3:30 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Thank you all for joining us today. Today we have three Muslim-American religious experts who are going to speak about the death of Usama bin Ladin and the reaction of the Muslim-American community. We have with us today Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, who is the communication director at the Islamic Society of North America, we have Dr. Sayyid Syeed, who is the national director for Interfaith and Community Alliances, also from the Islamic Society of North America; and Haris Tarin, who is the director of Muslim Public Affairs Council. They will start out with some brief opening statements, and then they will take your questions. Thank you.
MR. ELSANOUSI: Good afternoon. Again, my name is Mohamed Elsanousi. I’m director of community outreach for the Islamic Society of North America. Today, the Islamic Society of North America joins all Americans in thanking the President of the United States, President Obama, for fulfilling his promise to bring Usama bin Ladin, leader of al-Qaida and the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, to justice. We hope this death will bring some relief to all the families of every faith and walk of life who lost loved ones on 9/11 and every other terrorist attack orchestrated at the hand of Usama bin Ladin.
We at the Islamic Society of North America join the President and pray that as the nation continues to heal from the devastation inflicted upon them at the hand of bin Ladin, we will turn to each other today united and emerge tomorrow with an even stronger resolve to take every action necessary to protect the precious ideas of our nation that bin Ladin attempted to destroy. Those are tolerance, freedom for all.
So with that, I will be happy to take your questions later.
MR. TARIN: Good afternoon. My name is Haris Tarin. I’m the director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. And our organization, and in general the Muslim-American community, feels a sense of immense relief with the death of Usama bin Ladin. Usama bin Ladin has become a figurehead over the past decade, even over a decade, for chaos and terror not only here on our shores but internationally. His victims were indiscriminate. He did not care whether they were Muslim, whether they were Christian, or whether they were Jews or any other faith. It was an indiscriminate act of violence that him and al-Qaida engaged in.
And so we hope – we at the Muslim Public Affairs Council hope that this will be a new chapter in how we are able to engage the Muslim world. Usama bin Ladin and his ideology had become increasingly irrelevant in the Muslim-majority countries, and we had seen this over the past few months with the Arab Spring. The blossoming of the Arab Spring proposed a new narrative, a narrative that was not based on nihilism, a narrative that was not based on exclusivism, a narrative that was not based on violence.
The young people on the streets of Cairo, on the streets of Tunis, the streets of Libya, and Damascus, and Bahrain, have shown that they are able to ask for dignity, for freedom, for human rights, and for democracy, in a way where the world can see them as an example – a positive example.
And so Usama bin Ladin and his cohorts in al-Qaida for the past few months were silent. They did not know what to say. They killed more Muslims than they did non-Muslims. They had – on the streets of Amman, the streets of Riyadh, the streets of Dammam, Kabul, Karachi, New York, and Washington, D.C., were full of the – of blood and body parts of the people who Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaida had unfortunately killed.
And so we hope that today this will be a new chapter in our country’s moving forward in terms of our national security and our relationship with the Muslim-majority countries and ensuring that we no longer completely securitize that relationship, and are engaged, as the President had said, in our mutual understanding and mutual respect of one another.
And I hope to take your questions in a bit. Thank you.
DR. SYEED: Good afternoon, and As-Salāmu `Alaykum. You know that for the last several decades now, since the emergence of al-Qaida, Muslims in America have been very much concerned about this destructive ideology. It negates the experience that we have. It negates our existence, our successes, our growth, our development, our living in a democratic country with full participation and full bloom.
So therefore every time we were hearing about these disastrous acts, we were wondering what kind of ideology this is. And continuously we have tried to rebuff it, to provide an alternative, to provide a truly Islamist alternative through our own existence, through our own institutions, and our organizations in this country. So in that sense the news about Usama bin Laden’s death is a major landmark in that, but it’s not the end of it because it is the ideology that is critical for us. It is that hate, it is that destructive interpretation and narrative that bothers us very much.
