TRANSCRIPTION BY SHERYLAND NEAL AND DEAN MOUGIANIS
PHOTOS BY ERTEL PHOTOGRAPHY
EDITORS NOTE: THE THOMAS MERTON CENTER PRESENTED THE 2019 NEW PERSON OF THE YEAR AWARD TO WASI MOHAMED – AN ACTIVIST WORKING TO EXPAND CIVIL RIGHTS AND BRIDGE GAPS BETWEEN COMMUNITIES.
WASI MOHAMED WAS FORMERLY THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ISLAMIC CENTER OF PITTSBURGH. HE HAS SERVED ON THE ACLU PENNSYLVANIA STATE BOARD OF DIRECTORS, AND AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF EMGAGE PA, WHERE HE COORDINATED POLITICAL EDUCATION AND ORGANIZING ACTIVITIES THROUGHOUT THE COMMONWEALTH. GOVERNOR TOM WOLF HAS APPOINTED HIM TO THE COMMISSION ON ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN AFFAIRS.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS A TRANSCRIPT OF WASI MOHAMED’S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH.
Thank you everybody. Salaam Alaikum
So, I don’t know who paid them to say those nice things but it was worth it, thank you. It’s hard to stand up here and accept this much praise and this much love when I’m standing here looking at an audience of so many individuals who I believe deserve this more than I do. And when I see this award, or any other recognition, I remember because things were referenced like what happened, you know, [at] Tree of Life [where] there WASI MOHAMED (CENTER) AFTER RECEIVING THE NEWPERSON OF THE YEAR AWARD PRESENTED BY BOARD MEMBERS M. SHERNELL SMITH (L) AND ROB CONROY (PRESIDENT, R) was a tragedy – the response was beautiful from the whole city. You know, over 6,000 people contributed to Muslims Unite for the Tree of Life synagogue. And we think of these social movements that Monica referenced of us marching across the bridge. That was hundreds of people that came together. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, you know, the kind of work that it takes to run the center is not possible by an individual; it’s done by everybody. Sister Niama, and her family, and Amber and all these volunteers here today who are part of the Muslim community, they are the ones who made that possible. So I just want to first and foremost thank all of you for doing your work because you deserve this recognition. And when I see this trophy sitting on my mantle what I’m going to think about is how much I appreciate all of you and the work that you do and I’m going to be thankful for that so first of all a round of applause to you guys.
So I’ve got to say I couldn’t decide what to talk about, and I kind of settled on a topic that has three different parts, all within kind of the same category. Because of the conversations I’ve actually recently had with a lot of people here. And the topic is, “Don’t throw people away”. And I know that’s difficult but the first thing is, don’t throw people away that love you. And that matters, because we’re all in the business of coalitionbuilding. We need to see social change immediately. You know, people are dying. People are suffering injustice and oppression. We need that change to happen now, right? In order to be strong, we have to be strong together.
There’s a story which I think helps to illustrate this. Which I think is some of the difficulty in coalitionbuilding. It’s from Rumi, the Muslim poet. He says, “A group of Hindus have an elephant to show. No one there has ever seen an elephant. They bring it at night to a dark room. One by one, we go into the dark and come out, saying how we experience the animal. One of us happens to touch the trunk. A water-pipe kind of creature is what they say when they exit. Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving, fan animal is what’s in there. Another, the leg. I find it still, like a column in a temple. Another touches the curved back. A leathery throne. Another, the cleverest, feels the tusk. A round sword of porcelain. He is proud of his description. Each of us touches one place and understands the whole that way. The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark and how the senses explore the reality of the elephant is different for every person.” And he ends by saying if each of us held a candle there and if we went in together we could [all] see it.
So that story is about how everybody here has his particular perspective. Everybody here has an understanding, everyone has something to contribute to the coalition. If you get too angry with somebody because they don’t see things your way that’s difficult – you can’t stay in that coalition. And then what this story illustrates is that the divine knowledge that we can have, those aspects of truth that we have access to are dependent on our experiences and if we don’t give room to those experiences and viewpoints of other people, then we’re going to be at a loss. We’re only going to see part of the elephant and we’re only going to understand part of the truth. So to build real coalitions we need to make sure that we hear from the perspectives of everybody here.
