DECEMBER 2002

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An interview with Sheik Omar Abu-Namous, the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York

From Arab Voice
November 16, 2002

By Saida Atiyeh

Sheik Omar Abu-Namous has been working for a year at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Before that, he worked at the United Nations as a translator and advisor. He also worked at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs for seventeen years.

Q: What is the role of Islamic Centers in giving the right image about Islam and Muslims, especially during this cruel attack on Islam and Muslims?

A: Currently, the role of Islamic Centers is becoming more sensitive. All Imams, and leading Islamic figures, should act wisely to protect the community. We are really facing attacks from the media that we should try to reply to wisely.

First, we are trying to clarify facts about Islam for American society: explaining what Islam is and what its principles are and the human positions that this religion calls for. And that we are a peaceful nation, and we don’t go to war unless our beliefs or Muslim countries are in danger. In that case the whole nation will stand up to defend, but we don’t start a fight.

This center has 15 to 20 groups visiting it every month, from different schools, Jewish temples, and churches to be introduced to the mosque and to the Islamic center in order to get a closer look at Islamic society and understand Islam. We receive their questions about Islam and they get complete answers. And we are always understanding and full of patience.

Q: Is there continuity with these groups that represent other religions?

A: There is continuity, and sometimes that is bigger than the center’s capacity. This continuity requires a complete team of people fluent in Arabic and English, to be capable of transforming the Islamic information into a clear and accurate explanation. And visitors are sincere and kind: they want to know more about Islam, and they ask direct questions to understand more. Sometimes some visitors from other religions ask questions that have political aspects and we answer logically and with patience. Some of these questions are about jihad, multiple wives, hijab, and Muslim women’s rights. For example, 'why do women pray behind men in the mosque?' And sometimes these questions try to point at specific percieved ideas about Muslim women's place in Islam that minimize her rights, and her role in the community.

We deal with these questions with patience and we try to convince our visitors by being wise. For example, we explain why women cover their bodies and why the multiplicity of wives is permitted…and try to answer questions like, 'why is jihad the sacred war for Muslims?' and 'why do Muslims build their lives on war and on attacking other nations?'

So we clarify that jihad must be for a right cause and for a noble target…and we don’t forget the media's role in our life and we explain that we do jihad to fight hate or to build a mosque or a hospital or a school or a house for orphans. That’s also jihad, jihad does not only have the meaning of defending with weapons and bombs all that is holy to us.

Q: The woman and the hijab: did Islam create it, or does it exist in other religions?

A: Yes it exists in other religions, and nuns are an example of that. In the case of nuns, however, it is only limited to women working in the religious field… but in Islam, women generally are required to wear it. And Westerners pretend that the hijab limits women’s rights, thinking that if an Islamic woman gets the opportunity to be free, she would dress like Europeans and Americans. Many people don’t understand freedom. And one should follow God’s word. The hijab for the Muslim woman means to be committed to her religion so nobody can approach her. Therefore, nobody can get to her illegally. This is also a way to protect herself, and protect men, because when men look at women and see them half naked, especially if he’s single, he will be attracted. And half of the Muslim men here in the United States are not married.

Translated from Arabic by Elias Saber.

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