EAST ORANGE, NJ — The Muslims of Masjid As-Haabul Yameen mosque in East Orange gathered at the Atrium Country Club in West Orange on Sunday, Dec. 6, to celebrate 20 Years of Spiritual and Civic Engagement.
The gathering’s theme was “The Journey Continues.” Unfortunately, the event, which had been planned months in advance, happened the same day as President Barack Obama’s prime-time TV address to the nation about terrorism, Islamic extremism and the need for increased gun control laws in the United States, in the aftermath of a fatal shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 2, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined was a planned terrorist act carried out by radical Islamic extremists. Although Obama told the nation the religion of Islam and all Muslims were not to blame for the violent criminal actions of a small minority of individuals who call themselves Muslims and claim to believe in the Islamic religion, many of the speakers at the Masjid As-Haabul Yameen 20th Anniversary Celebration felt the need to also do the same thing.
“The only way we’re going to succeed is being peaceful,” said Imam Siraj Wahhall of Masjid Al-Taqwa in Brooklyn, who was at the celebration of peace, cooperation, community and civic service on Sunday, Dec. 6. “Be careful who you listen to. Obedience is only toward what is right. If someone comes to you and tells you strap on a bomb and blow yourself up, you tell them: ‘You go strap on a bomb and blow yourself up’.”
Wahhaj said, “It’s never the big guys going to blow themselves up. It’s always the little guys” that the fake believers in Islam who falsely call themselves Muslims call upon to make the ultimate sacrifice in service to a wrong cause that goes against the beliefs of true Islam and real Muslims. He said it is up to real true believers to repudiate the fakes and phonies who giving Muslims a bad name.
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver was another featured speaker at the event and she said she agreed with both Obama and Wahhaj that Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik going on a shooting spree and killing 14 people in San Bernardino was not what true Islam and real Muslims are all about.
“There are bad actors in every denomination and we should not be singling out any one faith,” said Oliver on Sunday, Dec. 6. “One of the other speakers pointed out, we’ve had mass shootings with Adam Lanza, who went into a school; we have a Colorado movie theater; we had Columbine. The issue of religion or the faith that those mass murderers followed was not the issue. But we all understand the sensitivity going on in other parts of the world. I think that, as Americans, we need to educate ourselves.”
Oliver said she has a large Turkish contingency she represents in Clifton “and Turkey shares a border with Syria.” She said a lot of her Turkish-American constituents “can give you a lot of frame of reference about what’s going on in that region.”
But Oliver said the key is people getting a better understanding of issues in Syria and around the world that bad people such as Farook and Malik and others are using as an excuse to break the law and do what they do.
“My Turkish constituents can give you a lot of frames of reference about what’s going on in that part of the world,” said Oliver. “But we have no familiarity [with] what’s going on. There’s a lot of oppression of people; a lot of human rights violations; and these conditions, that’s what’s driving people out of Syria. Some of the same things are happening in Nigeria and we have a large Nigerian population in this country and this state, but I don’t judge every Nigerian, in terms [of] if they’re a member of Boko Haram.”
“It’s very interesting, but how appropriate is it — they are here celebrating their 20th anniversary and having to confront a public discourse that is really disingenuous to the faith that they follow,” said Oliver. “I agreed with the speaker tonight, who said if anyone should have tolerance for different skin colors, creeds, religions, it is African-American people. Even though there is a big ideological war in the Middle East between Palestinians and the state of Israel, people who are also very committed to social justice in the United States are Jewish people, because they know what their persecution in history has been. So I think everyone just needs to take a time out.”
Oliver also said she believes American colleges and universities need to use the events of Wednesday, Dec. 2, as a “teachable moment.”
“We need to really begin a discussion in the United States, as it relates to conditions going on in the Middle East,” said Oliver. “Wherever there is a history of oppression with people, they are going to eventually rise up against oppression. I think a lot of what we are seeing today is the result of people’s oppression in other parts of the world.”
Oliver and other guests at the Masjid As-Haabul 20th Anniversary event said this local institution’s track record of service to the East Orange community stands as a stark contrast to the image of Islam and Muslims that some Americans might now have, because of the killings in San Bernardino.
“I’m an East Orange person and Cynthia Brown is my dear friend and anything I can do to support her I will,” said former East Orange Senior Services Department Director Catherine Willis on Sunday, Dec. 6. “I know all about the Muslim community. I’ve been to Dubai three times. The first time I went was with Cynthia Brown.”
Willis said the Masjid As-Haabul 20th Anniversary event was a wonderful affair. She said, even though “they talked a little bit too long,” she nevertheless “got a lot out of it and I learned a lot today.”
“I congratulate them and I pray that they reach their goal, so they can continue to revitalize the area where that mosque stands,” said Willis. “I used to live in that neighborhood, so I know it very well. I lived on 19th Street and 4th Avenue was a prosperous business area. And if it were not for the Muslims coming in when it kind of went down, I don’t know what it would look like today. So they are to be congratulated for keeping it thriving.”
Imam Abdul Aziz Ouedrago of Masjid As-Haabul Yameen thanked Willis and Oliver for their kind words about his mosque and Islam. He agreed that most Muslims want to be known by the good works they do in their communities and around the world, not for the bad actions of a very small number of people.
“We came here to celebrate 20 years of serving our religion and also serving our community and we feel good about that and we want to do more,” said Ouedrago, who hails from Burkina-Faso in Africa and has been leading Masjid As-Haabul Yameen for the last 13 years, on Sunday, Dec. 6. “This is part of our job and why we went to the area, so that we could be able to help ourselves, but also to help our brothers and sisters to see the light to lead the right life. Islam is calling us, as Muslims, to go out and help people who need help.
“What happened in San Bernardino was a very shocking situation for the entire Muslim community. We did not expect things like that. People who are crazy went out and damaged the image of our religion. This is a very difficult situation for us. But we’re going to remain strong and we’re going to continue to do the work and enlighten our American brothers and sisters, to let them know that Islam is here, not to destroy but to help to make the civilization, make the country even better. So we’re not here to cause any problems and destroy, because this is not part of our teachings.
“We want to get to paradise and part of taking the road to paradise [is] you have to build, not destroy; you have to help, not hold yourself back; you have to show love, kindness and mercy to the entire humanity and this is part of our job. And I hope that every Americans will take time to research and try his or her best to learn about Islam and Muslims and also to be able to distinguish between those criminals and those who are trying to serve their Lord and also serve their community.”