And the last thing about not throwing away people who love us – that should be the easy one, right? But in coalitions, because of our differing perspectives we tend to [throw away people who love us].
And another thing that I think is very important is the concept of the Cancel Culture that we live in right now. Which, if you understand that, is the concept that when somebody says something wrong or does something wrong the immediate response is to cancel. To kind of say that we’re out, we’re going to completely disinvest from this individual. And to me, I feel like that’s too close to throwing people away. And Dr. West, Cornel West in the event that we had put on, which was phenomenal, said that when we love somebody we have to protect them, respect them, but we have to correct them. So we understand the concept of helping somebody who’s wrong. You know, I love Kanye West – it’s very hard to do that right now. And I’ve thought about throwing away Kanye; it’s very difficult right now. But I think it’s very necessary to differentiate between individuals who’ve said offensive things and the institutions that strip people of their humanity. The latter being far more destructive. Changing culture means approaching folks from the standpoint that these harmful ideas that you are perpetuating need to go. But it’s also that we’re not going to accept this anymore. But the people themselves can be recovered. So I just want to use that as a warning, because I’ve had a lot of conversations that…a lot of people struggle, you know. We’re in a society right now where you record more things than ever. I want to make sure that we do not throw people within our coalitions away for messing up, right? We have to call them out if we love them. We have to correct them if we love them. Let’s not throw people away too easily and too quickly. Okay?
So, I’m going to use Thomas Merton to do the other two.
The other part is don’t throw away people who hate us. Which is a much more difficult concept if you think about it. Thomas Merton said that the whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings which are all part of one another and all involved in one another. Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy of that love. That is not our business. In fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
So about six months ago I met a friend at an event at the August Wilson Center. His name is Arno Michaelis. So I was not excited to meet Arno. I don’t know if anybody attended that event or the vigil that we held which we invited him back to. From the age of seventeen, Arno was deeply involved in the white power movement. He was a founding member of what became one of the largest racist, skin-head organizations in the world. A revered, self-declared, racial holy war pastor. And a lead singer of the race metal band Centurion, selling over twenty-thousand CDs to racists all over the world. So, obviously I wasn’t that excited to see him. I didn’t finish reading the bio. So Arno started his life in a way that was just hateful to my community, to most of the communities that are in the room right now. And that’s who he was, that’s what defined him. And over a period of time he ended up just getting lost in that hatred, harmed by it. He needed an out and he ended up speaking to some people from immigrant communities and from other communities that just, regardless of what he did, they embraced him and they welcomed his change and they gave him forgiveness. And he said, “Forgiveness is a sublime example of humanity that I explore at every opportunity. Because it was an unconditional forgiveness I was given by people whom I once claimed to hate that demonstrated the way from there to here where I am today.”
Arno co-founded an online magazine called Life after Hate. He travels the country and speaks to students and adults about compassion and solidarity. He speaks against xenophobia. He speaks against racism and islamophobia. I always consider, what if we decided at that time when Arno was growing up for years, the decade of his life he spent hating our community that we just threw him away as a person. Is it him? Should we just have allowed him to stay in that hateful group, protested and hated them and made them our enemies? Responded in anger and disgust rather than in love and compassion, would he have had that opportunity to redeem his soul in that way? And, according to him, that would not have been possible. In the Islamic world view we are beings who are in the world but not of this world. We are travelers on this earth and we all share a common destination. As Muslims we believe that this destination is to stand before Allah (SAW) and receive His judgment. And on that day I personally will have to say to God, how did I treat my fellow travelers. The other souls he set out on the journey we call life with us, how did we treat them? On that day we will have to answer that question. And those Arnos, those people, will we have forgotten them? We’ll be asked about them. People might think but look at what he said, look at what he did, look at the harm he caused. Shouldn’t we condemn him? Right? And once again if we love other people and humanity, we must love them and correct them, but we should not hate them. Malcolm X, one of my heroes, whom [New Person of the Year event host] Ernest mentioned, he said, “Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.” Arno was not born somebody who hated our communities; he was made into that. In Islam we believe that the seed is pure, the soil can pollute. The soil can corrupt you. So if we have love for humanity and God’s creation, we should not condemn the seed, the root, the soul that is incorruptible. But we should understand that the soil that produced Arno was poisonous. And if we want to detox him, if we want to save him, we have to respond with love and compassion. The only way to clean that soil.