So this will be a continuous struggle where we will have to continue to expose the contradictions of that ideology and show how it is alien to Islam. And we are lucky that some developments, some positive developments, have taken place during the last few months. That is the – this contradiction that was the product of repression in the Arab Muslim world. Like, for example, the situation in Egypt where the youth were not allowed to dream even for their lives to tinker their – for generations, there was no possibility for them to breathe in a free environment. And therefore, out of that repression was born this destructive ideology.
So we are very lucky and very hopeful that these new developments will help us and reinforce our message. So we hope that you, as the representatives of the media, you will be able to convey our message in the most effective way. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Just want to make a quick housekeeping note. We’re going to open it up for questions. Please wait until I call on you, and there will be microphones on either side of the room. And please state your name and your media organization, okay?
We’ll start over there, right there.
QUESTION: My name is Syed Ahmed. I represent the BBC World Service. There is a debate going on in the Muslim world that killing Usama bin Ladin is like killing a human being, but the idea, the ideology of Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaida, remains. Does that bother you?
MR. SYEED: Okay. This is exactly what I was trying to – that’s what I was trying to highlight. It is not the personnel – person of Usama bin Ladin alone. It’s true that it has brought a closure to a great tragedy. It will have soothed and comforted those whose near ones were destroyed in the tower here, and those Muslims who were also victims of his ideology. So they will feel that literally, in a sense, it has been brought to a closure.
But certainly, the long haul, the longest struggle that we have, is against the ideology. And particularly, American Muslims consider this a total – this wrong interpretation of Islam itself and negation of the fact that within America, a strong Islamic presence has prospered and has emerged here. So how could we say that Muslims cannot live in a democracy? How could we say that America is – has nothing else to do but to kill Muslims, when in America, day by day, we have been able to create and influence part of our community here?
QUESTION: Thank you. Raghubir Goyal, India Globe & Asia Today. I hope there will be relief for millions of people and also hundreds of thousands of victims left behind. My question is that it took 10 years. I’m sure somebody knew where he was, living like a maharaja in that such a big complex, and bigger than what Saddam Hussein had.
My question is that Usama bin Ladin, as far as his death, is it true that he’s – Usama bin Ladin was killed yesterday, as the President said. He left behind thousands of Usama bin Ladins around the globe. And in the last 20 years, he has killed millions of people around the globe, not only 3,000 at the – New York or in Washington or the Pentagon.
What is the future? And also, certainly, really, are you going to have a big debate as far as in the name of Islam, I’m sure, because he was using Islam – as President say, he should not – I’m sure he was not a Muslim because there is nothing in Islam like this. What is the future now that you are going to make sure that --
MR. TARIN: I would first like to say that I think it’s important to put into perspective Usama bin Ladin’s death. It’s that of a figurehead, as I mentioned. Usama bin Ladin’s death is not going to end terrorism, it’s not going to end terror tomorrow. Terrorism will continue to probably maybe increase in the next – in the coming few weeks or months as it pertains to reprisal attacks, but I don’t think that is the point.
The point is that Usama bin Ladin represented an ideology and a narrative. Usama bin Ladin represented a binary view of the world, that the world is split between those who think like him and those who are other than him. It wasn’t just between Muslim and non-Muslim. It was between those who think like him and those who think other than him.
Now we also have to put into perspective the fact that we don’t want to overestimate the power of Usama bin Ladin and his followers. He does not have thousand of followers in Afghanistan or in Pakistan or in the Muslim world. As I mentioned, the narrative that he has presented for many years has been rejected. Poll numbers show that any level of support that he had in the Muslim world was on the decline, and that there was no sympathy in the streets of Muslim-majority countries by the masses for Usama bin Ladin.
And we saw that in the Arab Spring, not one slogan of Usama bin Ladin was used, not one flag of America was burned, not one Israeli flag was burned, because it’s not about America, it’s not about Israel; it’s about the people. It’s about the dignity, the human rights, the freedom of the people. And if the people so desire for that freedom and for that dignity, they will get it. And I think the narrative of Usama bin Ladin, what he put forth, that charismatic figure, is no longer there, and that’s something that I think is extremely important and positive.
QUESTION: May I follow up, a quick one?
