The University Record, March 18, 2002

Muslims reap benefits of U.S. diversity

By Elizabeth Manasse
Record Intern

Stacks of chairs had to be carried into the Michigan Union’s Pendleton Room for the talk of prominent Muslim American, Siraj Wahhaj, March 12. Wahhaj’s topic was one with the potential to divide or to unite: Islam in America.

“America’s strengths are its freedoms; the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press and freedom of speech,” Wahhaj says. One-third of all Muslims live in countries where Islam is not the predominant religion. What is special about Muslims in America, says Wahhaj, is that they come into contact with all kinds of people. “We know what it is like to have Jewish neighbors and Christian classmates,” he says. The interaction with people of all ethnicities and religions is what makes the seven million Muslims in America unique. Wahhaj noted that there are many prominent Muslim professionals and successful athletes in the U.S., but the real contribution of Islam to America, Wahhaj said, is from all Muslim Americans.

“Prophet Mohammad was a master in the art of compromise,” Wahhaj says. As a disciplined and forgiving man, Mohammad, the founder of Islam, always was concerned with the masses of the people instead of himself. American Muslims, as well as people of all religions, Wahhaj says, must learn to compromise. “We need to stop talking about one another, and start talking to one another. Only then will we see the similarities between us,” Wahhaj explains.

Wahhaj asked the audience to imagine America without any Muslims, and challenged listeners to think about how this would change our country. After a few moments for contemplation, Wahhaj said, “Islam makes America better. Muslims can represent a voice in this country. We need to look at things, and make mutual concessions to live in peace.”

Siraj Wahhaj has been imam of Masjid At-Taqwa in Brooklyn, N.Y. since 1981. He also is vice amir of the Council of Muslim Leaders in New York, serves on the board of advisers for the North American Islamic Trust, and as vice president of Majlis Ash-Shura Islamic Society of North America. In 1992 Wahhaj became the first Muslim to give the Invocation for the U. S. House of Representatives. He gained national recognition with his leadership of a successful anti-drug campaign in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Wahhaj also appeared as an expert witness on the Muslim religion in the 1998 African embassy bombing trials.

The lecture was sponsored by Dialogues on Diversity, a University program that provides opportunities for the open exchange of views about the role of diversity at U-M and in society.