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Oklahoma City University Professors Hope for An Increase In Interfaith Understanding

Oct 31, 2014

Today Imad Enchassi is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Oklahoma City University and the founder and Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City (ISGOC), but his childhood as a refugee compelled him to devote his life to helping other refugees and promoting understanding between people of different faiths.

“It's very easy to sit in our living rooms here in Oklahoma, in a perfectly air conditioned room in a perfect environment, safe and secure and advocate war,” Enchassi says. “When you're there and when you see someone missing a limb, when you see somebody missing their parents, when you see somebody have absolutely nothing, you empathize and you sympathize and you feel hopeless like you want to do something. War is not a pretty thing.”

One of Enchassi’s big projects is to make Oklahomans realize the people they see on the news aren’t really different from them. He specifically advocates for the similarities between Christianity and his own Muslim faith.

“I grew up in a refugee camp and those people who took care of me were Christians,” Enchassi says. “So, I found out what love is through the school that I was in.”

Although some of his greatest allies growing up were Christians, he found that there are violent members of every religion. At one point, a group of people came into the camp and butchered 1800 people while invoking Jesus’s name.

“Early on I realized that we could never generalize about others and I don't want anyone to generalize about our faith as well,” Enchassi says. “There are 1.7-1.8 billion Muslims, so there is not a monolithic community in Islam.”

Enchassi and his colleague at OKCU, Mohamed Daadaoui, consider the generalization and dehumanization of others to be a major stumbling block in the path towards Middle East peace. This is one of the many factors that, along with political instability and a corrupt government, led to the rise of ISIL.

“[The self-proclaimed] Islamic State has thrived in an environment in which there is a great sense of marginalization and alienation in the Middle East,” Daadauoi says. “I think Le Monde Diplomatique said, this is a majority Sunni that has a minority complex, so you live in a region and you think the majority are entitled to certain rights. Right or wrong of course, but they feel that they have been dispossessed of that.”

Daadaoui believes that the current actions being taken by the United States in the region have far reaching negative consequences.

“This latest war on terrorism, whatever we want to call it, 'Counter-terrorism campaign' is only going to embolden autocratic regimes to stifle dissent which will further shatter that identity that doesn't feel like the proper Islam is being worshipped, is being practiced in this region,” Daadaoui says.

This raises the question of what proper Islam really is.

“For us Muslims we have to get out of this mentality of trying to define the faith in terms of what it is not because it just takes a psychological toll, social toll at some point,” Daadaoui says. “At some point we would like to talk about what the religion is and I think the Imam is doing a wonderful job of it in the state.”

And what is it exactly is Islam all about according to Enchassi?

“In the Koran itself there is one passage after another about going beyond coexistence to love each other. One passage after another in the Koran asks us to outreach, but personally, the verse I always like to quote is, "repel evil with good, and repel hate with love." 

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Enchassi on the reality of refugees

Having lived in a refugee camp myself, personally, and from the family perspective, we appreciate everything we've got. At the same time, you feel to appreciate humanity, you feel to appreciate peace. You start abhorring war and violence. Its very easy to sit in our living rooms here in Oklahoma in a perfectly air conditioned room in a perfect environment, safe and secure and advocate war, But when you're there and when you see someone missing a limb, when you see somebody missing their parents, when you see somebody have absolutely nothing and you come back here and you communicate that to the community, war is not a pretty thing. Bombing is not a pretty thing. Being a refugee is not a pretty thing to look at. Maybe watching it on TV sounds interesting and fascinating for some people, but being in it and being with those refugees’ gives you a totally different perspective, so you advocate here. You come here and advocate peace; you advocate inter-faith because that's what got us here in the first place. The idea of the other and the idea of the unknown and the idea that if you're not with us, you're against us and the idea that people of other faiths are out there to kill us and so on. So you come here and advocate peace, tolerance and outreach.

Daadoui on ISIS and Middle East democracy

You see the nascent experiment of democracy, or democratic reform and you see Morocco as a stable country. You try to impart some of what you see in the region, but also try to answer some bigger questions about what political Islam is. What are the true goals of these groups? How did they emerge? ISIL is a terrorism barbaric, savage group, but it’s also a revolutionary movement from a political science standpoint. They are trying to establish a state.

Islamic State has thrived in an environment in which there is a great sense of marginalization and alienation in the Middle East. Especially in Iraq, in Syria, somebody phrased it this way, I forgot whom, I think Le Monde Diplomatique said, this is a majority Sunni that has a minority complex, so you live in a region and you think the majority are entitled to certain rights. Right or wrong of course, but they feel that they have been dispossessed of that. Of course we could blame different factors. Out of state interventionism in 2003, but that only tangentially, we could also blame of course the Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, how sectarian it was, how corrupt, cronyistic, all that. And all of that feeds into this narrative that in order to resurrect this global Uma-like Islamic identity, you have in a sense to the extent against these corrupt autocratic regimes.

