I wonder how such people discovered my blunder. Did someone actually compile all of the thousands of hours of my recorded material, including these audio cassettes, and sift through it with a fine-toothed comb, or was it an accidental 'discovery'? And why did no one – and I mean no one - attempt to contact me to clarify my current stance? But all of these questions don't change the fact that the damage has been done, to my reputation before anyone else's. Bottom line: do your research before you speak, and be careful of what you say.
In conclusion, while deep down inside of me I would still like to hope that this charge will somehow miraculously be corrected, I realize that this is most likely just the beginning of many more false charges to come. If one chooses a life of public speaking and activism (as I have), then along with that comes public scrutiny and unwanted attention. And there will be those bigots who wish to provoke, who desire to stereotype, who need to accuse others, because it serves their own self-interests, promotes their own agendas, and inflates their own egos. Indeed, if the prophets of God themselves were charged with crimes, if their noble reputations were smeared, if their impeccable honor was attacked, then surely those who wish to follow in their footsteps and are far lesser than them must also face a portion of what they faced. So we must do what we physically can do, and then leave the rest to Allāh.
May Allāh bless us with the courage to speak the truth and correct our mistakes, regardless of the consequences. May He grant us the fortitude to overcome challenges, the patience to persevere in the face of problems, and the faith to nourish us through our difficult times. And, most important, may He be pleased with us even if all of mankind is displeased with us. Āmīn.
- Quilliam Foundation's Fear-Mongering “Alert” on Islam Channel (GPU, Yasir Qadhi, Bunglawala & Azad Ali)