Controversial Muslim leader ‘transformed' at Hartford Seminary

Controversial Muslim leader ‘transformed' at Hartford Seminary



Fawaz Damra, the imam of the Islamic Center of Cleveland. © The Plain Dealer / John Kuntz photo.

Ties to radical Palestinian group 'in the past,' says imam of Cleveland-area mosque

Under the leadership of its imam, or spiritual leader, Fawaz Damra, the Islamic Center of Cleveland hosts a fair share of interfaith dinners, prayer services and open houses each year. And at least once a week, an outside group will take a tour of the six-year-old facility located in the suburb of Parma just southwest of Cleveland.

But interfaith relations have not always been Damra's stock in trade. Last September, following the September 11 tragedy, Cleveland's Fox TV outlet showed a decade-old videotape, released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, of the iman raising money for a radical Palestinian group and making racial slurs against Jews.

What turned Damra around?

As he sees it, it was time spent at UCC historically-related Hartford (Conn.) Seminary, where he earned a Master's degree in 1998.

"I am someone who came from a background of complete ignorance of how to get along with people who are different," he explained to a gathering in December at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland. "There are things that I have said in the past of which I am ashamed and for which I have apologized many times. I was living in ignorance and I did not know any better."

Supported Palestinian groups

Damra was born in 1961 to a Muslim family in Nablus, in what is now the West Bank in Israeli-occupied territory. After studying Islamic law, he graduated from the University of Jordan in 1984 and emigrated to the United States. In Brooklyn, N.Y., he became the iman of a small mosque which later was accused of radical activities. Damra himself admits raising money for "oppressed" people like the Palestinians, but says he has never knowingly supported terrorist organizations and always has cooperated with federal investigations.

At that time Damra represented Palestinian factions in a dispute over which way the mosque should go. One faction wanted to bring their nations under Islamic governance. Damra wanted to support the intifada, the uprising against Israel.

"As a Palestinian myself, I came to see the atrocities that were committed on the Palestinian people," he says. "I was horrified and terrified and I had very strong feelings about the Israelis. But when I began to get acquainted with different faith communities, especially after I had been to Hartford Seminary, I came to realize that I could not make a judgment on people just because they belonged to a certain race or to a certain faith, and so on."

Invited to Hartford

In 1991 Damra moved to Cleveland to become the imam of a mosque. "At that time I still had no contact basically with people of different faiths nor people of different ethnicity," he explains. "I was living in a cultural ghetto, an intellectual ghetto. Ignorance breeds bigotry. I am a good example."

Then in 1993 a friend of his, Ibrahim Abu Rabi, co-director of the MacDonald Center for Muslim- Christian relations at Hartford Seminary, urged him to take summer courses there.

"My political transformation started at that time," he says. "In Cleveland, I began to see different immigrants who are living here. They are citizens of this country, their children are second generation, they are living not in isolation but mostly with other educated people of different backgrounds, not just with people of the same background like it was when I came to Brooklyn."

The seminary experience also challenged Damra's own faith. "When you study your own faith from one traditional way, you look at the world from one traditional angle," he says. "But when you study your own faith from the faith perspective of a different faith community, it gives you a different understanding, a different view.

Abu Rabi remembers Damra as keeping an open mind and applying himself as hard as possible to study the interaction amongst Judaism, Christianity and Islam. "I think he left the seminary believing in larger dialogue between people," he says.

"I can say that without Hartford Seminary I would not be where I am right now, meaning that I am a person who is working hard since that time to reach out to persons of different faiths."

An interfaith leader

In Cleveland Damra has been a leader in interfaith gatherings. Following the September 11 attacks—which he calls "absolutely horrible," saying they are "absolutely forbidden" by the Quran—he and the Roman Catholic bishop hugged each other at an interfaith service at St. John Cathedral.

Since the INS released the videotape of his decade-old remarks, Damra has apologized repeatedly for who he was in the past and what he said. "Not only do such sentiments not represent my attitudes today, they are antithetical to my values and faith, my commitment to tolerance and peace," he wrote in a column in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's daily newspaper.

When his congregation built the new mosque in 1995, many of his people opposed his initiative to invite people of different faiths to the mosque. But after they saw Christians and Jews participating in interfaith dinners and prayer services, he says, "the resistance started fading away. Nowadays our interfaith dinners will include even Buddhists and Hindus."

"Quite honestly," he says, "those who have known me since that time would say to you that this has come as a result of the initiative that I took since I went to Hartford Seminary."

What are ways to reach out to the Muslim community?

Muslim Americans desire to be understood by the larger society. Most would welcome a phone call. Don't worry about not understanding Muslim culture. Be yourself and let the person know you are unfamiliar with Islam. There are several things one can do to foster good relationships. Begin by: a) asking if there are any groups gathering where you would be welcome. Remember, both men and women should dress modestly (meaning wear loose clothing that covers the shoulders up to the elbow and the legs below the knees); b) seeing if the imam is involved in any interfaith programs; and c) inquiring if any of his congregation is immigrant, and if so, has he heard about any workplace problems they face.

Invite the local imam or leader of a Muslim organization to: a) participate in an interfaith service; b) serve on a steering committee or participate in a community event; or c) participate in a religious fact- finding delegation. (Be sure to consider dietary requirements if you invite a Muslim to an event where food will be served. Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.)

Contact your local mosque or Islamic Center. If you need a local address, contact The American Muslim Council, 1212 New York Ave., NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005; phone: 202-789-2262. Based on a flier published by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (773-728-8400). For a list of excellent books on Islam, recommended by the Middle East and Europe office of Wider Church Ministries, go to  www.globalministries.org/mee/res.htm.

Number of mosques up 42 percent in last decade

Muslim mosques are springing up in cities and suburbs all across America.

According to a study by UCC-related Hartford (Conn.) Seminary, the growth of mosques in the last decade parallels the development of Mormon and Assemblies of God congregations. The study was part of a massive study by Faith Communities Today, coordinated at Hartford Seminary and involving 41 Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith groups.

The survey found that the number of U.S. mosques increased 42 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared with a 12 percent increase for evangelical Protestant denominations, and a 2 percent increase among old-line Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox groups. Muslim congregations ("masjids" in Arabic) generally include several national and ethnic groups. Ninety-three percent of U.S. mosques are attended by more than one ethnic group.

There is a growing self-consciousness and self-confidence among American Muslims, says the study. The events since September 11 indicate that American Muslims are eager to be active in U.S. cultural and political life. Research conducted before the attacks indicated that 77 percent of Muslims in the United States "strongly agree" that they should be involved in American institutions.

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