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Faith in the System

For Hassan Shibly, loving America and fighting Islamophobia are one and the same

Hassan Shibly

Hassan Shibly. Photo: John Emerson

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“What really hit home for me and my children was when we went down to South Merrick and there were boats all over the place—in the middle of the street and on peoples’ lawns.”
Andrew Braum, BSME ’94

Born in Syria and raised in Buffalo, Hassan Shibly (JD ’11, BA ’08) has seen his share of discrimination. A U.S. citizen, he has been stopped by airport security or at border crossings roughly 20 times in the past decade, at times with his young children in tow. In March, he was on his way to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Obama’s senior advisers and missed his flight when he was held back for questioning. “It’s ironic that I’m deemed safe enough to visit the White House to talk about Islamophobia,” says the 29-year-old lawyer/activist/imam, “but I’m not trusted to board a plane.”

Despite these incidents, Shibly is deeply loyal to America and committed to human rights for all. He is similar in that way to his father, Othman Shibly (DDS ’99, MS ’95), an oral surgeon in the UB dental school who has established schools in Syria and free dental clinics in Turkish refugee camps (his mother, Sawsan Tabbaa, MS ’97, directs UB’s master’s program in orthodontics).

After graduating with political science and law degrees, Shibly founded the nonprofit Center for American Muslim Understanding in Buffalo, then moved to Tampa, Fla., where he opened a legal practice specializing in Islamic law, or Sharia. He also began working with community organizations, quickly becoming a nationally prominent consultant and speaker on Islam. In 2014, he was named chief executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national organization that works to challenge ethnic stereotyping and defend civil liberties. The chapter is busy; in 2015, Shibly says, it documented a 500-percent jump in incidents against Muslims and opened 400 new discrimination cases.

Still, he insists, “America is the best place to be who you want to be. That’s not exceptionalism; I’ve traveled to Muslim countries and have seen the reality. We have to keep this nation free.”

What was it like growing up in Buffalo as a Muslim? I’d be the only kid who couldn’t have pepperoni on his pizza. You’re constantly being questioned for being different. But that pushed me to study [Islam], to understand my faith. I have had to actively identify myself and my beliefs.

How has life changed since the Syrian war began and Muslim-American tensions started rising? Even before the Syrian conflict started, my family was pulled aside for questioning at the U.S. border on the same day a man was caught with bloodied weapons after entering the country. He was never questioned or searched because he didn’t “look the part.” That was a wake-up call for me. Why are the real criminals allowed through? So I shifted my focus to domestic policies. Syria is gone. America is our homeland. We have to invest in protecting civil rights and not take what we have here for granted.

What is Sharia and Sharia-compliant law? How is it applied within the U.S. legal system? Sharia literally means “the path to water.” It’s where we must go to have God’s pleasure. It speaks to protecting and preserving religion, life, property, honor and intellect. For me, it’s why I pray, give to charity, honor my parents, etc. Sharia-compliant law also forbids compulsion, or forcing that [Muslim] law on others.

There is no principle of Sharia that would oblige us to act against U.S. law. On the contrary, Sharia requires us to abide by our covenants and the laws of the land. Likewise, there is no U.S. law that would force us to go against the principles of Sharia. The two are not mutually exclusive.

What are some ways in which Muslims and Muslim businesses need legal representation? There are books, for example, on how to preserve property and honor, so usury isn’t allowed. Jurisprudence, called fiqh, helps us implement mort- gages, contracts and interest-based transactions.

What are you focusing on at CAIR-Florida? We have two approaches: proactive community outreach and education. Five full-time lawyers offer $2 million a year in free legal services—not just for Muslims, but for anyone facing discrimination—and we give media interviews, hold personal safety training, and conduct studies in order to promote truth and tolerance.

How do you talk to, and with, people who are reacting to current events with fear? Fear is a reflection of politicians who score cheap points by promoting hate at the expense of our nation. Americans can’t let politicians drive the dialogue this way. Studies show that hatred isn’t connected to terrorism, but to propaganda.

Regarding this year’s presidential election, what (or who) are you most concerned about? Our worst enemy is ignorance. CAIR is nonpartisan, but there is toxic rhetoric coming from candidates like Donald Trump. Recently, I’ve heard politicians lobby for databases and ID cards for Muslims. It is a big concern.

What gives you reason for hope? I think the majority of Americans are good-hearted, but some are misinformed. We are united in the idea of a free land with equal opportunities. I have to remind myself that many of Islam’s heroes were once its enemies; we’ve seen opponents’ viewpoints turn 180 degrees after hearing us speak.

What advice would you give Muslim students who are afraid to practice their faith openly? I owe much of my success to practicing my faith and to the tremendous education I received at UB. The major advice is to absolutely be proud and to be the best classmate, friend, community member and Muslim you can be.