Journalist and SISMEC research associate Amer Taleb sat down with Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Florida), to talk about civil rights, American Muslims, and Islam.
Amer Taleb: What kind of law do you practice?
Hassan Shibly: In my private practice we do some estate planning, Islamic estate planning, Islamic business contracts, and then through CAIR we work on civil rights, government harassment and employment discrimination.
AT: Since your parents were both in the medical field, how did you decide to pursue a career in law and civil rights?
HS: I think the fact that they were both in the medical field and having grown up in that environment made me more interested in doing something different, so I think that was influential. I think that the field of law naturally was very attractive to me because of growing up as an American Muslim and being raised believing in the ideals of pursuing justice. I think that heavily influenced my decision to go into law school.
I was always passionate about seeking justice, for those that are wronged, for those that are oppressed and I felt that, in America, one of the greatest opportunities we have is to engage in the legal system. The legal system in America, unlike many other places, can be a tool for fighting for the disenfranchised, the disempowered, for the oppressed, for the wronged, and to seek justice for those who face injustice.
AT: Give us an overview of what you do on a day-to-day basis both for CAIR and in your private practice.
HS: The day starts early after Fajr salah (the morning prayer). I like to use the morning time to try to get the spiritual strength to do the work I do throughout the day, so I keep that time for my Quran, adhkar (remembrance or invocation of the names of God), dua (supplications); and then, starting the day at CAIR.
No day at CAIR can ever be predictable because of so many different issues. We are the frontline of defense for the Muslim community and for protecting civil rights for all people. At CAIR-Florida, where my office is, we have become the premier organization for civil rights for all people. We have four full-time attorneys, seven staff, in total, and whether it’s a prisoner who can’t have the accommodations to fast for Ramadan in his prison or whether it is a woman being denied service because she is wearing the hijab, or Muslim community members being harassed by the FBI, one even being shot and killed by the FBI. And so we’re dealing with all these issues and our philosophy is that ignorance leads to misunderstanding which leads to fear which leads to hatred which leads to discrimination and violence.
CAIR tackles those things at every level, so when it comes to discrimination we remedy that through our legal action and through our law suits and we also try to proactively prevent it through education and engaging the media. We have a lot of initiatives through education and talking to the media, outreach education initiatives and also fundraising to maintain the organization and increase internal growth.
So I spend the whole day at CAIR until about 6 or 7 PM and then go home, see my family, and then a couple of hours for my private practice. Usually, throughout the week I’ll have different clients calling me seeking help to get Sharia (Islamic law) compliant business contracts or Sharia compliant wills. Alhamdulillah (all praise is due to God) I don’t seek out clients but clients come to me seeking legal solutions that meet their Islamic needs, their spiritual needs and their legal needs, as well as their financial needs also. And I try to read every night to grow intellectually, and the next day I start all over again.
AT: Recently you were on CNN discussing the Boston bombings. What are some of the biggest cases you’ve been involved in?
HS: One of the biggest cases has been representing the family of a Muslim who was a Florida resident of Russian descent who was interrogated in his home for four hours. He was crippled and he had recently had surgery so he wasn’t in the best physical shape. After four hours of investigation, they asked his friend who was outside to leave the area and then they shot him [the man they were interrogating]. He was unarmed and he was shot about seven times. We’ve counted about 11 bullet wounds with one in the back of the head.
It looks like he was shot while he was on the ground and what we learned in our investigation is that the FBI was going around to members of the community and saying, “You can either spy for us or we’re going to throw you in jail.” And what do you have to spy on? You have to spy on the mosques, spy on the Muslim community centers, the restaurants and the hookah lounges. For us, that’s un-American, that’s illegal and it’s unacceptable, so we’re investigating his death and whether his civil rights were violated, whether there is any criminal or civil liability on the part of the FBI and at the same time, we’re working to educate the community on how to protect yourself from FBI and government harassment.