MODERATOR: Let me take another question. We had some write-in questions. Our next question is from Flavia Krause-Jackson with Bloomberg. Her question is: “To what extent does the killing of bin Ladin lay bare the bankruptcy of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and the very few options the U.S. has for dealing with that, given that it would appear that the U.S. went into this alone and growing reports that the Pakistanis knew of bin Ladin’s whereabouts and helped keep him hidden?”
MR. ELSANOUSI: Yeah, I’m Mohamed Elsanousi with the Islamic Society of North America. I think the President was very clear yesterday in his statement. He mentioned clearly that with the cooperation of the Pakistani intelligence, that Usama bin Ladin was killed. So I think the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, I think after this event, would only be stronger because the President is very consistent in his remark – not only on this occasion, even actually previously, he always differentiate between the act of the terrorist like Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaida and the Muslim communities. He repeatedly said that America is not in war with Islam or Muslims.
So I think with the new beginning that the President mentioned in his Cairo speech and in his Istanbul speech, I think this event will only strengthen the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. And we will see that in the future for months and years to come, because I want to also address the question here regarding the mention that Usama bin Ladin was caught. I think that the young people, the young people that Usama bin Ladin trying to radicalize, they might recruit them for al-Qaida. They feel Usama bin Ladin is not really killed in Tora Bora or somewhere in Afghanistan, but it’s been mentioned in Abbottabad. And a number of you are from Pakistan, so you know what Abbottabad means. It’s a very nice tourist place.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll go right here.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. This is Abid Khurshid. I am Islamabad-based journalist. I just visited U.S.A. My question to you, sir, please: There is – as you mentioned that the majority of Muslim countries welcomed the killing of Usama bin Ladin, but there is also a demand from some countries that now Usama bin Ladin who is the mass killer, he is now no more – should U.S.A – should U.S.A troops quit South Asia region? What is your opinion, point of view?
MR. TARIN: In terms of the effect that this will have on policies, I mean, I’m not a representative of the U.S. Government. But I can say one thing, that it is time for us as a country to have a more constructive conversation as it relates to our relationship, whether it be with Pakistan or Afghanistan. The people who are suffering in Afghanistan, the people who are suffering in Pakistan, could probably care less about Usama bin Ladin. There is a human side to this conversation that needs to be had. Whether we want to continue to invest in a securitized relationship that I said before, focused on our military approach, or a civil relationship where we’re able to invest in civil society, we’re able to invest in education, we’re able to have a relationship beyond the terrorism and the security lens that we’ve unfortunately developed over the past decade. And I think this is an opportunity to have that conversation.
For us as a Muslim-American institution, we are going to continue to have that conversation, whether that’s with our government or whether that’s with the Pakistani Government or the Afghani Government or wherever that may be. This conversation is crucial for it to begin because at the end of the day, it is the average Afghani and Pakistani who is suffering. And we saw that Usama bin Ladin was living in his mansion on his throne of self-pity and self-righteousness, and sending off 12-year-old boys to commit acts of terror, to blow themselves up. I mean, that’s paradoxical. On the same day that he was caught in a mansion, there was a 12-year-old boy who was brainwashed to blow himself up and blow his fellow citizens up. And that’s what needs to be addressed. And from our perspective, we want to continue to have that conversation. We want to push our government and push the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to be more constructive in that approach.
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s go to the gentleman right there.
QUESTION: Gentlemen, hi. I’m Phillip de Wet from the Daily Maverick in South Africa. A theology question, if I may. There’s a lot of debate today about burial at sea, whether a Muslim should be buried at sea if he did not die at sea. Do you endorse the way in which the U.S. Government handled the mortal remains of Usama bin Ladin? Are you happy with the level of respect that was apparently shown there?
MR. SYEED: We are here representing the Islamic community in North America. Our minds have been occupied for several decades about this debate – whole debate and the news that was coming every day. You would turn on the television, and you would have some terrorist act somewhere. So we have been tremendously occupied by that. Our theological debates and discussions were to respond, to retort to these false verdicts that he was giving from time to time when he was saying that now every American is a target and their blood is halal from now onwards. Well, he was prompting and indoctrinating those 12-year-olds to go and kill themselves and kill others. So in a situation like this today, we are more concerned about the fact that he’s no more there. We will have more details coming in the future, but it’s not something that we want to spend our time in that kind of discussion.
