Omar Suleiman: America’s favourite Imam wasn’t good enough for the Right Wing

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Imam Omar Suleiman is celebrated within the Muslim community for his scintillating talks on Islamic spirituality, on enjoining truth and justice, and for inspiring action in our hearts. He holds an illustrious amount of appellations, from Muslim scholar, writer, civil rights activist to eloquent speaker. He is a man not known to be reticent in the face of tyranny. He directed the “Muslims for Humanity ” Hurricane Katrina relief in late 2005. he co-founded the East Jefferson Interfaith Clergy Association. In March 2018, he was amongst the many arrested on Capitol Hill for protesting against US President Donald Trump’s attempts to dump DACA, a government policy that saves children of ‘illegal’ migrants from deportation. He is an ardent advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement, considering it an Islamic responsibility to raise his voice in support of humanity. Yet his most recent titles, coined by right-wing politicians and news, seems to be an aberration in his interminable labor for justice and unity.

On May 9th, 2019, Suleiman, at the invitation of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, delivered a sublime opening invocation in the House of Representatives. In his prayer, a reflection of the very essence of his being and work, he says:

We pray for peace, not war, love not to hate, benevolence not greed, unity not division.

He continues, “Let us be for truth, no matter who is for or against it. And justice, no matter who is for or against it. And hope, no matter what obstacles lie ahead.” Despite the profound love exuded by his supplication, the right-wing of America has instrumentalized his presence to propagate their racist and divisive incentives. Regrettably, the aftermath consists of baseless tirades and a spurious smear campaign.

The smear campaign was inflamed when Representative Lee Zeldin of New York, one of the two Jewish Republicans in the house, criticized speaker Nancy Pelosi for allowing Omar Suleiman to deliver the opening prayer. He tweeted:

Totally unacceptable that @speakerpelosi had Omar Suleiman give the opening prayer yesterday in the House. He compares Israel to the Nazis and calls them terrorists, supports Muslim Brotherhood, incites violence calling for a Palestinian antifada and the end of zionism, etc. Bad call.

Zeldin’s remark provoked a tumult within the right-wing media, with Suleiman as the scapegoat.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency published, “Anti-Zionist Iman Delivers Opening Prayers in the US House of Representatives.” The Jerusalem Post’s headline read as, “Israel Bashing Imam Delivers Opening Prayer at the House of Representatives.” The Daily Caller, a conservative newspaper notorious for its history of controversies and misinformation, published, “Militantly Anti-Semitic Imam Gives Opening Prayer at House of Representatives.”

These articles are riddled with calumnies and manipulative language, meant to infect the minds of the public. They charge him with anti-semitism often referring to Suleiman’s 2014 tweets in support of the Palestinians during the Gaza war. The Jerusalem Post writes, “In 2014, Suleiman also made comments on social media alluding to the anti-semitic idea that Israel controls American Foreign Policy, claiming that it is the fifty-first state.” They allege that Imam Omar Suleiman is known for his Israel bashing antics. Some articles went so far as to arbitrarily claim that Suleiman has “several personal and financial ties with Palestinian terror groups.” Several news outlets cite criticism by a post from the Investigative Project on Terrorism or ITP as their source. It is notable to consider that ITP was founded by and is directed by a known Islamophobe, Steve Emerson. Emerson’s two decades of hate speech is well documented.

These hateful maneuvers, facilitated by American politicians and media, have infiltrated American society in recent years. When leaders of color and Muslim faith take the podium and gain momentum, regardless of their speech and stance, it seems their support for the Palestinian people obscures all else. An innocuous prayer, meant to create bridges and join the American community hand in hand, has resulted in violent threats to a man known for his extensive humanitarian and interfaith work. In his thoughtful op-ed, Suleiman responds,

It’s a hate that seeks to fracture the communities it targets. It’s a hate that takes the most vulnerable communities in the country and intimidates them into silence so that the only thing they can do is brace for the next attack.

The veracity of his statement is resounding. This conspicuous pattern of racial animus carried out by the GOP is disquieting and exasperating. Not long ago, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar fell victim to the very same tropes inundating Suleiman. She brazenly suggested that American foreign policy is influenced by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobby, and was deemed an anti-semite for her comments. A Palestinian congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, must prove her Americanness every time she speaks of her Palestinian identity. A seat at the table is not enough. It is not nearly enough when our colleagues seek to obfuscate and criminalize any divergent perspective we offer. Not only does it shatter communities, but it also incinerates fundamental relations.

However, many prominent figures have rushed to affirm the integrity of Suleiman’s character. Tedd Green, an associate professor of religion at Luther College said that a key Republican strategy this election season “is to cast all Muslims as anti-semitic in an effort to instrumentalize Islamophobia for votes and political leverage. It’s an insidious racist strategy that we should resist at all costs.”

A Democratic congressman from Texas, Colin Alfred, said:

Suleiman’s message of peace, unity, and support for our fellow Americans is needed now more than ever. I thank him dearly for stopping by my office and always representing the best of North Texas.

Author Zac Crain writes:

But if you think Suleiman is an anti-Semite if you think he advocates violence or hate, you have not paid attention to his work in Dallas and elsewhere. You have not listened to his words, before Congress and elsewhere.

US representative Eddie Bernice Johnson also tweeted in solidarity with Suleiman.

This plethora of testimonies and gestures of solidarity will eclipse all malicious forces that seek to silence and intimidate. Yet we can not be content. The smear campaign targeting Omar Suleiman speaks to a profoundly implanted epidemic in American society. If it is not addressed, it will continue to fill the veins of society and hemorrhage our community. Suleiman himself asks imperative questions in his op-ed:

It’s important to ask why I’m suddenly the target of these smears and not before in other similar appearances. Would a faith leader from any other community withstand the same scrutiny of all of their old tweets and sermons? Is it fair to ignore the testimony of the plethora of elected officials, faith leaders, and communities that know me personally because some websites posting false characterizations in order to ensure I’m never afforded such a platform again?

When we find a seat at the table, they endeavor to ensure we stay seated, never erect or heard. They oppress us under the guise of representation. We are placated by Omar Suleiman himself as he says, “Hateful attacks cannot silence voices of unity and love.” When they attempt to fragment and burn our communities, like the Phoenix, we will rise from the ashes God-willing.

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