‘Islamophobia’ tackled at collaborative event

Omid Safi spoke at Laurier on the marginalization of Muslims (Photo by: Will Huang)
Omid Safi spoke at Laurier on the marginalization of Muslims (Photo by: Will Huang)

The American empire is in decline and in denial, and Muslims are experiencing its wrath, according to Omid Safi.

He also believes it’s time to fight back – with love, justice and education.

Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He spoke to an audience of students, academics and community members at Wilfrid Laurier University on Monday on the topic of “Islamophobia, justice and pluralism.”

Safi focused part of his lecture on the way in which American society, through a fear of the other, has increasingly marginalized Muslims and the impact it has had on how Islamic populations define themselves within the country.

“None of us are in the business of humanizing ourselves,” he said, on the ways in which Muslims have been made to defend themselves in society. He noted the starting point of change, not the end goal, should be the recognition of a common humanity.

Safi identified the changing of logos of various Islamic associations to incorporate the American flag after 9/11 as an example of Muslims having to demonstrate their ability to be patriotic alongside their faith.

While much of the focus academically and in community circles has been on educating about Islam to diminish ignorance and fear, this is only one part of how people should be responding to the oppressive system, Safi asserted.

“That work is necessary and that work is important … but educating people about Islam is not the final remedy,” Safi said.

Safi drew on the “indefinite detention” of Muslim males without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay and excessive military spending as examples of problems that are not being confronted by American citizens.

“That inability, unwillingness or refusal to challenge a racist system is something we have to confront,” he added.

The event, which was hosted in the Maureen Forrester Hall, was sponsored by the faculty of arts and the Muslim studies option, with the Ismaili Council for Ontario.

While the event drew a large crowd, it was not without controversy that the decision was made to bring Safi to give his lecture at Laurier.

According to Ali Zaidi, the co-coordinator of the Muslim studies option and one of the event organizers, Safi’s progressive views on issues like gay rights are viewed by some as contradictory to traditional Islamic views.

“I think there were people who did not come to the event yesterday, who boycotted it,” he said.

Safi, however, was seen as a figure whose views on social justice issues would appeal to a broad group and who would be able to connect with both academics and community members.

Zaidi continued, “I think this is a work in progress and probably there are some legitimate criticisms that some people will make. We are not going to ignore those criticisms. At the same time, we have to be aware of the academic setting … and the secular institution which we’re working in.”

In spite of the challenges of bringing in a controversial speaker and coordinating engagement with both the academic and broader community, Zaidi felt that the event went well.

“I am overall delighted at this first initiative and endeavour that we’ve taken,” he said.

The lecture was followed by a brief question and answer period. One question was posed from an audience member on how the “disease” of a fear of the other can be overcome.

For Safi, it’s about connecting through a basic message: love for your children.

“These are universals that I see: everybody loves their babies,” he said.

“All I want us to do is connect our love for our kids to the love other people have for their kids.”

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