So I would like you, as the media representatives – first of all, I’m sorry, we have been told that we should say our name and our designation so that those of you who are on telephone, they should know who is speaking. So my name is Sayyid Muhammad Syeed. I’m representing the Islamic Society of North America. And throughout this time, that is from 9/11 onwards, our organization, Islamic community in general, was in the forefront because we had to negate – to counter the misrepresentation of Islam. We had to face every day the humiliation that Muslims and others were put – the screams of blood that were flowing because – at his orders and at his behalf.
So therefore it’s a time to deliberate on that. It’s a time just like you might have – you must have heard our President’s words yesterday. He said today this event, this occurrence it is – it unites us all as Americans.
But I want to tell you it’s not just Americans are united today; all Muslims, whether they are American Muslims or Muslims in whichever country they may be, today all humanity is united. Because someone has hijacked one of the world’s religions and was using the extraordinary, the resources of that religion, spiritual resources, political resources, human resources in a very, very wrong way. And that resulted in death and destruction, not of any particular enemy, as he would call, people of all faiths, people in different parts of the world have experienced those tragic situations where people were killed, whether it was in England, whether it was in Indonesia, whether it was in Saudi Arabia, throughout the world. So that’s why this is a responsibility of every media person, whatever his faith, whatever his region, whatever his background or her background, we have to focus on the actual legacy of – not the body, but the legacy, the (inaudible) legacy, ideological legacy – how we are going to counter that. So that is our concern.
MODERATOR: Can you say your name? Can you wait for the microphone?
MR. SYEED: Your name, just like – I give my name, you give me your name. And you are safe and sound here. (Laughter.) There’s nobody to --
QUESTION: My name is Tayyeb Afridi and I’m from Kyber Radio in Pakistan. My question is that what is your point of view – you can say that what is your society point of view about the drone attacks in tribal areas? Could you support to stop it after the killing of Usama bin Ladin?
MR. TARIN: Our organization’s stance has been clear: We are against military intervention in a way that would affect the lives of civilians, whether they be drone attacks, whether they be conventional military means. We continue to engage in a conversation of civility, and we push our government and any other government to do that. That is how we think that many of the problems in the Muslim-majority countries will be resolved, through nonviolent means. We believe that that is a very powerful means of struggle, and we saw that – we saw that in Egypt, we saw that in Tunisia, and we continue to see that on a constant basis in the region.
So we believe that the most constructive way to address any issue on the ground is to ensure that there’s conversation, that there’s dialogue. And that’s what our position has been since 9/11, and we will continue to engage our government and we’ll continue to ensure that we have that conversation and that we’re pushing for a more constructive conversation with Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: We’ll take our --
MR. SYEED: We have continuous dialogue. This is a democracy. There are many, many occasions for us, as Muslim leaders, to give our input to our government here – right from White House to all different institutions. So every time we have emphasized that every Muslim country, all Muslims throughout the world are equally – have the same aspiration to live in a country, in a society, which is rule-governed, where there is full empowerment of its members. And America, in that sense, should be – should support those kind of movements.
So it’s unfortunate that Obama not only hijacks Islam, he hijacked one of our –
QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)
MR. SYEED. Wonderful, thank you for coming.
Usama bin Ladin not only hijacked Islam, which is a concern for us as Muslims, but those of us who had highest expectations from Pakistan, which was the first committed democracy. So it bothers us, it hurts us to see that Pakistan was pushed into a mire, into a situation where Pakistan itself was hijacked. So that’s why our prayers, our consultations, our discussions, we always emphasize that this is a country that is committed to democracy and therefore we should do all that it takes to strengthen those civil institutions which ultimately make up democracy.
MODERATOR: Mr. Elsanousi, I think that you might want to give a more detailed answer about the burial question.
MR. ELSANOUSI: Sure.
MODERATOR: That’s something on several people’s minds. Would you mind addressing that from a theological perspective?
