By Nabeel Sait
Imam Yahya Ederer, previously the Imam of Islamic Society of Tulsa, has moved back to Charlotte as the Imam of the Muslim Community Center. Imam Yahya has a certification of mastery in Arabic from Egypt, as well as a diploma in Islamic Studies from Kuwait. Imam Yahya, being born in America, has first hand experience in the tides of American culture. We sat down with the Imam to understand what he believes to be the most important issue regarding the Muslims. He believes that the current political events, as well as civil unrest, is the most pressing issue which Muslims must become active about. This is his perspective.
In your opinion, what do you believe is the most urgent issue for Muslims to focus on?
“The state of the Muslim community, and the American community, are at such a place where there is no room for Muslims to be reclusive or complacent. We need to establish the human element with our neighbors. We cannot just stay between the house, the mosque and the halal restaurant. We have to build relationships and understanding, based on genuine desire to help one another. That’s the missing reality of the whole anti-Islamic narrative. Right now, what we are seeing in the country, with the emergence of ‘Trumpism’, is the dormant crowd of very nationalistic and culturally white christians who feel that this is an identity issue. They are threatened by anything that doesn’t fit in their comfort zone. I think after eight years of having a black president, and the false claim which he was secretly Muslim, added up to this frustration. Trump knew very well that, on average of most polls, 61% of American people have an unfavorable view of Muslims. To become president of the United States, this is an effective agenda to receive support. It is our job to change that narrative by getting involved in the American community.”
What are your goals as the new Imam of the Muslim Community Center?
“The new Muslim Community Center is a fresh project, it already has a lot of native born people involved in the establishment of this center. This is such a huge step in the Muslim community of America. God bless the immigrant community that tried very hard to establish their faith and communities, but that baton pass is way overdue. It is very important in order to thrive and flourish for our future generations. What I would like do is, facilitate that growth and development. For example, you see “Black Lives Matter” and you hear someone say that “All Lives Matter”, of course all lives matter. However, there are ten houses in front of you, one of them is burning down, and no one is doing anything about it, because “All Houses Matter”. So the other ones should be taken care of before putting out the burning house? It makes no sense. There is still a huge, oppressive system which is subjugating these black communities. We, as Muslims, should be out there engaging society on important issues. Although many Americans, have a fear of Sharia law taking the country, the sharia itself says to help establish the good principles of the current laws and forbid the bad principles of the country; Which is part of the democratic system, honoring the law of the country and your contracts. We are here to establish a politically active, social, muslim community driven by a spiritual connection with God. Empower the younger generation to come together and work on the American Muslim Identity. We have to rectify the current image of Muslims by making the connection. We are working with Saad Haq, and his project “Being There”, to facilitate help to the underprivileged charlotte communities. Making sure that the Muslim’s representation of divine mercy is there to less fortunate people. We currently have someone on the Mecklenburg board working with us, and I plan to be very proactive. We will also be working with school system when it comes to the history and facts being taught in school.”
In today’s world, you are not allowed to stay on the fence on any issue. If you do, you seem ignorant. Now that everyone is forced to pick a side and be educated, how do you approach someone on an extreme and bring them to fence and look at the other side?
“It’s about the human element, making people feel comfortable in a genuine way. If you never deal with people in that way, it will be awkward at first; but the more you work at it, the more you start to have a humble desire to learn something, you can make them comfortable. For example, when you speak about ISIS, you can tell them, ‘Look, Muslims have been around for 14 centuries, there hasn’t been this fear of global conversion till 9/11. Since then, many events have taken place there in the war torn region. The people are going through this terrible thing that we can’t even imagine, being put in this political turmoil.’ if you come in terms of absolutes and trying to dispute their opinions, you will get nowhere. Whereas, if you show them the true unbiased facts and let them come to their conclusion, by questioning themselves and thinking about the possibility rather than just hearing your rhetoric, it will go alot farther.”
How do we approach those nationalistic Americans who behave like bigots or discriminate certain groups?
“If you look at Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons who go door to door, it becomes annoying, and most people don’t entertain that; but when you’re coming with something that is less mystical and something more tangible, it can be effective. You can look where strong Trump support is, you will see the ‘Trumpsters’, but you will also see a lot of people on the fence . I know people in my family like this; in their minds, racism is over, it’s not real. This idea itself is pretty racist. They think racism is over, black people have all the opportunities and equal access to education as everybody else. That’s the way they have been taught, they don’t know about black people and their plight. Basically, the human connection between the two groups of people is not there. They live in a bubble. Those people don’t know what racism is, they look at it as ‘exceptionalism’.One way to approach them is to have an event where Muslims sit down with a nay sayer of the Muslim community. Get someone who’s in the evangelical crowd and is tapped into Christianity; you can use them to teach the non-Muslims about the real teachings and similarities between the scriptures.
Many Muslims are also out of their comfort zone when it comes to civil rights, should Muslims be engaging in all the current civil rights movements?
