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Interview • September 26 2004

Lifting the veil

Chanting Koranic verses, Muslims in Baghdad are beheading infidels in the name of Allah while other Muslims say Islam is about peace and tolerance, so which is the true Islam? The question is put to Sheikh Mohammed El Sadi, the Imam of the Maltese Muslim community

With daily headlines from Iraq announcing more and more kidnappings and the brutal murders of hostages by Islamic fundamentalists, public perception that Islam promotes terrorism is on the increase and the spiritual leader of the 3,000-strong Muslim community here is evidently seriously disturbed.
Surrounded by newspapers and facing a television screen inside his office next to the Corradino mosque, Imam Mohammed El Sadi shakes his head with disapproval as more news of brutalities by Muslim terrorists hit the headlines.
It is indeed almost embarrassing for whoever knows the peaceful and contemplative 53-year-old sheikh to confront him particularly with these problems, but dismissing them as ‘having nothing to do with Islam’ is not enough for the majority of those who do not belong to the religion.
“Islam calls for peace,” he says.
“The Koran surely says, ‘Oh believers, enter in a stage of peace you all.’ Islam forbids kidnapping and the killing of innocent people, civilians who have nothing to do with military actions, and Islam condemns all types of terrorism and extremism, especially the killing of children and women.
“We feel very sad and disappointed and embarrassed, because our beautiful and peaceful religion is being hijacked by a small minority of extremists; mad and ignorant extremists, who by their criminal acts deform, destitute and abuse our religion.
“Their criminal acts are giving a bad picture of our religion, they are damaging the true image of Islam and of Muslims. They are creating Islamophobia and are putting 1 billion Muslims in the dock. They are leading to confusion in people’s minds between terrorism and legal national resistance for freedom.”
But these are people who call themselves Muslim. and who quote parts of the Koran to justify their brutalities and say all this is God’s will, while other Muslims such as Sheikh Sadi say this is all crazy. It is only natural that one gets confused about which is the true Islam.
“First we have to refer the fundamental teaching of Islam in the Holy Koran and in the tradition of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him,” he replies. “These are the true sources of the religion. Secondly we also have to look at the mainstream Muslims.
“I mean the majority of Muslims and Muslim scholars condemn such criminal and terrorist acts, so we have to judge Islam through its fundamental resources and credible scholars of Islam. The fundamentalists and extremists are a few people among 1 billion Muslims, so we shouldn’t generalise. They are condemned by Muslims and they do not represent Islam. It’s unfair to judge Islam through the criminal practices of those few criminals.”
Still, fundamentalism is on the increase and condemnation from the Muslim world is rarely heard. Sheikh Sadi takes exception to this and says that Islam is being unfairly covered by a biased western press.
“I myself have many times, through the media channels, condemned all this, as others from the Muslim nation,” he says. “The same happens all over the world but I don’t know why the media bias fails to cover such a position of Muslim authorities, and there are also two weights and two measures.
“Sometimes they concentrate on these criminal acts and close their eyes when it comes to state terrorism. The world should be just and condemn all kinds of terrorism, whether it is committed by powerful armies or by miserable gangs.”
I prod him to elaborate and in his tranquil voice he speaks on behalf of the silenced majority of Muslim victims of terrorism all around the world.
“Actually we, the Muslims, are victims of violence, we are victims of terrorism,” he says. “We are suffering terrorism in Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia. We are also victims, you see. Why does the media only concentrate on the non-Muslim victims of violence and terrorism and not on our sufferings? Does anyone know the names of the Iraqi and Palestinian victims of terrorism? There are only a few people who light a candle in memory of our victims.”
Global inequalities and injustices provide themselves the essential ingredients for terrorism – that is the crux of the matter – but Sheikh Sadi does not stop there. He does not spare any self-criticism when he looks within the Muslim world and speaks in no uncertain terms about radical reforms necessary in all spheres of Islamic society.
“We should not forget that to eradicate terrorism many steps should be taken. I agree that, firstly, serious reforms should be accomplished in the Islamic world to the political, social and even educational system. We also need a reform in religious authorities, to establish some sort of Islamic council that is recognised by all Islamic countries and Islamic governments, and which represents the Muslim world, so any problem can be referred to this council and a decision is taken not by one mufti, or one scholar or one Imam, but by a council that is representative of Islam worldwide.”
Secondly, he adds, the world community has to uproot the causes of terrorism – “illegal occupation and social and political injustices, otherwise we cannot solve this problem”.
“Muslim countries want peace and do not want war and confrontation; they want good relations between the West and the Muslims. We are not against America, we are not against the West, we are not against Europe. We want to live with them and benefit from their advancements in all fields of life. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t regard black as black and white as white. I mean, (UN Secretary General) Kofi Annan himself said the US waged an illegal war against Iraq. Let’s refer to the UN and comply with its resolutions. If all countries in the world comply then we will have peace. Why are Muslim countries the only ones that are expected to comply? What about the others?”
But, I tell him, there are also corrupt states which call themselves Islamic. Take Saudi Arabia, for example. It tortures women if they drive cars and stones them to death if they are accused of adultery. What kind of Islam is that?
“Look, as it happens with other religions, we should distinguish between the religion and the people,” he replies. “We have to judge the religion through its heavenly sources, through the revelation. Unfortunately there are many countries which do not put to practice the principles of Islam, and that’s why I said that we in the Islamic world need serious reforms in our political, educational, social and even economic systems, to conform with the teachings of Islam and be in harmony with the rest of the world, in the true image of our religion.
“For example this problem of driving… I mean I can’t understand how this came to happen, it’s unthinkable. Islam obviously doesn’t forbid women to drive a car, actually there are women pilots in many Islamic countries. There are vice-presidents, Prime Ministers, ministers, MPs, engineers, teachers, nurses and lawyers… women play a very important role in public life in many countries, and this is all in the spirit of the true Islam.”
Later on he returns to the question of adultery in Islam: “It’s a sin and a crime in Islam, and adulterers, whether male or female, have to be punished to restrain this crime and maintain morality and stability in society, but definitely not through torture.”
