Brother Ali on Global Unrest: "The Line Between Terrorism and Righteous Soldiering Gets Very Thin"

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Do you think your peers are maybe being too complacent about not addressing these issues in your music?

No. I don't criticize them. There are a lot of people who talk about these issues, and a lot of people who don't, whose struggle is more personal. We all struggle in the way that makes the most sense to us.

You converted to Islam almost two decades ago, and you've always been outspoken about your faith. When these larger world events come up that involve extremists, and you have all this press to do, do you get exhausted thinking about defending your faith as a whole, all the time?

That's a good question. I think people in the misunderstood, targeted group that people are suspicious of, absolutely have more a burden. We don't know anything about Islam in our society, and most of what we know is incorrect. That's on purpose. There's no way that's not intentional.

For years I followed the biggest leader of the largest group of Muslim-Americans, W. Deen Mohammed, who was extremely patriotic as an American, was a believer in American ideals, was a believer in inter-faith dialogue, and did a lot of work with Christian and Jewish groups and nonbelievers to foster understanding and partnerships. He was very outspoken against terrorism and taught us a lot about what our responsibilities are as American citizens. In the 30 years of work he did, I can count on one hand the number of times he was mentioned in mainstream media.

He brought the Nation of Islam into orthodox, mainstream Islam, but he had a very individual way of thinking, because he learned Islam directly from the Koran, and nobody ever taught him. He learned Arabic at a young age and studied the classics on his own. And he was largely ignored.

There are a lot of mainstream imams who lead Muslim conferences and conventions, and I never see those people in the media, ever. The people that I see, we [the American Muslim community] don't recognize them. We have no idea who these people are. I'd never heard of Anwar Al-Awlaki when the U.S. killed him and started talking about him as a terrorist. But these huge conventions that take place in America, the leaders of those things are never on TV.

So when the police murder yet another unarmed African-American kid, all police aren't questioned about that, know what I mean? When U.S. soldiers pose with dead bodies or torture and dehumanize their prisoners, you're not asking Colin Powell about that, "Do you denounce that?" Obviously, he denounces it. You don't ask a police chief in another city, "Do you denounce the way they killed Amadou Diallo?"

What I do is I speak my truth, and then people can apply that to current events however they need to. I will say this -- people are insulting us just because they have the power to do it. People are intentionally hurting us and insulting what's sacred to us for no other reason than just to do it. That's terrible. You don't do that to people, especially when you have power over them, when your military and economic system has power over them.

We act as though all other things are equal, but they're not. It's not like talking about the Catholic Church. There's power with the Catholic Church that people respect, even though they're going through a PR crisis.

On the other side, the prophet Mohammed, while he was alive, received all the same criticisms that people are using now. He met those criticisms with love and understanding. He didn't go to war because people criticized him. He went to war when people were attacking him and his community's way of life. He never went to war when he was insulted, even when people grabbed and choked him on the street. He's from the same line of prophets as Jesus, Moses, and Abraham.

So the violent responses are not in the tradition of our prophet. They disrespect our prophet and the legacy he left us. But when you have one group of people in power who have money and influence and can kill you, and they're attacking someone else who's only resource is violence, that group is going to decide that that's the only thing that will get them respect. "You throw a Molotov cocktail, then they respect you -- they don't respect you based on human dignity."

These people killed a diplomat and that's terrible. But how many children have we killed over there? How many of their leaders have we assassinated quietly and secretly? We send remote control planes over there to blow their homes up. It's hard to tell a person in that situation they shouldn't be violent, when that's the only thing that gets them respect. The best tool they have to avoid violence is faith, but now you've disrespected their faith, so what are they left with?

It really has nothing to do with the fact that they're Muslim. If they were truly rooted in Islam, they'd go on about living according to their truth and not resorting to violence for the sake of violence. That's what Islam says. But human nature is a different thing.

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo