Culled from Weekly Trust
.‘Those against my Nigeria visit mischievous’
.‘I’ve never been officially banned from the US’
The visa granted to Jamaican-born Islamic preacher Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips by the Nigerian Government generated some controversies, with some saying he should not be allowed into Nigeria because he has been banned by the United States of America, United Kingdom, Germany, Kenya and others. In this exclusive interview with Weekly Trust in Abuja, Bilal Philips, who converted to Islam in 1972, says those opposed to his visit to Nigeria are ignorant. He also discussed the Boko Haram crisis, terrorism and the rise of Islam around the world. Excerpts:
Weekly Trust: Your coming to Nigeria has sort of generated a lot of controversies by some….
Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips: (Cuts in) Extremists….
Funny, you call them extremists and they also call you an extremist. What is your opinion on the controversies it has generated in Nigeria?
I guess it is difficult to identify what really their intentions are as I see them as inevitably ignorant or they are deliberately mischievous. Reality of cause in terms of what I am about is the farthest thing about what they claim I am. I speak and teach in a religious institute of over 150,000 students where I seek to enlighten people about the true teaching of Islam in order to prevent the spread of extremist ideas that are associated currently with the Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and other extremist elements that are manipulating the Islamic teachings to justify real or imagined attacks on Islam.
I say real or imagined because in some cases it has to do with just dominance. In reality, Western civilization dominates the world, culturally, politically, economically etc, so that can be seen and perceived as a threat. But how do you respond to that? The military response is foolish, it only creates greater chaos and havoc and destruction. Muslims are not in a military position to fight the West and if it is an issue of ideology Islam has sufficient ideology to challenge Western thoughts and globalised civilization. It is the only solution as everything else has been absorbed. So it has its own power and that is why the West sees Islam as a threat to its own world dominance; that is why they see as threats people who call on the world to just practice real Islam. This perception has led them to term as terrorists or extremists preachers who just call on people to practice Islam and be better Muslims first. They see practicing Islam as a threat.
They feel if you are an American, you should call yourself an American first and not a Muslim American or a Muslim British, but British Muslim or An American Muslim or a French Muslim. They want cultural assimilation over religion. We are just speaking about Islam and they are branding and labeling us as extremists.
Back to the point as I might have digressed a bit, for all the controversies my coming [to Nigeria] has generated most of it is as a result of ignorance, probably because they do not know what I am speaking about. They just hear that I have been banned in some countries and I am on the American blacklist and for that reason I must be whatever America says I am. In reality this is just ignorance in the sense that Nelson Mandela was also on the American blacklist even while he was president. He was still on the blacklist all the way until he received his Nobel Peace Prize and at that point they were now forced to take him off the blacklist. He got the Nobel Peace Prize for the same thing they put him on the blacklist. So that just tells you what that blacklist is and there are so many cases like that. The other part is fear, those who fear the rise of Islam – and the reality is that Islam is rising, Muslims are awakening.
The United States label you as an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ and banned you from going to the US. Can you tell us why you are being termed that way and why you were banned from entering in the US?
To set the records straight I have never been officially banned from the United States. I never tried to enter the US and was not allowed in. All I know in recent years is that I am on a no-fly list, which means I cannot get into any plane flying to America. I have never received a document saying I have been banned or ever been stopped at the airport and told I was banned and could not be allowed in. The important thing for me here is the word ‘unindicted co-conspirator.’ What do those terms mean? I have asked all professors that know and they have not been able to tell what the word means. First of all, unindicted means no charge has been laid against me, no charge at all. Second, co-conspirator means we suspect that you may be involved with some people whom we have charged and put away or whatever, you are known to these persons, they had your phone number in their books, we saw you shake hands with them in the mosque, and somehow you are connected to them.
In Britain when they had the train bomb in the subways and they were trying to get information about one of the suicide bombers, they asked a neighbor of his who said he was always trying to convince her about Islam and he would give me pamphlets and booklets about Islam and they asked if she had any of the booklets of pamphlets and she said yes. They picked it up and looked at it and it read ‘The True Religion of God by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips and that was it. People started calling me up and said I was connected to the suicide bomber and all sorts. And I asked how that was possible. All they had was a pamphlet by me explaining why Islam was the true religion of God; it had nothing at all to do with suicide bombing. But the fact that the suicide bomber himself was giving it out to people they assumed that whatever I must have written in there must somehow have influenced him. But when you look at it in reality it has no connection.
So the kind of connection is one person who was involved in some plan to blow up the Halloween tunnel in the 80s and someone who was connected to the planner was known to me, my name was in his telephone book and the list of people he had in his phone book was quite long. The list was published back in 1995 and there were a whole lot of people there. The question back then was whose name wasn’t on the list? So in his trial when they were trying to pin some other things on him he was trying to tell them that he was involved in Islamic activities with Bilal Philips. So my name kept coming up but he did not give them any information that I helped him plan something, so there was no connection. So the authorities said since you are somehow connected to this person and so many other persons then somehow there must be something wrong so that is why you are unindicted even though we have no evidence against you. So it is just a suspicion and that suspicion has been there from 1993.
In 1991 after the Gulf war I led a team of Islamic brothers and we were involved in giving Da’wah to American troops in the eastern province though with the permission of American authorities. Praise be to God over 3000 of them accepted Islam then, so my name went on the radar from that point. Furthermore some of those who accepted Islam when they went back to Bosnia to help the Bosnians who were being slaughtered by the Serbs and that was unacceptable. It was out of that struggle that other things came and Bin Laden and the rest were involved with the rest of all that. So they said since you preached to these people and they left and they did this then you are somehow involved. When they see so many lines popping up and linking it to your name somewhere along the line then they think there have got to be something.