Sheikh Sadi also openly admits that a great part of so-called Islamic states subjugate religion to their own dictatorial political programmes, antagonising their own citizens and compromising Muslim authority.
“This is a fact, unfortunately, and that is why extremists in such countries do not respect Muslim authority, because they see it close to government. They resent the government and see Islamic authority as part of the establishment.
“There is a lack of confidence and legitimacy, that’s why we need serious reforms in our religious and political authorities, and also in education. Education is extremely important and it is our best tool to enhance respect and promote peace and tolerance.”
Sheikh Sadi explains that “being a comprehensive religion, in Islam there is no separation between the State and religion,” but that doesn’t mean dictatorship.
“The essence or the heart of the Islamic political system is consultation; this is in the Koran, we are not saying this to please some people, we’re saying the truth in the Holy Koran and on the basis of the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him.
“The Koran says that all affairs should be subjected to consultation among all believers. That means democracy. The Prophet, who was also ‘head of state,’ used to gather all the faithful before taking any decision, and discuss with them and act on the opinion of the majority, even sometimes against his own opinion.
“Islam is against dictatorship, it is fundamentally against it. Political leaders should be elected and should submit to majority rule. Muslim leaders should also adhere to Islam: nobody imposes Islam upon them, but as long as they say ‘we are Muslims and submit ourselves to the will of God’ then they should put to practice Islamic law.”
Taking the cue from his reminder that Islam does not distinguish between state and religion, I ask him about the possible conflict of loyalties for Muslims in Europe: If a Muslim is elected to one of Europe’s Parliaments, what would he be loyal to, the Constitution or the Sharia (Islamic law)?
“There is no problem here,” he replies. “We already have about 20 million Muslims in Europe. Not all of them are immigrants, as some people would like to depict. They are Europeans, loyal to Europe, loyal to their country, loyal to their Constitutions, and also loyal to Islam. There is no contradiction at all between being a Muslim and being a European or American.
“You see,” he explains, “the policy of the country is formed by the majority of the people; the Europeans have chosen their Constitutions and their own laws, so as minorities, as Muslims living in Europe, we should respect the European Constitutions and laws, and we should be law-abiding.
“That doesn’t mean that we do not express our opinion. Muslims in Europe and in the US sometimes express their opinions which may not agree with governments’ policies, just like there were millions of non-Muslims who demonstrated against the war on Iraq in the UK and in the US. That doesn’t mean that we are not law-abiding citizens.”
He hails Turkey’s bid for membership to the European Union and sees in its future accession an opportunity “to create a rapprochement between Islam and the West.
He says that, in general, the Muslim minority in Malta enjoys tolerance freedom and hospitality although there is also “some degree of prejudice and unfair generalisation.”
“We are grateful to Maltese society for its hospitality, and we are also very grateful to the World Islamic Call Society and to Libya Leader Muammar Gaddafi, who built this mosque to help us worship and practice our religion.
“Muslims in Malta are doing their best to integrate,” he says, “to be part and parcel of Maltese society. More respect for this community would help them to integrate more. Maybe in the future we can attain more recognition from the state, like for example, recognition of the Muslim marriage contract and divorce documents, like recognition of Muslim feasts, I mean all these things which will help the Muslim community to settle and integrate more.”
Does he imagine an Islamic party being formed in Malta?
“It is unlikely to happen in the near future,” he says. “I can’t predict the future but from the actual size of the Maltese Muslim community it seems unlikely.”
When I ask him about his views about the fundamental right to freedom of expression, it is clear that Sheikh Sadi is troubled by declarations that incite racial hatred and religious prejudice at a time when genuine dialogue is urgently needed.
“Islam is the religion of dialogue,” he says. “The Koran explicitly says so; dialogue with Christians, Jews, with pagans, with everyone. Islam respects religious plurality and religious freedom.
“Everyone is created free by God to choose his own faith and to practice his own religion and express himself, but in a peaceful, respectful and objective manner. It’s unfair to spread lies or to make a mockery of religion – it’s against all religions, not only of Islam. If someone makes a mockery of Jesus he’s hurting not just Christianity, because Muslims believe in Jesus and in all prophets and we revere and respect them. So as long as the expression of opinion and criticism is fair and in the light of mutual respect, then there is no objection.”
I point out to him that the UN Convention on Human Rights also says that freedom of expression includes the right to offend, attack beliefs, and even ridicule them.
“I do not agree with this because I believe religions deserve the respect of all people,” he says. “If we have an opinion, let’s express it, by all means, but in a moderate and reasonable way. Extremism has led us nowhere. It can only lead to hatred and violence between races and cultures, to racism.”
But, I insist (with Salman Rushdie in mind), art, literature, public debate needs to be free of all inhibitions to be able to contribute to our current problems.
“Yes, people should discuss anything, even the existence of God. I have no problem with that. Islam itself is the religion of reasoning and dialogue, and conviction.
“Islam doesn’t need blind followers, it wants people to build their faith on conviction, so there is no objection to any kind of criticism of all forms but incitement to hatred and prejudice is something else altogether.”
I ask him why so many Muslims, especially those living in Arabic countries, hate Jews.
“We have to distinguish between the Jews and the Zionists. The Muslim world is not against the Jews as Jews. Jews live in many Islamic countries. As you know, when the Jews were expelled from Spain (in 1492) they were sheltered and welcomed by the Muslim world, and even when they migrated to Palestine in the beginning, they were received by Muslims.
“We believe in the Judaism of Moses and other prophets. On the other hand the Zionists occupied Palestine – they are foreigners who came from different countries by the help of the British, who expelled Palestinians and occupied their land.
“We are against the Zionists who occupied our land and threw us out. They are aggressors and Islam is against aggression, wherever it comes from. Even if the aggressors are Muslims, it is against them. On the other hand, Jews in the Muslim world should be respected and should enjoy all their rights which they have enjoyed for centuries in the Islamic world.”
Himself the son of Palestinian refugees, Sheikh Sadi is also the voice of the anonymous Muslim victims of illegal occupation amid the world’s indifference to decades of outright oppression of his people, in blatant defiance of UN resolutions.
“Mine is the experience of a refugee, like that of many others,” he says. “For more than fifty years I have been a refugee. My family was forced to leave our homeland and I was born after the occupation, in Jordan, so I never saw my country and my village, the home of my father and grandfather.”

