Last fall, when Rev. John Miller, co-Pastor of Rye Presbyterian Church began to think about hosting a session that would bring clarity to the subject of Islam to his congregation and the Rye community, it may have seemed like a challenging task. And that was before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, increased ISIS executions, Houthi victories in Yemen, Boko Harem’s expansion in Africa, and the recent killings of three Islamic students in North Carolina. Miller and the Church’s Adult Education committee remained undaunted.
On February 12, Rev. Miller and moderator Bob Steed, along with 120 attendees packed into the church’s Westminster Room, welcomed Imams Shamsi Ali and Ibrahim Sayer. The session was called “ISLAM, ISIS, and US”.
Shamsi Ali, who is from Indonesia, is Chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria, Queens; Ibrahim Sayer, from Turkey, is President of the North East Islamic Community Center’s Manhattan office. Both men represent the Sunni Islamic practice.
It was Imam Sayer’s task to try to explain the historical framework beneath the current hostilities in the Islamic world. The Imam helped set the stage for the main discussion by pointing out a number of important historical developments:
• The rift between Sunnis and Shiites after Muhammed’s death in the 7th century;
• The rise of radical Wahhabism and its expansion in Saudi Arabia after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and immense new Mideast oil wealth;
• The branding as “infidels” of Shiites and other Muslims not practicing the strict Wahhha bi form of Islam: one ruler, one authority, one mosque;
• How ISIS, Al Queda, and other terrorist groups foster the most extreme examples of Wahhabism
Imam Shamsi Ali then took up the conversation, stating that strict Wahhabis and groups like ISIS consider both he and his colleague to be infidels too, emphasizing that peaceful Muslims, a “silent majority”, far outnumber the terrorists and radicals forming new ruthlessly violent caliphates.
One valuable part of Imam Ali’s talk for his audience was his attempt to explain the true meaning of “jihad.” He stated that the term, from the Koran, does not mean “holy war,” but instead refers to a more general struggle. “Actually,” he said, “It means spiritual, intellectual, and physical struggle, in the sense of our work or calling, not fighting.” The meaning, he explained, has been changed by radicals to suit their violent purposes.
Imam Ali also told the audience that the Koran teaches Muslims to fight only in a defensive way. “When confronted, first we must try to avoid physical conflict, almost like ‘turning the other cheek.’ Next, we try to avoid the conflict by turning away from it altogether, and if that fails we fight only as a last resort.”
Then came the questions. Where was the outrage about violence like the Charlie Hebdo incident, and why didn’t moderate Muslims speak out against it louder more often? Both men said that they encounter this question all the time, but there are many in their community, including themselves, who do speak out, but that the media pays far less attention to their efforts.
A representative of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia commented that his Islamic friends consider ISIS and their like to be “savages”.
Another attendee asked why funding for the terrorist groups be traced and cut off? Both presenters agreed that funding comes from oil wealth and they too wished it could be eliminated. After the event, Reverend Miller commented that “he was thrilled with the large turnout, not only from the church, but from the broader community of Rye.”