“Muslims have to respect the other citizen’s rights to believe or disbelieve… As you said, there are Muslims who live in a bubble as well. There was once a man who came to me and said, ‘Imam saab, I appreciate that you’re trying to help us make da’wah, but if I go make friends with non-Muslims, they are going to take me to the strip club or try to convert me’. This is the same issue that is happening with the nationalistic American cultural issue. One group wants to believe that the other group is trying subjugate them, when that is not the truth.
I went to Kuwait after studying at the Islamic American University and took a job with the Islamic presentation committee. This time I had to meet American and British soldiers and American expatriate businessmen who work in the oil industry and live in Kuwait. At first, there were some awkward exchanges, it’s normal, it comes that way. This is the effort, this is jihad. After a couple of years, I got to a point where I was extremely uncompromising and devout as a Muslim, while remaining respectful, kind, gentle and understanding when starting that bond with non-Muslim people. You just have to get to the point where you’re relating to people with ease. The way Muslims talk amongst each other, is very different. Not that we are hiding something, it’s just a certain attitude which we have. There are certain ‘understood’ conspiracy theories that are blown out of proportion that Muslims take as a fact. We must stick to the truth, present the reality that you know for sure. We must teach our people about discourse because America is an extremely intellectual society. With politics and religion, people become highly polarized to their family or their way of thinking. It’s not Islamic behavior.”
For the new generation of Muslims that came after immigrants, their view on gender equality is much more lax than their parents or the older generation. Should the Muslims be helping with issues on gender equality, potentially going against the beliefs of the previous generation?
“Basically, we need to understand our religion without emotion. Look through a lense of priority and clarity. On the issue of gay rights, many Muslims are very emotional about this. Anyone who thinks about it outside of the emotional reality, they will see the merit. They don’t have to agree or support these practices; they can see the merit that this does not compromise our own islamic beliefs. Are we living in an Islamic state? No. Are we obliged to recognize that this is a secular state? Yes we are. By citizenship, by visa, by greencard, we are in a covenant legally that this is a secular country and we are honoring that. When we respect that and all the laws of the land, we should also agree that everyone has a right to their beliefs and practices. Do we have to agree with the practices? No. However, we respect their right to beliefs as they live in America and they will respect us. They have the right to be acknowledged in the American construct just as Muslims have the right to their beliefs and practices. Gay rights began with discrimination and oppression of the gay community, primarily bullying. Now they have came back with their activism in full force. Many Christians I know say, ‘I don’t believe in gay marriage, but i respect your right to it’. Same way, Muslims must say, ‘Religiously, I don’t agree with gay marriage and i will not encourage my community to follow it; but I will encourage my community to respect their rights here to follow the practices if it agrees with the law of the country’. You see that gays were the ones who were attacked and abused in the last few decades, and now the Muslims are the ones like that. You will find that the top political entities that are defending the Muslims across the country is the gay community, because they see us going through what they went through. Here, we have something in common, the right not to be opressed.”
Are we allowed to donate to organizations, such as the ACLU, who supported the Muslims during the travel bans, even though they might also be supporting rights for un islamic principles?
“Some scholars may say that is okay, others scholars will say it is doubtful, avoid it. Here is where I draw the line in generality of where I put my funds. When The ACLU came out as a driving force against the legislation of the Muslim ban, as a show of solidarity tens of thousands of muslims came together in support and donated to them, I am one of them. This was to say, ‘We appreciate that effort. We know the field you’re in is blind justice and it’s respecting without political or religious bias.’ When you look at it, you see that there is more good in it than there is bad, without specific religious text forbidding it; In that context, i’m a donor. Where as if there were many causes to donate to, right in front of me, which benefited Muslims, would I donate to the ACLU? No.”
Reza Aslan and others have stated that having a humanizing image of a group of people on TV can help that group form an identity or image that is easily understood by the TV viewers. For example, gay characters in movies and TV. Would it help Muslims to try to be involved in entertainment to further this ideology?
“I think it’s important to bring the average Muslim to TV. There was a group of scholars who convened in Jeddah, they said that the modern mode of influence is mass media, and entertainment is at the top of the list. When it comes to Maher Zain, Lupe Fiasco or other influential Muslims who have a moral thread coming from them, it is so unappreciated and underutilized. This idea of discouraging Muslims from anything to do with television is a big mistake. Because there is a lack of practicing Muslims on TV, the non-practicing self identified Muslims are the ones who look for diversity and inclusion. It’s important for the average Muslim to get involved in the arts and establish the human image. Show them praying a rakah of prayer just to show them how parts of their life would be. If we can get these ideas out there, the better it will be.”
How can others see what events you have planned and your programs dates?
“They can visit www.charlottemcc.org where we will have information on events and our plans. We are working on a multi-faceted social program named ‘Open Tables’, things like this are what we plan to do. You can see programs like this and others on the website.”