Enchassi on the Qu'ran

In the Qu'ran itself there is one passage after another about going beyond coexistence to love each other. "We have created you from a single male and female," for instance is one passage, "and we made you into tribes and nations so you might get to know one another." One passage after another in the Qu'ran asks us to outreach, but personally, the verse I always like to quote is, "repel evil with good, and repel hate with love."

I often, in our interfaith gathering start my questions with "who is the most mentioned prophet in the Koran?" and everybody says Muhammad, It's not. It's Moses. "Who’s coming back towards the end of time?" and people say "Muhammad," false, its Jesus. "Who is the first lady of heaven?" and people say Sarah or Hagar, false, its Mary. Right there you've got a captivated audience to listen, what kind of religion is that?

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Imad Enchassi and Mohamed Daadaoui, welcome to World Views. Thank you for being here today.

ENCHASSI AND DAADAOUI: Thank you.

GRILLOT: So Imad, I'm going to start with some of your humanitarian work that you've been doing lately. We've been talking a lot about what's going on in Syria, the tremendous humanitarian concerns that we have about the country, not to mention Palestine which is a part of your background, but you've been traveling to the region unlike most who don't really want to travel there right now because they find it too dangerous. You've been traveling to help deliver aid and assistance. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're doing in the area and what has drawn you to do that?

ENCHASSI: Well I grew up in a refugee camp and there's a passion when you grow up in a refugee camp and you get the opportunity to migrate to the United States at age seventeen and all the opportunities are open for you. You go to school, you graduate, you do well and then you turn the TV set on and you see yet another crisis in the Middle East, yet more refugees are coming from Syria to all over the region and you empathize and you sympathize and you feel hopeless like you want to do something but what is it that you could do? So you raise money for humanitarian organizations and so on and so forth and then about three years ago I decided on my own to go to Lebanon, that's where my mother lives, and volunteer with Islamic relief and go to refugee camps. It was something that helped me cope, that helped me understand what's going on, that helped me actually look deep within me that I'm doing something positive for the community and I felt like I was in connection with my roots because my father was a refugee who actually lived in tents. I lived in a refugee camp but it as not necessarily tents. I took my children there. My wife was working, my daughter was working and we came back with a totally different perspective on things. It’s amazing when you lose every single thing that you have and you walk across the borders to find a safe haven and all of the sudden life as you knows it stops to exist.

GRILLOT: I too have visited a refugee camp and it was an amazing experience. In the northern part of Jordan, the Zaatari refugee area and all of the things that you said, the things that have drawn you there, the connections you have, the different perspective it leads to, how do you bring that different perspective back to Oklahoma City and share that experience that helps us enhance our understanding of what's going on in the region.

ENCHASSI: Well having lived in a refugee camp myself, personally, and from the family perspective, we appreciate everything we've got. At the same time, you feel to appreciate humanity, you feel to appreciate peace. You start abhorring war and violence. Its very easy to sit in our living rooms here in Oklahoma in a perfectly air conditioned room in a perfect environment, safe and secure and advocate war, But when you're there and when you see someone missing a limb, when you see somebody missing their parents, when you see somebody have absolutely nothing and you come back here and you communicate that to the community, war is not a pretty thing. Bombing is not a pretty thing. Being a refugee is not a pretty thing to look at. Maybe watching it on TV sounds interesting and fascinating for some people, but being in it and being with those refugees’ gives you a totally different perspective, so you advocate here. You come here and advocate peace; you advocate inter-faith because that's what got us here in the first place. The idea of the other and the idea of the unknown and the idea that if you're not with us, you're against us and the idea that people of other faiths are out there to kill us and so on. So you come here and advocate peace, tolerance and outreach.

GRILLOT: Well, Mohamed, I want to pick up on something Imad said when he said to help yet another crisis in the Middle East. You are from Morocco, you study and you teach about the Middle East at Oklahoma City University, so I would imagine that you too would have to deal with this, "yet another crisis in the Middle East" in the sense that you have to help your students and others in the community understand that prom a political and historical perspective. What can you add to that to help us understand that?

DAADAOUI: Well exactly, growing up in Morocco is radically different than the Middle East. It's a seemingly stable and peaceful country, but it also brings another dimension to the issue. As we talk about these extremist groups and their ability to recruit worldwide and become more of a globalized terrorist network, you see how those people especially in those countries that did not grow up in strife, in refugee camps, in areas of conflict, joining the ranks of these extremist groups because, I believe, the heart of it is an identity issue and they lack this true conviction in their beliefs because if you have belief in the religion of course and as it advocated and was revealed and so on, you don't resort to violence. It is a peaceful and humanistic religion at its core. So that's part also of the struggle when I go back to Morocco and go to Tunisia. You see the nascent experiment of democracy, or democratic reform and you see Morocco as a stable country. You try to bring back to the United States because we have a problem of course of recruitment here in the United States about 100 fighters or so that are fighting for ISIL right now. You try to impart some of what you see in the region, but also try to answer some bigger questions about what political Islam is. What are the true goals of these groups? How did they emerge? The idea here is always to place it in its proper context that at some point we have to deal in the Middle East with the Underlying causes and not just the symptoms. Radical Islamism is just a symptom of underlying deeper causes that have not been treated carefully so as a political scientist I try to stress that the political solutions, the political remedies as the Imam works in spiritual, religious remedies and questions, I work on political questions, for example, political reforms, democratization, openness and these are the things that are lacking and provide for that context for a sense of despair and hopelessness that people have and made them probably join these groups because I think ISIL, of course ISIL is a terrorism barbaric, savage group, but its also a revolutionary movement from a political science standpoint. They are trying to establish a state. The state would, of course, would have no basis in Islam, it is as I call it in my classes, "the un-Islamic state" not the "Islamic State" but we have to study it as a political phenomenon as well. Not forgetting about the roots of the problem, which are political and also sociocultural as well.

