ahram weekly full (2)

Al-Ahram Weekly: Faces of Islam; Fadel Soliman

Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 – 09 – 2006

Fadel Soliman:

Faces of Islamahram weekly full (2)

In the wake of 9/11, a successful computer engineer and marketing expert decides to dedicate every last iota of his time and skill to presenting a positive image of his creed. An Islamic Da’wa activist and Imam of the American University in Washington DC with a proficiency certificate in Quranic recitation to his name, Fadel Soliman had already been appointed National Chaplain of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth in North and Central Americas (WAMY) when, feeling that the Western media was doing irreparable damage to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the wake of the crisis, he founded the Bridges Foundation — a dedicated body that specialises in presenting Islam to non-Muslims and trains Muslims to bridge cultural gap. Soliman is quick to point out that his job is not to convert people to Islam but rather to turn those who antagonise it into friends, or at the very least neutral parties — through stressing “the true face of Islam” not only to them but to young Muslims who might not be fully cognizant of what being Muslim means.In the wake of 9/11, a successful computer engineer and marketing expert decides to dedicate every last iota of his time and skill to presenting a positive image of his creed. An Islamic Da’wa activist and Imam of the American University in Washington DC with a proficiency certificate in Quranic recitation to his name, Fadel Soliman had already been appointed National Chaplain of the World A

Fadel Soliman is nowhere near as well known in Egypt than he is in the US and Europe, where his da’wa (advocacy) practises are focussed. A Cairo branch of his Bridges Foundation, established in 2005 under the patronage of the Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Gomaa, has brought his name somewhat to the fore; and already friends and acquaintances wax lyrical about his “inspiring presentations” and presentation courses. And a good thing, too: Muslims are in dire need of his unique combination of mildness and knowlegeability. On first meeting him in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon crisis, his perspective — favouring strategic deliberation over rash emotionality — was so broad-minded and ultimately beneficial to Muslims worldwide it was exactly, I thought, what was required. And such is his approach to the Islamophobia that has been raging through the world, every time: show them your true face, then they will know what you’re about. This time, when we arrive at the Nasr City Bridges headquarters, the 40-year-old with the trim beard is busy editing a documentary based on his presentations, The Fog is Lifting: he s
tarts the interview with a laptop screening of some clips, revealing an impressive body of work set to fill the vacuum left by national television. But he refrains from any hint at blaming Al-Azhar, whose failure is said to account for the rise of the technology- and media-savvy “genre preachers” who seem to be doing most of the work: “Al-Azhar scholars remain our teachers; they are the source of our deepest knowledge. But once the birds have stopped singing, no one can blame the owls if they do instead…”

This owl is definitely in a position to sing, whether or not the birds have been absent: Soliman was giving a lecture at the annual conference of the United Nations for Islamic Non-governmental Organisations in Manhattan when it all happened. “I was at the heart of the crisis,” he recalls. “The state security had to evacuate the UN building immediately. We had to move to a nearby hotel where at that chaotic time no food was served and I had to volunteer to buy food for my colleagues, many of whom — with their long beards — would have run a great risk being on the street at such a time.” Life went on normally in the afternoon, he added; what amazed him, rather, was the support Americans initially gra
nted the Muslims among them. “Back at my home in Washington DC, I found non-Muslim women donning the veil and accompanying their Muslim neighbours to the market so that, should an attack take place, its perpetrator would realise they attacked a non Muslim American citizen — not a demonised Muslim per se.” In a month’s time such support had “dwindled if not disappeared”, however, and some of the Muslims’ ardent supporters turned to avowed enemies. “Then I realised something was wrong — not just the deadly events of 9/11 — that the media was actually behind this sudden change of heart.” The hunch was confirmed when the Washington Post categorically refused to publish Soliman’s reply to an article it had run in which an extremist priest defamed the Prophet Mohammed. “The newspaper also turned down a petition signed by students and a [Post] journalist, describing them as ‘silly words’ in an e-mail to me.” Soliman was shocked by “the number of time US TV would screen an overblown image of a Taliban extremist shooting a woman in the head”; the media had managed to “drive a wedge” between Muslims and non-Muslims, after all.