A lot of our work goes into educating the community about the entrapment program and how there’s over 15,000 people paid to entrap members of our community and radicalize our youth. It’s about educating the community on the challenges we’re facing as American Muslims and the threats that we have to our liberty and our freedom. How to protect our freedom is one of the main issues we’ve been dealing with. We also have some law suits coming up for some of our sheriff departments for forcibly removing hijabs over Muslim women who were arrested, photographing them and plastering them all over the internet.
AT: What about the Boston bombings? Were you just commenting on it?
HS: On CNN, we weren’t really commenting on the Boston bombings so much as we were commenting on this individual who was shot, because he had attended the same gym as one of the Boston bombing suspects. But otherwise, I had no direct involvement with the investigation into that event, other than going on several media outlets and making it clear that, of course, this doesn’t represent the Muslim faith anymore than those who have done crimes in the name of Christianity represent their faith.
AT: In your bio, on your website, you mention the significance of integrating Muslims into American society. Why is that important and what are the more challenging aspects of accomplishing that?
HS: I think that America offers a very great and unique opportunity for the Muslim community because America is based on ideals such as freedom and liberty; that we should be free to practice our faith without any government harassment or intimidation, and so I think America is naturally an ideal place for Muslims to grow up and to practice their faith. One of the critical things involved in that is in integrating the Muslim community within American society, whether it is through education, civic engagement, participation in government and really being part of the fabric that makes this country great.
The best way of representing Islam is by giving back to the community, whether it’s giving back through civil service, social services, through volunteer work or through being a doctor and doing good for the community as a professional. Those are all very important ways of really integrating and protecting American ideals for all people, and in that, you protect our rights as Muslims to practice our faith as well. I believe in integration, I don’t believe in assimilation.
I don’t believe that in America anybody can monopolize what it means to be American. There is no one set definition as to what an American is. I think that those that try to monopolize what it means to be an American are in fact un-American, because if you try to say that in order to be an American, you have to look or act a certain way, that would be going against our ideals of freedom and diversity which is what makes this country so great. And so there is no need to assimilate or try to blend in and accept one particular cultural subset as being the definition of American.
AT: In terms of the challenges, do you get anything on the part of the Muslims like “I don’t want to have to learn English or…”
HS: I don’t deal with that too much. I think our biggest challenge is that it’s very important that the American Muslim community gain a stronger understanding of their faith and their traditions and that they feel proud of their faith upon and beautifully reflect the teachings of our faith. In doing that, I think we can really break down a lot of misconceptions and the walls being built by the Islamophobia industry. Our biggest challenge is internal, no doubt about it.
AT: Why do you call it an industry? I’ve never heard that term before.
HS: Well, there are a couple of books about it calling it the Islamophobia industry, and that is because of the way it operates in that you have your funders; there is a very good study on the Islamophobia industry and it’s called Fear, Inc. It’s a study published by the Center for American Progress. You have several foundations that provide millions of dollars to misinformation experts, these misinformation experts spew lies against the Muslim community, providing false data attacking the Muslim faith, from that you have the echo chamber: basically talking heads and politicians that take these lies and echo it to the public. So it does operate as an industry.
Our biggest challenge clearly is internal and not external, but with that being said, the external challenge is very critical and very important to overcome as well, such as the Islamophobia industry.
AT: Muslims are often criticized for not being vocal enough when some incident occurs like the Boston bombings. In an interview I saw you say that that’s an unfair criticism, that Muslims do condemn these things when they happen. If that is an unfair criticism, then why does it persist?
HS: Because it’s sexier I guess. I think it’s an excuse that people want to use, because they want to paint the Muslims as the “other.” I mentioned today in my talk that when a white person does a crime, we’d say that he’s a lunatic, but when a Muslim does it or a minority, then that crime represents the entire minority. So one of the key points that I went over is that we don’t need to – I’m not responsible for what a Muslim does and I don’t need to apologize for what any Muslim does. Just like white people don’t apologize every time some crazy white guy goes out and shoots up a school; they don’t take ownership of it, and we don’t need to take ownership of that. Nonetheless, because of the ignorance that’s out there we still do apologize and we do—I don’t want to say apologize, but condemn and at record numbers, but the point is that it’s not as appealing when people are condemning terrorism as when you have some angry guy shouting crazy slogans.
