My Conversation with Imam Shoeb

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August 15, 2006

As promised in Monday’s blog, I want to share with you some of my conversation with Moad Shoeb, the imam of the mosque in Walthomstow, England where some of the 24 suspects in last week's thwarted terror plot worshipped. It should dispell unfounded fear and prejudice — that all Muslims are violent people — while confirming the notion that we can expect a long and protracted timetable for ultimate peace.

Video: Finding Answers — Part 1 | Part 2

Keep in mind my comments are not an explanation, defense, or criticism of Islam. It is anecdotal information which I think adds to the very complicated discussion of the ideological conflict in which we are now fully immersed.

At 1:30 p.m. the mosque filled with worshippers for early afternoon prayers. At 1:45 p.m. congregants streamed out and the media tried to stream in. This, in what used to be a very quiet neighborhood. Dressed in clean, white robes, Imam Shoeb communicated calm and serenity in his gestures. He walked slowly, talked quietly, and measured his words. He did, however, express clearly to me his concerns. The arrest of a few members of his mosque had created a spirit of tension within and mistrust toward the community. He asked, “Why does everyone want to talk to this mosque?”

I told him I thought all the frenzy was understandable. If the young men are proven guilty, and if they claim religious motives, as other Muslim terrorists have done, it is natural for people to wonder if their religious leaders taught them to hate. He nodded his head in understanding, but reiterated his unconditional pronouncement that in his mosque, hatred is condemned and peace is promoted. The other bearded men chimed in to confirm their leader’s message.

I can’t vouch for Imam Shoeb’s personal character, nor for what goes on in his mosque — I don’t know him — but by understanding how radical Muslim terrorists operate, it’s easy to see how he himself may be a peaceful man, even if some worshippers of his mosque are eventually proven guilty of terror.

Reports out of London say the suspects probably did their planning outside of the mosques, even if they were regular members. They met in internet cafes and other places that minimized suspicion. The 9/11 attack against the United States confirms this theory. Many terrorists lie in wait as part of a sleeper cell. They blend into a community and only reveal their intentions to their comrades-in-arms. Even family members are often left in the dark. The terrorists receive radical religious training from untraditional sources, a quiet and select number of mentors who communicate in small groups or through the internet.

Another revealing element of our conversation came in the imam’s response to my question about why Muslim leaders do not come together and make a stronger condemnation of terror in all of its forms. “Because you don’t come to us.” That was part of his response.

Again, let me try to give some background to help understand this response. Unlike the Catholic, Anglican, or other major Christian denominations, Islam does not have a hierarchy. Nobody can speak for all. Nor do they have jurisdiction or parochial boundaries of authority. The day before I arrived, this imam had produced his own public relations statement. Did you hear about it? Of course not! The media doesn’t work like that. The media needs big news or tidbits from famous names.

The third lesson I learned was that we are a long way away from peace. The members of the mosque, who surrounded me, quickly turned the conversation to politics. They made it utterly clear they were upset at Prime Minister Blair’s and President Bush’s foreign policy. They talked about Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. I followed up with this question: Does any given foreign policy validate acts of terror? The group became quiet and the imam responded, “No, absolutely no.”

These three lessons stand on their own. This is what I saw and heard.

God bless,

Father Jonathan

P.S. I have posted two video clips as well (in the upper right box). Hope it gives you a feel for the neighborhood.

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