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Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan: The impact on American Muslims

Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan is executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in New York, and is director of Interfaith Affairs and Communications at the Islamic Center of Long Island, Westbury, NY. He joined the chat room from Long Island.

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CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan, and welcome. What can we do to combat hate crimes stemming from the terrorist attack?

AL-HAAJ GHAZI KHANKAN: I think the administration, President Bush, Mr. Ashcroft, Mayor Guiliani, Gov. George Pataki of New York, the Senate, the Congress did put out statements that are positive, rejecting the assumption or the association of Islam, and Muslims and Arab-Americans, with Islamic terrorism or Arab terrorism, as they did call upon Americans to refrain from [making] such association. And I would urge our Congress representatives and senators who do send out to their constituencies a monthly news letter, to include in it the Senate resolution and the House of Representatives resolution, and urge their constituents to be sensitive to their Muslim and/or Arab neighbors, simply because terrorism has no religion or nationality. Terrorism is terrorism. And no religion, including Islam, condones, or supports, or preaches any kind of violence, especially something like the terroristic attacks on September 11.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any concrete plans to educate the general public regarding Islam?

KHANKAN: Indeed, we have began mosque open house programs, inviting local officials, neighbors and any person who is sincerely interested in learning more about his Muslim or Arab-American neighbors to come and meet face to face and to ask questions. This Sunday, for example, the Islamic Center of Long Island in New York and many other mosques across the nation are doing just that, because we feel that there is a wall of ignorance that we both need to bring down. And of course, programs like "Talkback Live," on which I appeared, and with Peter Jennings, the Washington Post chat room and now yours, are very, very important for us to reach out to.

As a young community in America, we do not have the mass media facilities that have been available for other communities, and indeed I am grateful and appreciative of this opportunity you have offered me. And I hope you will continue offering it, not only during crises but during normal times so that we can have better understanding of Islamic civilization and the Islamic way of life, which was unfortunately not represented in the American social studies courses when you and I were in high school or elementary school. That needs to be changed. And that is really one of the root causes of this wall of ignorance, that this great civilization and its many contributions to humanity are not offered as part of the educational system in America as they should be. As they ought to be.

CNN: Do you feel that law enforcement is adequately responding to incidents of antagonism and crimes against Muslim Americans?

KHANKAN: Yes, indeed. Locally in Long Island, both the Nassau and Suffolk counties' vice crime bureaus of the police department have been very cooperative in reporting and prosecuting those who did such crimes. And I must also say that the FBI had called me and introduced themselves as they are in charge of the civil rights and human rights. They are ready to cooperate with us as soon as we get any hint of such crimes, to let them know. And in fact the district attorney of Nassau County, Long Island, Dennis Dillon, is coming to speak at the open house that we have locally organized in Westbury at the Islamic Center of Long Island.

CNN: Are Muslim-American businesses suffering in the wake of this tragedy?

KHANKAN: Yes, we have heard the reports. There is an Islamic chamber of commerce situated near the grounds of the World Trade Center. It had to close because of the tragedy, which of course we have condemned strongly, and we have sent out also our heartfelt condolences to the families of those who died, and those who disappeared, and who got injured. And we know there were many, 800 or 1000, Muslim Americans and Arab Americans who worked in the Trade Center

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that American Muslims should show their loyalty for America?

KHANKAN: Obviously, we don't have to show it... we feel it and practice it, so much so that I was even born on the 4th of July, which is a fact. See, some unfortunately think that Muslim-Americans are a foreign entity and that they are the "real McCoys." My answer to those who think so is, could they tell me where were Judaism and Christianity revealed in Washington? Or in New York? Or Paris? Or London? The three monotheistic religions sprung from the same area of the Middle East.

The only "real" natives are the Indians. And we are all hyphenated-Americans. I would like to add that probably we came on different ships but we are now all in the boat. I hope that we shall be able to row together this boat and arrive at the shore of safety rather than think of each other as "we" and "they." We are all one. They might have come earlier than we did but now we are all together.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are the formal Muslim beliefs on murder and those who commit it?

KHANKAN: Al-Islaam, the religion, bases its beliefs on Al-Quraan. This holy book contains the exact words of God Almighty, whose Arabic name is Allah. Muslims believe in one God. We bear witness that there is only one God. That prophet Muhammad is the last divinely chosen Prophet and Messenger of God. That Prophet Abraham is the friend of God, that Prophet Moses has been spoken to directly by God, and that Jesus, Son of the Virgin Mary by the will of God, is from the Spirit of God. That is the basic concept of the teaching of Al-Islaam.

So in this holy book, we know that God Almighty told us, or ordered us, and we quote, "do not kill the life that Allah made sacred." And "if one kills one soul, it is as if one killed humanity." And "if one saves one soul, it is as if one saved humanity." In fact, suicide, if done in this horrible, terroristic attack, is a sinful act. The perpetrators will be punished for their sins on the day of judgement and those who kill innocent human beings without due process, will also be punished on the day of judgement.

In other words, suicide and killing is an un-Islamic act, considered a sin. Unfortunately, many writers and members of the media always equate a very important aspect in Al-Islaam called "jihad" -- [which they] mistranslate -- to an Islamic holy war. This is not true. This often misunderstood and overused term "jihad" literally means "to struggle and to strive." On a personal level, to struggle against evil within one's self, to struggle for decency and goodness on the social level.

The fact that I am explaining to you what jihad is, is part of my jihad. This is called the bigger jihad. There is also a smaller jihad and that smaller jihad is to struggle on the battlefield if and when attacked. So jihad is a defensive act to protect one's self from others. Al-Quraan says -- God Almighty saying -- "fight only those who fight you, and those who drive you out of your homes, and fight those [who] prevent you from performing your religious duties. But do not transgress, for Allah does not love the transgressors." One example, the most difficult jihad, in my opinion, is to raise good children in New York.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

KHANKAN: Of course, we as a community are concerned with the many who lost their lives -- or who were really killed -- in this tragic terroristic act. And I would like to ask the community if anyone knows of names who have disappeared in this tragic attack to please let us know by calling 1 800 87-ISLAM. It is important to know also who is being harassed and who is being mistreated so we can come to their aid. Because the Council on American-Islamic Relations exists to come to the support of Muslims' and Arab-Americans' civil rights and human rights if and when these are abused.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

KHANKAN: It is my pleasure.

Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Thursday, September 20, 2001.

• Council on American-Islamic Relations
• Al-Haaj Ghazi Y. Khankan biography
• Islamic Society of North America
• American Liberty Partnership

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