We have a fresh opportunity to reflect some issues of social justice facing the Muslim American ummah.
At this point Duston Barto isn’t going to speak about his views on issues but he also speaks about their great efforts to solve some of them in Lincoln County, North Carolina too.
The editor of Muslim American magazine, North Carolina representative of Muslims 4 Liberty and Assistant Director of Foothills Interfaith Assembly.
He's a vocal pro-Muslim activist in Lincoln County, North Carolina.
Q: Duston Barto, you have been working hard to promote the presence of Muslims in you local community, could you elaborate on that please?
DB: I became frustrated with the “daily grind” of my occupation and I really craved doing something useful that would benefit the Muslim American ummah. In years past I had worked with The Zakat Foundation of America and I got to see how powerful the Muslim American ummah is with regard to charitable acts and how efficient the Muslim charitable organizations are. However, in issues of social justice I saw many gaps that needed to be filled with knowledge and information both in communication of beneficial knowledge to the Muslim community as well as dawah to the non-Muslims.
Therefore, I reached a point in my career where I was no longer satisfied with management and commerce so I took the opportunity to join an upstart Muslim magazine and left my secure job to take a chance on something greater. Alhamdulillah, a year later and our magazine is growing and it has given me a platform to be a vocal pro-Muslim activist in our area.
I have networked with local media and both television and print media know that they can come directly to me as a voice for the local Muslim community on any issue.
Q: In issues of social justice you saw many gaps that needed to be filled with knowledge and information both in communication of beneficial knowledge to the Muslim community as well as dawah to the non-Muslims, could you elaborate on that please?
DB: I saw Muslims getting trapped in the cycle of supporting politicians because they were the opposite of something. For example, Muslims supported Republicans because the party is against homosexual rights and abortion and Muslims had the (misguided) notion that they should support legislation of morality. Then after the Republican party exposed their intense anti-Muslim bigotry, Muslims shifted to wholly supporting the Democrat party because the Democrats were the opposite of the Republicans.
The problem is that we aren’t actually supporting ourselves or fighting FOR a cause. What I wanted to do was communicate the support of ideas and the support of liberty in a way that Muslims would gravitate to. Under Islam there’s no question about certain moral issues, however under Islam it is also clear that we are not supposed to FORCE Islamic morality upon others, therefore supporting laws for the sake of morality is fundamentally wrong and immoral.
Likewise, non-Muslims had a seriously slanted idea of what Islam teaches and how Muslims are supposed to live with others. Even those who support the presence and liberty of Muslims in American society have very misdirected ideas of what Muslims believe and how Muslims want to live in the society! For instance, VERY few Christians realize that Muslims love Jesus, that we recognize his position as Messiah and acknowledge the miracle of the virgin birth. That connection of spiritual brotherhood becomes very powerful and it is completely missing in the Muslim-Christian dialog. Equally important is the position of Abraham and Moses in Islam in forging friendships between Muslims and Jews.
Culturally, many Muslims have developed intensely misplaced antimosity toward Jews because of the nation of Israel. This is very much like hating Christianity because of the nation of America. Neither of these nations are actually established upon the religions that are ascribed to them. In reality, they are secular states and the horrible things done by both of these nations are done in opposition to the respective religions.
Muslims, Christians and Jews are all brothers in faith and we should be more united than any other religious groups, yet we have allowed Shaytaan to keep us divided and fighting.
Q: What kind of issues in your local Muslim community?
DB: There is a great deal of racism among Muslims. Many immigrant Muslims have somehow adopted the racism against African-American Muslims who are the pioneers of Islam in America. I have spoken with immigrant imams who downplay the 400 year existence of Islam in America via the African-American heritage slaves and completely ignore African American scholars like Omar bin Said (early 1800s) and Warith Deen Muhammad (Last half of the 20th century).
There is also a great deal of misplaced nationalism and tribalism. I have had Jordanian Muslims tell me that I cannot trust Syrian Muslims and Yemini Muslims tell me that I cannot trust Egyptian Muslims while Egyptian Muslims have told me that I cannot trust Palestinian Muslims. This cancer of racism, tribalism and nationalism is wholly incompatible with Islam and must be eradicated from our global ummah, not just the local communities in America.
Q: Sadly, there are some people who demonize their Islamic countries by giving bad impression by them selves… I hope we did not suggest that majority of them.
DB: As I mentioned before, the twisted political mindset is problematic as well because of the blind allegiance to the Democrat party by the majority of Muslim-Americans. Meanwhile Libertarian candidates are actively defending the rights of Muslims and remain completely ignored.
All of these problems can be solved by educating Muslims more about the realities of Islamic thought and about how one should think and function as a citizen in the American society.
Q: How did you tackle bigotry from government leaders in your home of Lincoln County, North Carolina?
DB: Well, I didn’t go picking a fight. Let’s get that clear. I didn’t wave my flag or make a march or push for anything. What happened in Lincoln County, NC is that a local elected politician made a bigoted anti-Muslim rant when he was asked about his feelings on a recent court decision which declared that all prayer at government functions either had to be open to all faiths or open to none. Nobody talked about Islam, no Muslim had demanded equal time, so the hateful comments against Muslims and against Islam came out of nowhere.
