Saturday, May 13, 2006 | Mohamed Al-Quazwini is the face of Islam Americans so rarely see. He’s a poised, soft-spoken deep thinker with a belief system that he says is based more on acceptance than fundamentalism. Al-Quazwini is the leader of the San Diego Islamic Educational Center, which recently moved its headquarters to Rancho Bernardo. He’s the spiritual leader, guide, counsel and father figure to many in the 100,000-strong Muslim community in San Diego.
He’s also an Iraqi, who has traveled back to his homeland four times since the American-led invasion and has watched his country’s emergence from the rule of Saddam Hussein.
We sat down with Al-Quazwini in his office at the Islamic Educational Center to talk politics, religion and whether he thinks the world is headed toward a clash of civilizations between Muslims and Christians.
Tell me about the Islamic Educational Center; what is the organization’s purpose and what are its goals?
We started almost six years ago. Our purpose was bringing our community, especially the youth and the young people, together and teaching them the culture, the Islam religion, the peaceful religion. This was, at the beginning, our aim.
We gathered the people and we gave them that proposal, we told them we had this plan and people supported us. We started having the Islamic Educational Center in Clairemont. Then we started to raise money to buy a building and, finally, we just moved here, to this new building last month.
Is it difficult to be a Muslim in San Diego, and if so is the Muslim community segregated from the rest of the city?
Actually, we have had some difficulties, especially after Sept. 11. Before that, we didn’t feel that much difficulty. There are almost 100,000 Muslims here in San Diego County. We have Muslims from Iran, from Iraq, from Pakistan, from India, from Egypt, from Palestine, from Turkey, from different Muslim countries. Those large communities have lived here for a long time. Now they have become citizens here, they’ve become part of this society.
We didn’t have that many problems before Sept. 11. Since then, yes, with the media, with the political issues fighting the Muslims here. They are doing the trouble. They talk, sometimes, badly against the Muslims here. They let some of the Muslims feel that this is not their society.
But still we struggle. We are looking for our rights. We are a part of this city now. Many of the Muslims, they have very good jobs here, they have good positions in society, so we’re looking for our rights. But after Sept. 11, especially ladies – women who are covering with the hijab, the scarf – they have some difficulties, especially at the schools, at colleges. Sometimes there is discrimination against the Muslims. We hear some of those stories perhaps every day about those differences. We struggle for our rights.
What do you think every time you drive into La Jolla and you see a huge cross atop Mount Soledad?
As Muslims, we believe this is the freedom of the people here, because the majority of the people here are Christians, they are free to have this monument there and it shows the Christianity here.
So we are not against that thing, because it’s the majority of the people. So we don’t have any problem if we see people going to the church or those things. Because we don’t see this as fighting between religions. We support each other. We support the believers who go into the church, who go into the synagogue, who go into the mosque. Today, our fighting is with the secular, with those people who don’t believe in God. We believe in God and we support the Christians. We support the believers, the Jewish who believe in God, who believe in values.
Today we have a problem with people who don’t have values. I don’t see any problem with the Christians and with this cross in La Jolla.
It was reported after Sept. 11 that two of the men involved in the attacks were from San Diego and were part of the Muslim community here. Do you think that hurt relations between the Muslim community and the rest of society here?
I think that this is misunderstood.
Those people, the link, it wasn’t with the Muslim community. Those people, they traveled here from Saudi Arabia. They were students, they weren’t a part of this community. They just troubled us. They just came for a few days and did their jobs, they did what they wanted to do. So they are not a part of this community. They don’t live in San Diego.
Here the Muslims are very peaceful, they understand the living, the sharing between people, so those people, I don’t believe they were members of the San Diego Muslim community.
Do you think the War on Terror and the war in Iraq has improved relations between the United States and the Muslim world, or made them worse?
I think Americans here, especially the politicals, they have difficulties in understanding the Muslims and the countries of the Muslims and the division between the Muslims. Probably the war in Iraq has made more conflict between the Muslims and the Americans.
I think this was one of the very big mistakes of the politicians here in America. They don’t know how to deal with the Muslims. They interfere with different issues. Muslims, they have different opinions, and I think they didn’t deal with this with the experiences of the Muslims.
They did many mistakes in Iraq: The Guantanamo jail; Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. They made some mistakes which probably, for the Muslims, they will remember that.
When we first met, about three years ago, you were quite favorable about what was happening in Iraq at the time. You very much saw it as a new start for Iraq. I remember you saying that if one asked the people in Iraq, most of them would say that it’s a good thing that America has come and is liberating us from Saddam Hussein.
But that was three years ago.
At the beginning, all the Iraqis, they were very hopeful. They waited for the change of the government, but after three years of the experience of this government, of the occupation, now they learned there is no safety in Iraq. There is nothing improved in Iraq. They complain about the economy, about safety, the most important things. People, they don’t have safety or security on the streets, going out.
So they feel that the Americans, they just didn’t do anything there. They just changed Saddam without any benefits, without anything that’s changed. Saddam, at least he gave the people the safety, the security. Now in Iraq, there is nothing, there is no security.