MR. ELSANOUSI: Absolutely. Again, my name is Mohamed Elsanousi, and the issue of the burial – and this is, I understand has been a question in the Muslim world and here also at home. And just for your understanding, there is a difference of opinion on this between the Muslim scholars. You will see that a majority of Muslim scholars, clearly, they think of the burial, whether it is in the sea or in the earth, it is permissible, it is allowed. And our president, Imam Mohamed Magid, the famous imam in the United States, just said today in the morning, in the press conference in our offices here in Washington, that it is allowed to bury a Muslim according to the Islamic tradition in the sea.
So this is our organization position which was articulated by the president of our organization, and I also saw a lot of statements, actually, in the Muslim world, from famous scholars in the Muslim world, Dr. Al-Qudan and others, actually also said that it is allowed to bury in the sea.
MODERATOR: For our next question we will go all the way in the back. Okay, why don’t we go to the young lady there and then all the way in the back.
QUESTION: Hi. Yildiz Yazicioglu, Turkish correspondent from Turkey, T24 and Turkish Online. I will like to ask about especially major coverage – you mentioned it – because of – I watched almost all night different American channels. So mostly I didn’t see, for example, about Istanbul attacks. Istanbul, which is – most population is Muslim city in the Turkey. I always saw Madrid and London attacks mentioned in the TV. What do you think about American media coverage? Also, what do you think about next position in the Turkey – all Muslim countries – about U.S. relationship? Thank you.
MR. TARIN: I think in terms of the U.S. relationship with Turkey, it’s been quite positive and constructive. And I think when the President came into office, one of the first places that he chose to go to was Turkey to show his commitment to the Turkish people, and also Turkey as being a historical legacy within the Muslim history and Muslim psyche, so I think that was extremely important, and the President did do that.
In terms of the coverage, as I mentioned, there are a countless number of cities where al-Qaida has left its unfortunate footprints, whether in Istanbul, whether in Madrid, London, Karachi, Islamabad, Kabul, and the – Riyyadh, the list goes on and on. And that is the point here. The point is not the actual rituals or the incident itself. It’s the fact that many of the people – many of the victims in Istanbul, many of the victims in Madrid, in New York, did not have a burial. Many of the families in Riyyadh, in the Dharhan, in Amman, that never saw even the remains of their family members, and it was that indiscriminate killing that al-Qaida promoted, promoted all over the world for the past two decades. And I think that’s where we need to focus on and to see how we can move towards a more constructive relationship because terrorism, like I said, will not end today, but at least our conversation and building a constructive framework and relationship can start today.
QUESTION: My name is Chin. I’m a reporter from Singapore. In the past two years, there have been growing concerns about Islmaphobia in the U.S. So the death of Usama bin Ladin, does that change anything about this trend that the community is clearly worried about? And at the same time, is the community a little nervous about the celebrations of Usama’s death that broke out in the White – outside the White House and in New York yesterday? Thank you.
MR. ELANOUSI: Yeah. My name is Mohamed Elanousi with the Islamic Society of North America. The question of Islamaphobia, I just want to say that as an American Muslim community, it is true that we have seen some kind of hate crimes in the Muslim community, but we also we wanted to emphasize the fact that we enjoy the support of the interreligious communities here in the United States. Before 9/11 and after 9/11, we got a lot of support from the interfaith community because the United States is a country that immigrants before the Muslim communities actually also faced some challenges – the Catholic community, the Jewish community – and we are learning from their experiences as the Muslim community. And they came in solidarity with the Muslim community right now to stand with Muslims affirming American fundamental values.
Around the controversy of (inaudible) one, around the controversy about Terry Jones burning the Book of the Qu’ran, the interreligious came together. Major churches – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Partnership for Common Good, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Protestants represented by the National Council of Churches – all of these major national religious organizations came together and built and organization called Shoulder to Shoulder. It’s standing with American Muslims, upholding American values, to affirm the American values which protect religious minorities and groups. And that’s what we enjoy here. That’s why we really don’t anticipate a backlash on this event, because the country is troubled so much, and the religious leaders in our country today have actually prepared their followers, prepared people at the grassroots level how to deal with these kind of things.
MODERATOR: Our last question will go here.
MR. SYEED: Just one second. I (inaudible). Yeah. This – it’s very natural yesterday, what you have seen. It was very spontaneous in front of the White House. It was not organized by some organization. And same in New York. So I wanted to bring to your attention as media specialists, you know when this priest, the pastor in Gainesville, Florida wanted to burn the Qu’ran during the summer. So it was reported in the press. And later, press found out – our media in America found out that this man is a hoax, and they unnecessarily gave him so much of publicity and made him into a big monster. So they – once the media in America realized that he was not a genuine person and there was nothing special about him, so when he did it second time, actually he burned the Qu’ran about four, five weeks ago? What was the day? Yeah. Month ago. When he actually burned the Qu’ran a month ago, American media did not report about it. It was somewhere in Afghanistan that the news broke and there was a reaction and couple of – about a dozen people were killed there.
So what I’m trying to say is that in America, the mainstream religious organizations are closely working with the Muslims, like Qu’ran burning issue when it came out, we were – our friends, the organizations which worked jointly – that is this – as he’s told you about the Protestant organization National Council of Churches or the Union of Reform Judaism or this – did – the Catholics, they jointly worked with us to fight against the anti-Muslim bigotry in America.
Then today we had a meeting with them. They were not comfortable because you can see that they have a very mature response to these things. So they were not happy with what had happened yesterday, this rejoicing and so on. So I’m telling you that the mainstream Christians, mainstream Jews, they are very disciplined, just like I gave you the example of the mainstream media in America, because they weigh, they measure what will be the reaction if they do certain things. So within certain limitations, within a certain maturity, they react but are very careful not to overreact, which is very important for us.
MODERATOR: Okay. Our last question.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Miguel Gomes. I’m from a weekly newspaper called Novo Journal from Angola. I find it interesting, you are talking about a new narrative because I think there is – there are two new narratives. There – because of the Arab Spring, we saw that, first it was Tunisia, then Mubarak – was the greatest ally in the region of the U.S. Then Qadhafi, then Yemen, then Syria, with maybe supported – the opposition in Syria supported by the American Administration. So do you think this a new strategy, because you all know that Obama Administration announced almost publicly when they started that they’d like to be in the leading role in the – in solving the Israel Middle East relations. Do you think that this is a new strategy for the – for solving – for the peaceful relations between Israel and the Middle East?
MR. SYEED: There is an existing movement in that direction, where we have Muslim organizations, Christian organizations, Jewish organizations, people of different faiths together working to reinforce that peaceful resolution where Palestinians will also get a respectable, well-defined nation-state of their own. So Obama Administration has supported that and the overall global – the changes that are taking place, they will sprung from that direction.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Can we get some closing remarks from Mohamed please? Thank you.
MR. ELANOUSI: Again, Mohamed Elanousi with the Islamic Society of North America. I think the role of the media and the foreign media in getting out the reaction of the American Muslim community here is very crucial because, clearly, the event that we see in the United States, whether it is Terry Jones burning the book of the Qu’ran or a small incident like small communities against building an Islamic center, this is not the United States of America, this is not the majority of America, this is not the Christian community here in the United States. And similarly also, when we see events of terrorism in the Muslim world, the American people are very clear on this; this is not the majority of the Muslim community is doing these kind of things.
So this differentiation is very clear. And as we live in this pluralistic society here in the United States, I think we need to tell the Muslim community across the globe that is the way things are happening here, that it is a constitutional right and it is a protection with different laws.
So I think with that, I would close and hope that the event of yesterday will definitely strengthening the relationship of the United States and the Muslim world and Muslim communities across the globe. And we have seen that the President was very clear; he contacted several world leaders and Muslim world leaders, actually, before he made the announcement, that is, just to make sure that the new beginning is continuing.
In addition to that, my colleague here talk about the de-securitization to de-securitize the relationship with the Muslim world. And this is happening. We as an American Muslim community engage in many fronts, actually, sending science envoys to the Muslim world, trying to help through the exchanges programs. Some of you might here for exchanges as well. So these kind of things that is – I think the United States is very keen at this time, and we as the Muslim community are supporting that to share these experiences.
Thank you so much for coming.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll end there. Thank you.