GRILLOT: So I want to pick up on something, and that is that at the heart of this issue in terms of the extremist groups becoming globalized and attracting and recruiting members from other parts of the world including here in the United States and in parts of Europe for example, that this is in part an issue of identity. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that and kind of connect it to the sense of despair that these individuals can perhaps sometimes experience that lead them down this path.

DAADAOUI: As I said, the Islamic State has thrived in an environment in which there is a great sense of marginalization and alienation in the Middle East. Especially in Iraq, in Syria, somebody phrased it this way, I forgot whom, I think Le Monde Diplomatique said, this is a majority Sunni that has a minority complex, so you live in a region and you think the majority are entitled to certain rights. Right or wrong of course, but they feel that they have been dispossessed of that. Of course we could blame different factors. Out of state interventionism in 2003, but that only tangentially, we could also blame of course the Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, how sectarian it was, how corrupt, cronyistic, all that. And all of that feeds into this narrative that in order to resurrect this global Uma-like Islamic identity, you have in a sense to the extent against these corrupt autocratic regimes. What we're doing right now, and maybe I'm jumping ahead, that is not going to help the causes but just deal with the symptom. The identity is broken in much of the Middle East. The average age there is 27 to 28, across the board, and I'm generalizing, but this is a youthful population, lacking hope, lacking job opportunities and ways to express and vent their disagreements with the government. This latest war on terrorism, whatever we want to call it, "Counter-terrorism campaign" is only going to embolden autocratic regimes to stifle dissent which will further shatter that identity that doesn't feel like the proper Islam is being worshipped, is being practiced in this region.

GRILLOT: Well speaking of the Islam that they practice, or that collectively people practice, let's talk about this issue of tolerance with the few minutes we have left. Imad, you said your experiences have led you to become an advocate for interfaith dialogue. I know you've been very active in that area in the region to enhance our understanding of what you call the unknown. Tell us about that process in terms of trying to enhance that sense of interfaith, working with other faith communities to increase tolerance of different religious beliefs.

ENCHASSI: In the Koran itself there is one passage after another about going beyond coexistence to love each other. "We have created you from a single male and female," for instance is one passage, "and we made you into tribes and nations so you might get to know one another." One passage after another in the Koran asks us to outreach, but personally, the verse I always like to quote is, "repel evil with good, and repel hate with love." At the same time, I grew up in a refugee camp and those people who took care of me were Christians. I grew up in Christian schools, I grew up with a Christian nun, her name is Miss Rahma, which is translated to Miss Mercy. So, I found out what love is through the school that I was in, so when an act of hatred perpetrated by those who claimed to be coreligionists to the nuns came into my refugee camp came in and butchered 1800 people, they invoked the same name as the nun that fed me invoked Jesus' name as she fed me and those people who perpetrated the act of killing 1800 people also invoked Jesus' name as they killed the people. The Red Cross rescued me, so early on I realized that we could never generalize about others and I don't want anyone to generalize about our faith as well. There are 1.7-1.8 billion Muslims, there is not a monolithic community in Islam and the act of love that I received helped me to be a person that outreached to others.

DAADAOUI: I think the Imam is being a little bit modest about his achievement, but he has been a major force in the state in terms of inter-faith and that's what we're trying to do sometimes at OCU and in the community at large is bring scholars, bring people from different faiths in order to talk about their own faiths and engage in a dialogue and communicate what the faith is and what the faith is not. For us Muslims we have to get out of this mentality of trying to define the faith in terms of what it is not because it just takes a psychological toll, social toll at some point. At some point we would like to talk about what the religion is and I think the Imam is doing a wonderful job of it in the state.

ENCHASSI: I often, in our interfaith gathering start my questions with "who is the most mentioned prophet in the Koran?" and everybody says Muhammad, It's not. It's Moses. "Who’s coming back towards the end of time?" and people say "Muhammad," false, its Jesus. "Who is the first lady of heaven?" and people say Sarah or Hagar, false, its Mary. Right there you've got a captivated audience to listen, what kind of religion is that?

GRILLOT: Well thank you both so much, these are such important topics and the way in which we come together on these issues is really critical. So, thank you so much, both of you for being here today,

ENCHASSI and DAADAUOI: Thank you for having us.

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