Do you by any chance happen to work or know Osama Bin Laden personally?
Never! I did not know him; neither have I ever met him but when I was doing Da’wah in the Philippines his brother-in-law happened to have a Da’wah center which I used to go to and give Da’wah, I knew him. So again indirectly I was linked to Osama because I knew his brother-in-law. But for Osama I have never had anything to do with him, neither have I seen him personally.
Asides the US, Germany also has this ban on you based on what they think are your extremist views….
In Germany my ban was completely rejected by the courts. A Muslim German lawyer took on my case after I was banned for life in Germany by the Mayor of Frankfurt and won the case. The court ruled that the action of the Mayor was completely in error, that he had no evidence and his action was completely unfair and unjust. He appealed and his appeal was rejected and made him pay all the court cost that was involved. So what we have in Germany now is a complete reversal.
He [the Mayor] attacked me and got me a ban was because I called for death penalty for homosexuals. In fact when I came and even lectured there I never even mentioned homosexuality. So it was something prepared before I even got there, to be banned. The claim is that I said in one of my lectures in the 90s that the law in Islam says anyone caught in the act be executed. Which is what Islam says and I went on to explain and defend Islam’s position. Why does Islam take this position of execution? Because I opposed the arguments of homosexuals, they said I was calling for the execution of homosexuals globally. They were like ‘yes you have not said anything but you might soon, so the fact that you might say something which could influence the youth and raise them up against the homosexuals, we are going to ban you for life’
Nigeria just signed the bill against homosexuality; does this make Nigerians banned from Germany?
Exactly, if this is the case no Nigerian should be allowed into Germany because Nigeria does not support homosexuality and even have a penalty if caught in such act. In fact as at the time I was responding to them I told them I guess they should ban the Saudis and the Saudi Arabian Ambassador because he supports the same cause of no to homosexuality. That is the law in Saudi Arabia.
You must be conversant with the security challenges in Nigeria where we have Boko Haram preaching against western education. What is your opinion on this?
This is the clear example of ignorance, where they have not understood and see western education as being the downfall of Muslims. When I teach I teach that education and knowledge are from two basic sources, either they are revealed (revelation from God) or they are acquired by human beings. Both come from God, this is the philosophy that I follow and I feel that the acquired knowledge in some instances maybe more important than the revealed knowledge. But as a basic foundation all Muslims should be aware of the revealed knowledge but the acquired knowledge is necessary knowledge which a Muslim must have in order to function in the modern world.
My biggest project which I am working on right now in the Gambia is to introduce English, Mathematics and Science into the madrasa curriculum of the Arabic Madrasa schools of the Gambia. This has been welcomed by the Ministry of Education as well as the Union of Arabic Teachers and we are already in the process of implementing the project. So I believe it is compulsory for Muslims to learn medicine, Engineering and the entire modern field as it is compulsory for them to know their religion also. So I do not really make a distinction but just that they should be taught from an Islamic perspective in Islamic schools; I’m not saying this has to be in all schools, but Islamic schools. I have spoken many times against suicide bombings because it is completely unacceptable in Islam, the religion of Islam does not preach violence.
These countries where you have been banned are considered to be promoters of freedom of speech for all. Have they lived up to this?
Of course not! Their actions are clear that freedom of speech is of double standards. They have made Islam the current bad guy and so anything related to it becomes a source of constant attack. Islam needs to be stopped, crushed, cancelled etc. In America they have passed laws in a number of states banning Sharia. This is total nonsense because they have no idea what Sharia means and stands for. Some of the lawmakers I have spoken to, I asked, now you have banned Sharia, what is Sharia and they said ‘you know it is suicide bombing and killings etc.’ I am amazed and asked them who says that? Sharia is praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan, paying Zakat and living like a true Muslim; that is Sharia. So it is just ignorance really and is really sad. But I see it as natural consequence of the rise of Islam.
What is your take on terrorism?
Of course there is general statement that one man’s terrorist may be another man’s freedom fighter. So it depends on the perspective on which you are looking. During the American Revolution those who were loyalists of the British looked at their fellow Americans as terrorists and the Americans who won at the end were considered freedom fighters as Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist and then a freedom fighter.
The United Nations did not agree on the definition of terrorism but if I take according to the American definition, ‘terrorism is the use of terror in order to strike fear in the hearts of a civilian population,’ that am a hundred and ten percent opposed to because Islam forbids it. If you are at war you fight on the battle field, you do not take the war into civilian circumstances and kill civilians, we as Muslims are forbidden from doing that.
Have the various bans from different countries affected your family?
Not really, my families are able to travel anywhere without restriction, it’s just me and for my personality I have just kept on doing what needs to be done. I do not put too much stress on it. My reach through the university far exceeds my reach through lectures in various cities around the world. Normally, if I go to the UK for a lecture maybe there would be a thousand or more people who may attend but online I have in the UK over 8000 students which is far more than I can reach in those visits.
Can you tell us briefly why you are in Nigeria?
I was invited by a Muslim group to give some lectures on topics concerning Muslim character, what Muslims should follow in their lifestyles, following the teaching of the Holy Prophet. My intentions here also were to interact and develop contacts and affiliations with universities in the country that have departments of Islamic Studies as well as Islamic universities. My intention also was to meet up with Nigerians who are students in my university as Nigerians were the largest in terms of registration in my university last session, to also meet with schools that are seeking an alternative approach to education and lastly to preach peace.