This marked a turning point in Soliman’s career. A computer engineer who moved to the US in the late 1990s and became a self-employed marketing expert, Soliman had joined the Islamic Da’
wa only to pursue a non-professional interest; he liked to volunteer, working with charity and teaching Quran, the latter forming the bulk of his activity as a university Imam. Since 9/11, it is the drive to “introduce Islam to non-Muslims” that has informed his entire life — presentations and inter-faith activities are, as he puts it, “my mission in life”. The question of qualification does not daunt him: “I have sought Islamic knowledge since childhood and received degrees in recitation, tafseer (interpretation) and jurisdiction at the hands of great scholars.” When push came to shove, he says, he went further still, aligning himself with the WAMY, where he benefited from such North America-based scholars as the Saint Mary’s University in Canada professor Jamal Badawi. A successful salesman, he put all his marketing skills at the disposal of Islam; and soon, capitalising on the phenomenal post-9/11 demand, he could barely deal with his schedule, which provides for lectures, radio shows and workshops as well as Powerpoint presentations across the US and Europe: “Suddenly I was being invited to places where, up to then, no religion, colour or sex was allowed. There was this amazing thirst for knowledge. Those were the best days of my life.” Still, he dismisses inconveniences like not being allowed to board a plane as “enjoyable challenges” and “divine tests”. The real challenge, rather, is the wall of misconceptions with which he is confronted, every ti
me.

“Many Westerners view Muslims as creatures from the outer space,” he explains, “worshipping a different God named Allah, who is black and lives in Mecca.” Soliman has frequently had to explain that Allah is identical with the God of Christians and Jews: “Once, I had a debate with a priest who was wondering why I insisted on saying that [Muslims and Christians] worship the same God when theirs has a son and ours doesn’t. So I said to him, ‘Do you remember the office boy who let you in?’ He replied, ‘I think he was tall with blond hair and a moustache.’ I said, ‘No, he’s tall and blond but without a moustache.’ I had to demonstrate this by letting the boy in before I could proceed, ‘See, we gave different attributes to the same person but one of us was right and the other was wrong. By the same token, we give different attributes to the same God; one of us is right, the other is wrong.” With such persuasive logical, in perfectly flowing English, Soliman has answered questions about Jihad, hijab, the place of woman in socie
ty and freedom of expression in Islam. In countering misconceptions of the Islam as a creed of violence and repression, a simple definition of the Arabic word Islam often worked well enough: “Linguistically, the word ‘Islam’ is derived from the root S-L-M, which carries three different meanings: surrender, purity and peace. And the connotation of Islam as a religion are these same qualities: If a person surrenders him/herself to Almighty God alone, worships Him purely without any association, he/she will live in peace and harmony in both this life and the afterlife.”

Likewise with the post 9/11 America’s ubiquitous refrain, Why do they hate us? “At first, people would be expecting me to say, ‘No, we don’t hate you.’ But instead I would tell them it was a good question that they should ask themselves. We can’t deny that anti-American sentiments are growing all over the world, even in Europe,” he goes on, as if an in aside, “and it’s sad because I see the American people as the most moderate of all Westerners. The problem is rather their administration. My personal view is that Israelis are in complete control of US foreign policy through their lobby in the US: the US administration sees Muslims through the eyes of Israelis and Muslims see the American administration through the weapons of Israel.” His response to an American audience was rather more provocative (and perhaps also less liable to the charge of anti-Semitism): “I believe personally that everyone who promoted something tried to spread it: communists tried to spread communism and socialists tried to spread socialism. But you guys enjoy the gift of democracy and yet support the dictatorships of the world. Maybe people see you as hypocrites,” he pauses. “And believe me they used to like this. They like it when you are frank.”
So far Soliman has addressed over 25,000 non-Muslims, including Congressmen and Pentagon officials. Analysing over 17,000 presentation evaluations completed by his audiences, Soliman is more than happy with the results: 92.5 percent of those who attended had changed their negative views on Islam, and 0.25 went so far as to embrace the religion. “My goal,” he reiterates, “is not to convert non-Muslims to the faith: da’wa is not about converting people to Islam, the way many people assume it is. Allah said to Prophet Mohammed that his only mission is to deliver the message perfectly and that it is up to people to believe or not to believe.” The Quranic verse, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’, Soliman explained, was revealed to defend Jews born to idol worshippers who converted to Islam and tried to push their children to embrace it. ‘The verse was revealed in order to make that point: ‘Leave them alone, don’t push them.’ Still, it would of course make me happy if someone came and said, ‘Hey, I want to join you guys.’”

