Q&A with Imam Taha Hassane, director of the Islamic Center of San Diego

By Joe Tash

Recently, after a trailer for an anti-Islamic film called “Innocence of Muslims” was posted on You Tube, triggering violent protests in the Middle East, 24 religious leaders in San Diego County issued a joint statement condemning both the film and the ensuing violence.

“Ironically, those who created the film and those who killed and harmed innocents seem to have much in common.  Specifically, they neither accept responsibility nor do they respect the dignity of other human beings,” read the statement in part, which was signed by Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy members.

One of the signers was Imam Taha Hassane, a native of Algeria who serves as Imam and director of the Islamic Center of San Diego.  Hassane also leads Friday services and lectures at the Muslim Community Center in Santaluz, which serves some 500 members, most of whom live in Rancho Santa Fe, Santaluz, Rancho Peñasquitos, Rancho Bernardo, Mira Mesa and other North County communities.

Before immigrating to the United States with his family in 2001, Hassane taught high school for 10 years in Algeria, where his mother and many other relatives also were teachers.  Hassane earned a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies from the University of Algiers and a master of theology in Islamic studies from the Graduate Theological Foundation in South Bend, Indiana.

Hassane is married and has four daughters, and his family moved to San Diego in 2004.

Recently, this newspaper sat down with Hassane to discuss a variety of issues, including his reaction, and that of his fellow American Muslims, to the release of the film, the tensions of free speech vs. religious tolerance, treatment of women in Islam, and Hassane’s upcoming hajj, or pilgrimage, to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Following is that conversation in a Q&A format, edited for brevity.

Q.  What was your reaction to the film?

A.  The film itself was offending to Muslims all over the world.  Portraying our Prophet, peace be upon him, in that way is not acceptable.  It’s something that hurt all Muslims around the world.  At the same time, I don’t see this offense to Muslims as justification or excuse for the violence that occurred right after that.

I don’t believe the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, in Libya, was because of the film.  I believe it was in retaliation from a group affiliated with Al Qaeda after the killing of one of their leaders.  It had more to do with the 11th anniversary of 9-11.

As we have seen in the media, the overwhelming majority of Libyans rejected that act and considered it an act of terror, and they asked law enforcement and their own government to go after those who committed this crime and bring them to justice.

I believe as a Muslim the way people demonstrated and associated violence with those demonstrations (in such countries as Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan and Egypt) was not appropriate at all.  It was against the teachings of Islam and against the character of the Prophet himself.

Q. How do American Muslims reconcile freedom of speech vs. provocations such as the recent film that are insulting to Muslims?

A.  Maybe American Muslims are the best people to understand this concept of freedom of speech in the West and in the U.S. in particular.  Muslims around the world, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, it’s hard for them to understand the concept of freedom of speech because of the political regimes they have been living in their entire lives.

In Islam, freedom of speech is considered very essential to the development of society and culture and civilization. We have to re-define and distinguish the line between free speech and responsible speech. In American culture we understand someone cannot scream in a theater, Fire, Fire! This person will be held accountable for every harm that might be caused to people or property.  I look at this film the same way.

I don’t believe freedom of speech is a license or a blank check given to people to say whatever they want even though their speech will cause deep and profound harm to other people.  Especially when this freedom of speech defames or insults sacred beliefs and sacred objects and figures of different faiths.

I think the problem in the world, especially the Western world, is the double standard.  If something defames Islam and Muslims, it’s freedom of speech.  It’s tolerable.  But if you talk about other sensitive issues, for example, if you criticize Israeli politics or the Israeli government or you say something about the Holocaust or something like this, it’s not freedom of speech any more.

Q. Over the past 25 years, on a number of occasions, portrayals of Islam or the Prophet Muhammad have resulted in violent protests.  These have included Salman Rushdie’s book, “The Satanic Verses,” cartoons published in a Danish newspaper and the recent film.  Undoubtedly there will be others.  How can such violence be avoided in the future?

A.  I addressed this question in the last sermon I gave on Friday.  I said it’s not the first, it’s not going to be the last.  What are we going to do?  Do we have a strategy, have we bothered ourselves and thought about the right way to respond to this kind of stuff?  Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

I believe Muslims should develop a better way to counter this kind of stuff and when I say counter, stop reacting and being pro-active.  For Muslims, especially in the West and North America, have to do serious efforts to reach out to the larger society and tell their story.  We have a wonderful, non-told story… of who we are and what our faith is about.”

All minorities went through a lot of hard times in this country.  With continued work and effort to educate and reach out they achieved their goals and they became a very important part of this nation.  We have to do the same.  Now, especially after the tragedy of 9-11, it’s our turn as Muslim Americans to go through the same path as all the minorities, religious or ethnic.  We have to work hard and struggle, it takes time.  But I’m very optimistic and hopeful that one day, all what’s happening now becomes part of the history.”

Q.  Americans see that in some Muslim countries, women and girls are denied rights that men have, such as going to school, holding a job or even driving a car.  How do American Muslims feel about this issue?

A.  We have to make a difference between the teachings of Islam regarding women, and the practices that exist in some Middle Eastern communities and societies.  When you see in some communities in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, Muslim women are deprived from seeking knowledge, this is totally against the teachings of the Prophet himself, where he made seeking knowledge mandatory for Muslim men and women, and his own wife, Aisha, was a religious scholar.

What we are hearing and seeing in the media about the very bad treatment of women, this is not because of the teachings of Islam, but this is because of running away from or negating or ignoring the teachings of Islam.

I know for a fact that Muslim scholars, moderate scholars all over the world, have been speaking against this treatment and this mentality and they are still doing it.

Q.  I understand you are about to leave for the hajj, or pilgrimage, to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, that this is your fourth time on the hajj, and you will be leading a group of American Muslims.  Can you tell us about it?

A.  Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, a mandatory act of worship upon Muslim men and women who are able physically and financially to make it.  It is mandatory at least once a life.  I do it once a year.  Pilgrimage for me is an extraordinary spiritual experience.

Spending a few days in the holy mosque where the Prophet Abraham, and the Prophet Ishmael and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them, all spent time and walked.  Every time I’m there my mind goes back centuries and centuries and centuries ago, to remember what happened over there, to remember the revelation that was sent down in that place.

Pilgrimage is a time to feel the equality between all the people.  When you find yourself among three million people from all over the world, wearing the same garments, and doing the same things, sitting in the same place, whether you are the president of a country or you’re a beggar, you are all the same in the sight of God.

Q.  Any final thoughts?

A.  I would like my fellow citizens to understand American Muslims are their neighbors, their friends, classmates and co-workers.  We have chosen to live in this very diverse society to be part of the American social fabric.  We are doing our best to contribute to the betterment of our nation like everybody else.  We are not requesting any special treatment as Muslim Americans, we are just seeking respect and positive understanding.

Come and visit us, whether the Islamic Center or any mosque in (North County). Go and ask about Islam.  Share your concerns.

We welcome everyone and we are very glad to open channels of discussion with everyone, no exceptions.

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