And that’s the end of that piece. I just want people to understand that hatred is a disease of the soul. We believe in our tradition that it’s harmful for you. It’s harmful for the people facing it. When we see that hate that people are doing, I feel like everybody is hurt by hate. Not only those whom they hate, but those who hate themselves. We have to keep that in mind as we move forward.
And we argue that we’ve never been as divided as we are in this country right now. If we stop seeing the humanity in each other and the people we perceive that hate us, if we see them as only objects that are capable of hating us and not human beings that in their nature are pure and trend towards justice and humanity and peace and love, then we are going to be lost. We are not going to get back to where we need to be to build this country and to move forward. The last piece which is especially important to me is don’t throw away ourselves. Thomas Merton said, “What can we gain from sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” This is the most important of all voyages of discovery and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous. If you’ve ever studied Thomas Merton the central theme of all of his writing is contemplation. It is that reflection. The prophet Muhammad (PBUH), he only received revelation when he was in the cave reflecting. In the tradition, Islam says knowledge is there for those who reflect. Why is that so important? It’s difficult, it’s hard, even when you love people to stay in this coalition. So don’t throw people who love you [away]. It’s difficult to not throw people who hate you away because they’re hating us right now, obviously. The thing people don’t even consider often is don’t throw away yourselves and you’ve got to focus on yourselves. I need these coalitions to exist in the future but that’s not why I care about this. I don’t know about y’all, but how many people have y’all lost from the movement because they got burnt out or they couldn’t make it. I even have some friends recently who lost their lives because the pressure of this work is difficult. You can raise your hands.
That’s way too many people in this room. The concern here is that we are not treating people like people. Within that they are part of this movement that need to show up to a march, show up to a protest, show up to an action or an engagement, write to their legislators. Those are human beings doing those things and we have to make sure that they have the space to grow and reflect.
And so Sahir Al Mohadi, the prophet Mohamed (PBUH), said there are two gifts of which many men are unmindful about – good health and leisure. The thought about self-care tends to be a luxury that we feel in the organizing space, in the justice space, we do not have the time for it. If we do not understand our own humanity, how can we possibly see that in other people? We are going to get frustrated, we are going to get burnt out. I’m standing in front of a room of people who I sincerely believe should have received this honor instead of me. What I need you all to do is take care of yourselves a little bit better. What I need you to do is reflect, read, figure out what you need.
Thomas Merton is interesting. He had a correspondence with a Muslim. His name was Abdul Aziz. He was south Asian – shout out [to South Asians]! Technically Pakistani, but whatever [no love lost]! So him and Abdul Aziz were talking. And this was one of the rare inside moments into his actual personal worship. And Thomas Merton told him of how the personal nature of his worship was crucial to him. Thomas Merton was an activist. He was anti-war. He was anti-nuclear weapons. He was involved in so many movements. He was a leading thinker and activist. It was crucial for him to keep on going in that work, And he found what he needed to keep himself going in prayer. Personally I find that in praying five times a day (SWT). You know he found what he needed, what I need everybody to do is take a second and [ask yourself] do you have that thing in your life that will help you recharge for the next fight, because there always will be one, unfortunately.
So Thomas Merton and Abdul Aziz they talked about it and they both had their reasons and their ways to cope and deal with all of this. In order to move forward in the work, before you get the skills to organize better, handle campaigns better, write more legislation, whatever it is, you need to figure out what that thing is that will let you take care of you and help you get recharged.
That’s the last message I want to leave you with. I want to thank you for listening to me for this long. I really hope you take that last piece more than anything seriously. Anything I can do to help you recharge, please let me know. And I love all of you for coming and I appreciate your support.
And thank you to the Thomas Merton Center and to all the volunteers for all the amazing work that they’ve done.