“I can never go to my country,” he adds. “How can I ever apply for a visa to enter my own homeland? How can I ever ask an Israeli soldier to grant me permission to enter my land? How can I ever hand my identity card to a foreigner who is occupying my land? Would you?”
Sheikh Sadi however says he has fulfilled his dream since he settled here in 1979; that of opening a Muslim primary school with peace and tolerance as its core values.
“My dream has come true now,” he says with a fulfilled smile. “The primary stage is completed and our standards are recognised by the state. It has the blessing of the Education Ministry, and we have their cooperation and assistance. It’s a Maltese school, we follow the national curriculum but we also provide the teaching of Islam and the Arabic language, to maintain the identity of children of the Muslim community in Malta, just like Muslim communities in other European countries. The aim of the school is to enhance tolerance and mutual respect between Muslims and other faiths.”
True to this spirit, the majority of the school’s teachers are not Muslims. The headmistress herself is Christian.
“Of 16 teachers and assistants only four are Muslims, and I’m proud of it,” he says. “I’m happy because this will help Muslims settle and integrate in society, and enhance values of respect and tolerance.
“Many of our children come from Maltese families and some of them are even Christians, they mix, and we don’t want them to be isolated. We do not want Muslims to live in ghettoes; we want them to mix and to integrate in society while maintaining their own identity. We also want to promote a sense of belonging to the country, a sense of loyalty and citizenship.”
Yes, fundamentalists are giving Islam a bad name, but there’s little that could give Sheikh Sadi a bad name, as those who know him would certainly testify.

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