AT: Are Muslim Americans, in general, are they actively involved in civil rights issues, or are people like you and Zahra anomalies?
HS: I think we are getting more and more people involved, but I also think we certainly have a long way to go. Too many people are just concerned about their own career, their own families, their own business, and not concerned necessarily about building the community as a whole. I think the more we progress in time, the more we come to realize that we just simply can’t afford that.
AT: You have cited some of your criticisms about the government and law enforcement agencies, but overall, how well do they preserve the rights of American Muslims?
HS: Better than most other places. I think that the great thing about the American system is that, while it’s not perfect, it tends to be self-correcting. When you engage it correctly, you point out the faults and you work to address them, they can solve themselves. I think that it was here in Arizona or in Nevada where you had some sheriff who was just profiling Latinos?
AT: Joe Arpaio?
HS: Right. And so in that particular case the Department of Justice brought up charges against him for illegal profiling. The Latino-American community didn’t just put its head in the sand and say, “We have to be quiet.” They didn’t have this guest mentality. They complained and they organized. In the same way, we as American Muslims, if we organize and address these problems, we can overcome them because this system is one of the best systems we have out there.
AT: In turn, are Muslim Americans cooperating at the level they should be with law enforcement?
HS: Absolutely. I think in about half the cases where a Muslim was suspected of a violent crime or terrorism, Muslims were the ones that turned them in, so there is cooperation. But, I think that the problem is—the question is has law enforcement been taking advantage of the Muslim community. The ACLU study shows that a lot of the outreach efforts by law enforcement have been used as Intel gathering, and again, I believe there is unfair scrutiny of the Muslim community.
AT: I’ve read some of your writing and I noticed a term. What does it mean to “empower Muslims”?
HS: It means to help and to educate and to help integrate and to reinforce the fact that they can be proud of their identity, that there is no contradiction between being a good Muslim and being a good American, and to empower them through education. I think education is the key to overcoming a lot of difficulties and challenges we face, whether it’s education about our own faith, education about what it means to be American, education about American ideals or education about integration.
AT: I do have one question about foreign policy. As the son of Syrian immigrants, what is your position on US military intervention?
HS: At this point, anything that can weaken Assad and help the Syrian people would be good.
AT: Are you worried about the repercussions of that, like groups such as Hezbollah and Iran getting involved?
HS: Well, that’s the problem. Groups like Hezbollah and Iran have already been involved all this time and the Syrian people have been left with no one.
AT: So you do agree with U.S. involvement?
AT: To what degree?
HS: Ideally, with very strategic cruise missiles to take out key locations where we first confirm that there are no civilians and that there will be no civilian casualties or of prisoners that have been moved there. This is in addition to a no-fly zone and arming the FSA.
AT: My last question is, how do you gauge success? In other words, how do you measure if the things that you do have a positive impact on American Muslims?
HS: That’s a good question. Honestly, I think success is if God accepts our efforts and we won’t know that so long as we’re alive. I think that that’s the true definition of success. But, I also think that we see success every day of the week at CAIR when we see that people who are going through difficulties, going through hardships, and seeing those difficulties and hardships changing, seeing perceptions of Islam changing with people welcoming their Muslim neighbors and people winning their civil rights.
You see it all the time when a difficulty, a challenge comes and then we overcome that challenge or difficulty, whatever it is. Whether it’s somebody who is a victim of discrimination, or somebody who hates Islam and then suddenly changes their whole perception. Those things happen weekly. Anytime I doubt whether this work is worth it, some big case comes along, a big accomplishment occurs and I’ll think if we didn’t do this, who would? I think of that every day when we’re helping people overcome their civil rights challenges and helping them feel more pride as American Muslims and more secure.