More than 200 Muslims, including dozens of American imams and scholars, have issued a joint statement condemning the attacks on a gay night club in Orlando on Sunday that killed 49 people.
The motives of Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard accused of the massacre, are unclear. But authorities say he was radicalized online and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before he was killed by police early Sunday morning.
The attack again put American Muslims on the defensive, just days after they had mourned the passing and celebrated the life of Muhammad Ali, the charismatic boxer who, many hoped, had definitively answered the question of whether Muslim-Americans can successfully embrace multiple identities.
In their statement, the Muslim scholars, imams and community leaders, most from the United States, said Ali, not ISIS, embodies the values of their faith. They also decry the concept of “collective guilt” that holds all Muslims responsible for terrorist attacks, and warn against simplistic philosophies that pit Americans and Muslims against each other:
“We will not allow the extremists to define us, mold us in their benighted image, or sow the seeds of discord among us. We are one people, so let us all in good conscience and human solidarity reject this extremist narrative and assert our shared humanity and mutual respect for the sanctity of all human life.”
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, one of the statement’s co-writers, spoke to CNN about what such statements accomplish, Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, and Islamic views on homosexuality. Yusuf is president of Zaytuna College in California and one of the world’s most respected Muslim scholars.
Q: There have been many statements from Muslims condemning terrorism. Why issue another one?
A: Muslims are constantly being accused of not condemning these types of attacks, even though I don’t have any control over what other people do, and they don’t represent me or my faith.
Nobody associates all Seventh-day Adventists with David Koresh, who belonged to a splinter sect, or all of Judaism with Meir Kahane. But when these things happen, the whole religion of Islam is besmirched. We’re trapped in this constant cycle of: events, condemnation; events, condemnation. And then people still say, “Why don’t Muslims condemn these things?”
Q: What do you make of Donald Trump’s speech about Islam and terrorism on Monday?
A: He’s playing a dangerous game, and a lot of lives are threatened by that type of saber-rattling. We’re in an extremely volatile situation and social media has introduced an unprecedented element that we don’t fully understand.
Q: Trump and President Obama are arguing over whether to label attacks like the Orlando shooting “radical Islam.”
A: When a man wrote a political screed against the IRS and flew into its building, he was deemed mentally ill, even though it was clearly a political act. There’s a double standard, which is: If his name is Muhammad, it’s automatically terrorism.
This man (Omar Mateen) wasn’t a radical Islamist. To drink or go to gay bars, or any kind of bar, is prohibited in Islam. He seemed to be a nominal Muslim. He went to mosques on occasion but I don’t see a lot of devotion there.
Q: What about the gay community and gay Muslims who may feel ostracized from mainstream Islam?
A: As we say in the Orlando statement, we are committed to Abrahamic morality, but it should not to be imposed on others. America is about choices, including those to live certain lifestyles. There’s a statement in the Quran: There should be “absolutely no compulsion in religion.”
Q: What about gay Muslims, though?
A: Look, I don’t have the power to issue papal decrees. We don’t have that type of structure in our tradition. But I have studied the tradition, and the vast majority of Muslims would never accept the lawfulness of an active homosexual lifestyle. I don’t see that happening. But there is also no authority in the tradition for any individual to take things into his own hands and impose their version of the religion on someone else.
Q: Why can’t Muslim teachings on homosexuality change? Is it because the Quran, which is considered the inerrant word of God, condemns it?
A: The Quran is pretty explicit in its condemnation of the act, and we have a long tradition of jurisprudence that defines it as unlawful. But there were also fatwas permitting people who had those attractions to relieve themselves so they wouldn’t fall into active engagement. There’s an awareness that this is a real human urge.
I definitely have sympathy for people who are struggling. I’ve met with young Muslims who have told me about their struggles. But I’m not sure they want our sympathies; they want full recognition of their lifestyle, and my religion tells me that I can’t accept that. But I can’t – and won’t – impose my beliefs on others, either verbally or otherwise. I’m not going to judge people.
Q: What do you say when gay Muslims tell you about their struggles?
A: I say that I’m not going to deny your experience but my recommendation is not to actively engage in behavior outside of what is permitted in the religion. I know that people can live celibate lives, I did it myself for many years.
Q: The punishment for homosexuality in some schools of Islamic jurisprudence can be quite harsh.
A: There’s no specific punishment in the books of fiqh (Islamic laws) that relate to homosexuality per se. They apply to any illicit sexual relations, including prohibited heterosexual acts like adultery. And the punishments are strong, but they are legal fictions because they are impossible to prove. You need four witnesses to say they witnessed (sexual) penetration. In what circumstances are you going to find someone to testify to that?
Q: A lot of Muslims have lamented that the feelings of goodwill after Muhammad Ali’s funeral quickly dissipated after the Orlando shooting. You were at Ali’s memorial. What was that like?
A: Dr. Sherman Jackson said it best: Muhammad Ali put an end to the idea that you can’t be an American and a Muslim. We were all feeling that last week. The memorial was all planned by Muhammad Ali himself, and I was impressed by how much his faith was highlighted, even by people of other traditions. The spirit of love that embodied the city of Louisville for two days was overwhelming. Everyone was smiling and hugging. It felt like such a breakthrough for our community … and then, Orlando. We went from the incredible pathos of joy to the bathos of despair. It’s one step forward, two steps back.