The most recent major event in Soliman’s career was a conference held in Denmark following the cartoon crisis, in which he addressed 134 Danish journalists, media figures and more than 10 politicians. His conference was 10 days later than that of Amr Khaled, perhaps the best-known younger preacher, who took along 25 young Muslims trained at Bridges. To avoid redundancy, he started where Khaled left off: “My strategy was to get as many Danish attendants as possible and not talk about the cartoons as such, but rather to get Danes talk about them, while focusing my presentation on the large margin Islam
allows for freedom of speech without actually hurting the feelings of others.” This was an occasion to explain that the Quran had all the ethics of freedom of expression and human rights entrenched in it some 1,400 years before the UN drafted similar legislation. He presented a book, The Desert Encounter — for which he is currently seeking a volunteer printer — which tells the story of Knud Holmboe, a Danish journalist who converted to Islam only to be killed at the hands of Mussolini’s fascists in the 1930s — in the battle for freedom of expression. Soliman pauses to extract an accordion fold of cardboard with a piece of chocolate at the bottom. “this is the invitation we gave out for the conference,” he explains. “On each fold is the name of a speaker and his topic. This is how you get people to listen to you.” In the evaluation forms for the conference, 55 percent said yes to “Did your respect for the Prophet Mohammed increase after the presentation?” It may not be as satisfying, but it is something. “Ignorance is the enemy and so we need to fight ignorance. Non-Muslims need knowledge gleaned from true Muslims, not those with some hidden agenda. The problem is when non-Muslims refuse to admit their to ignorance of Islam. Ignorance is not an insult; it does not mean lack of intelligence but rather lack of knowledge. I, for instance, consider myself ignorant of Buddhism, and I would like to seek knowledge about it.”

And, for people who are ignorant of Islam, there is plenty of reason to seek knowledge: “There are 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide — only 15 per cent of them are Arabs — and the rest are Asians, Europeans, Americans and so on. The fact that one in every five people in this world is a Mus
lim is reason enough to know about Islam.” But until the world reaches a point at which they do know, Soliman has every intention of reaching out to people — “on buses and trains and planes, in the airports” — everywhere. “I would bribe people to listen, promising them a $100 in compensation if they don’t get any benefit from my presentation — and believe me, no one has ever asked for the money; that’s how profound the presentation is. It is the fruit of the work of more than six or seven scholars and preachers,” Soliman taps the desk for emphasis, displaying the same confidence with which he has embarked on teaching Muslims to deliver the message in a friendly, positive and spiritual way: a 15-hour workshop at which participants are issued certificates of attendance. Now that he has settled back in Egypt for family reasons, this indeed forms the bulk of his work: “We focus on training tour guides who are more in contact with tourists. So far we have trained some 1,000 tour guides in Egypt. The training was held under the patronage of Egypt’s Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Goma’a. We trained them on how to explain Islamic concepts and beliefs, on answering questions about polygamy, the status of women, inheritance and the veil.” Already, Soliman’s audiences on both sides of the divide are attesting to his excellence. Congressman Mike Doyle has said that “every member of the Congress should attend [them, as they added] a lot to my previous knowledge about Islam. Likewise recently employed American employees at the US Embassy in Egypt were grateful for the knowledge they received, which covered avoiding embarrassing situations and cultural codes that would prove vital to their life here in Cairo. For Soliman, however, the journey has only just started: the ever widening gap will take more than one person to bridge.

Interview by Jihan Shahine