I believe, economically, they improved in Iraq. Now people, they are making some money. But when there is no safety, there is no security, when there is no improvement in the electricity, in the water system, in those things, people complain. This is what the Americans cannot do in Iraq.
So how bad are things on the ground in Iraq? You just got back from there, is it just the media portraying things negatively?
I went to Iraq three or four times (since the invasion), and those visits were at different times. In the beginning, two months after the fall of Saddam, all the people were very very happy that Saddam had changed. But at that time it was safe, there was not the bombs and those people with the suicide bombs, they weren’t there at that time. Later, when we went, people, they got some trouble with the electricity, with the water, with the safety.
After that, last year many people they complained. They said it’s now three years and nothing’s improved. People change in Iraq according to the services, according to the things there in Iraq, so people now complain, many of the people complain.
But still Iraq is different. In the south of Iraq, south of Baghdad, in Basra, it’s all the Shia area, and the safety, it’s much better than Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. At the Shia region, there still is safety, and some people are happy with that, but they complain about the electricity, about the water, about some issues of the safety and security. They have a problem with gangs, because there is no government there.
In the Sunni Triangle now, totally, people are leaving their house. They move to the different region, because they don’t feel their daughters, their girls cannot go to the school alone. Even the kids, sometimes people they sit at home and they have no reason to go out.
What about the election of Hamas in Palestine and the United States’ consequent withdrawal of aid. Is that going to hurt the United States’ relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds?
I think that the one billion, two hundred million Muslims, they see this as another negative sign of the politicians, of the political people here in America and in western countries, because it was an election, it was a free election. Those people, they came by the election of the people. Now they are forcing them, they are not sending them any of the aid.
I am asking, if this was in Israel, when the people in Israel, they elected Ariel Sharon, he was very tough with the Arabs. But all the countries here, they support him; they support him even if he was one of the muscular people who killed the people in the south of Lebanon. People support him. But why they don’t support Hamas?
I think that Muslim countries, Islamic countries in the region, they will support Hamas anyway, and this will bring the conflict.
Here, they forget that this is a heat, and one day, that heat will blow. So one day, it will blow in Egypt and in Jordan. They will lose the control in Egypt and in Jordan. They will change all the area against the United States and they forget that. So here, you have to understand the pressure, pressure sometimes it will blow up in all the region.
So they forget that, they thought that this would make the Palestinians to change their mind. They will not change it! I am sure they will not change it. Because Hamas, they have this belief, that they got elected because they do not want to accept agreements with the Israelis.
In your opinion, is the world headed towards a clash of cultures, a clash between the Christian and Islamic worlds?
I think, in some ways, probably, probably. Those things are to prepare for that clash: The conflict with Iran, with nuclear issues, with Palestine, with Syria. Those people, it’s making the Muslims more aggressive with the American political plans in the Middle East.
So this is not helping the American politicals in the Middle East. Here, they have a plan of changing the view of the American politicians in the Middle East, but those things, it makes it more worse and more worse.
But I don’t believe it will come to the conflict between all the Muslims and the Christians. In the Muslim world, they realize there is a difference between America and the Christians. In all the cultures, there is some Christians living in the Muslim countries and we don’t have so much problems with them. But America, I think even America, they need to believe in the church and believe in God – they don’t have that much belief in Christianity. And Arab people, Muslims, they understand that, so I don’t see the conflict between Islam and Christianity.
In the Middle East, they make a difference between the nations and between the political plans. That’s why political plans, each few years, it changes. But the nations, it never changes. People here in America, they are very friendly, they are very peaceful. And even in Western countries, like England, if they know what’s the reality in the conflict between the Muslims and Israel and in Iran, I don’t think the nations, they mean the bad to that nation. They support each other. But the politicians, they have different opinions, they have plans.
And here, usually, in America, they don’t understand what’s going on outside. Usually, people here, they think about their pockets, about how much they make money, about the gas, the prices of the gas – the local issues, not the political plan of foreign countries or those things. Many people, they are asking me “Where are you from?” I said “From Iraq.” Some people, they don’t know what is the Iraq! They don’t know about the politicians that much.
So this is make even the Muslim people to realize American people, they are very friendly, they are very nice. Even the western people, they are very nice. So they (Muslims) are not against the humans here, they are against the political plans.
What are you doing, here in San Diego, to foster relationships between the Muslim community and the rest of society?
Actually, we started having inter-faith meetings with the churches with the synagogues here in San Diego. This is one of our plans.
Second, we start teaching our youth here how to understand each other, how to be very peaceful, very nice, respectful to other faiths. Usually, our young people, they live here, they go to the college, to the university. They live with different religions, different cultures, they came from different cultures. But they are very respectful.
We invite here, sometimes we have open houses here, for non-Muslims. We teach them about our holy book, about our culture, about how Muslims are nice with them, peaceful with them. So we make many things to live here, together, peacefully and to let each of us understand the other.
– Interview by WILL CARLESS