Once that happened, as a resident of the county, I stood up and said “No sir! We will not take this!” and I wrote a long article expressing my disgust from a citizen standpoint. I addressed it with the logical arguments of the US Constitution, statements from leaders of the country who helped frame the Constitution and from a standpoint which appealed to the common threads of humanity within all of us. I further expressed that as a local taxpayer that I did not want to see the county waste money in an expensive lawsuit when this disagreement could easily be settled with a conversation over a cup of coffee.
I then went to the County Commission meeting, prepared to speak during time that the government had allocated for public comment. Had such an opportunity been closed, I was prepared to meet with each commissioner privately by scheduling individual meetings. Basically, I did everything I could do to work within the system that was established before going to the hardcore activist and protesting tactics.
Q: What about exposing hate and prejudice against Muslims?
DB: Well, the good thing AND the bad thing about the atmosphere in America right now is that you don’t have to go far to find hate and prejudice against Muslims. Bigots will always expose themselves. As a pro-Muslim activist, all I have to do is wait for that to happen and be ready to respond with clear logic and strong intellectual arguments. Emotional appeals never work because emotions are different with different people; however Islam is a system with logic that appeals to the intellect and by using that we can leverage power among thinking people.
I think the most important thing any activist can do is to educate him or herself and be prepared to respond when someone comes against the thin that he or she supports. If one goes to poke a hornet’s nest and draw out the hatred, then he or she becomes an instigator rather than a problem solver.
Q: You combated that with a call to interfaith prayers but the commission voted instead to invite members of the community to come and represent their religious group, tell us about you experience, please.
DB: Since the County Commission decided not to move to a moment of silence and not to move to interfaith prayers, I was welcome to the idea of representing the area Muslims with an Islamic invocation. The problem is that they drafted a resolution that seemed intent on closing out non-Christians. The commission made a statement during the meeting that “there are 102 registered houses of worship in Lincoln County and all of them are Christian.” After stating this, they approved a resolution that said anyone in the county could deliver an invocation provided they were the leader or appointed “by a congregation or assembly which meets regularly and frequently within the county.” Well, that left out any non-Christians as the county doesn’t have enough Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’I, Buddhists or any other minority faith group living close enough together to establish a house of worship in the county. All of the counties surrounding Lincoln, however, do contain houses of worship for one or all of these faith traditions and residents of the county simply drive 30 minutes to an hour away to worship.
That is where Foothills Interfaith Assembly came in. Tony Brown, a local pagan priest, also noticed the questionable language in the resolution and we got to talking after the meeting. After a few days of discussion on the phone and in email we decided to form Foothills Interfaith Assembly in order to bring together the members of minority religions and gain strength from one another in numbers so that we could leverage our collective strength and demand our rights. Additionally, we seek to improve knowledge about the diversity of non-Christian faith traditions in the area.
Q: You delivered the invocation at the Lincoln County Commissioner meeting. That was the first ever non-Christian invocation given to open any government business since the insulting anti-Muslim comments were made by Commission Chairman Carroll Mitchem .
DB: It was the first non-Christian invocation given EVER in the history of the county. Commissioner Mitchem walked out of the room a few minutes before the invocation was to begin and refused to come in until after the invocation had been delivered. He even took the time to turn his chair around backward as an extra show of contempt. There was even a woman with a sign saying "No Moslem Prayer" in the back of the room.
During the invocation, everyone was very respectful and I got several old-fashioned "Amen!" shouts from the crowd as if I were a protestant Christian preacher!
Q: The Quran’s first chapter, commonly referred to as “The Opener,” gives praise to “Allah, Lord of the Universe” and asks the deity to “guide us to the straight path.” What about the reaction?
DB: I used a clear English translation of the Qur’an which replaced the title-name “Allah” with the phrase “The One God”. I did this because the use of Arabic terms would have caused a negative reaction and Allah’s Messenger; Muhammad (SAWS), has commanded us to use the language of the lands we enter when we talk about Islam. The overwhelming response to the prayer was positive. Everyone who spoke with me afterward expressed that it was “beautiful” and “uplifting” and one Atheist said “as a non-believer, I have to admit that it moved me, it spoke to me and acknowledged me.”
This, I feel, is the power that we can have by stripping down our own egos as Muslims and presenting Islam in the common language and allowing the meaning of the Qur’an to penetrate hearts and minds. In the weeks since then I have been able to repeat the invocation (including Surah Al-Fatihah) on radio programs and even an Atheist podcast. Preachers in the area have opened their Sunday church services with it and the words of Allah are literally reaching millions of people simply because I chose to use the translation rather than the core Arabic.
Additionally, the women who held up the "No Moslem Prayer" sign in the back of the room ended up talking to some of the Muslim brothers who came to show support and is now reading the Qur'an and interested in coming to the Masjid to learn more about Islam.
Q: I want to know what you had taught through this long journey.
DB: This whole journey has taught me that when responding to hate, it is best to appeal with logic and reason, to look into the Qur’an for guidance and to broker power in society with others. It also told me that in a society wherein we have a diverse collection of ideologies, we have to balance the response that we give between the principles of Fiqh for our personal discourse and our personal speech with the rights and regulations of society that are for all people with no regard to religion.
It does not diminish my Islam to join with people of other faiths and to help them reclaim the liberty that society is supposed to give. “La ikra ha fi deen; There is no coercion in religion” should always be our guide and we should remember that ensuring freedom and liberty for others will secure freedom and liberty for ourselves.
Abdurrahman: Thank you very much, Duston Barto.
Duston Barto: Jazakallah Khair for the opportunity to speak to my brothers and sisters through your publication.
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