‘A job that needed to be done’
Chico area Muslims react to the death of Osama bin Laden
A few weeks ago, Ali Sarsour, Palestinian by birth and Chicoan for 40 years, was strolling through the sunny Saturday farmers’ market. Without warning, two people began berating him about his religion.
“Muslims are warmongers,” they shouted. “Islam is a violent religion.”
Sarsour, a 2008 candidate for Chico City Council, deflected the comments as best he could, but he, like many Muslims, is no stranger to such treatment. Osama bin Laden, leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network, was killed a few days later, and while his death may have lifted some of the public’s animosity toward Muslims, Sarsour does not believe it will ever completely disappear.
“Like any community, we have our racists and bigots, and these people never change,” he said.
Similar views were expressed by others in the local Muslim community. Additional commonalities included the belief that bin Laden had been a threat to Muslims, as well as agreement with a teaching from the Prophet Muhammad decrying the killing of innocents.
“Killing bin Laden was a job that needed to be done,” said Chico business owner Sam Shabbar, who is originally from Jordan. “You have to pay consequences for your actions. Bin Laden was not a Muslim, because Islam teaches you not to kill innocent people.”
Shabbar pointed to the Prophet Muhammad’s admonition that killing even one innocent person is like killing all of mankind, and conversely, that saving one life is similar to saving the whole human race. However, he thinks bin Laden should have been taken prisoner rather than killed, because his capture could have provided answers to myriad questions.
Hussain Alkhalifah, the president of Chico State’s Great Prophet Mohammed Association and a Chico State senior from Saudi Arabia, also brought up the same teaching in condemning bin Laden. His student group held a long-planned symposium on Islamophobia—which included an interfaith speaker from Fresno who tried to dispel stereotypes—two days after bin Laden’s death to a standing-room-only audience.
Alkhalifah, like many, believes that bin Laden hurt Muslims in the United States.
“I am a victim of Osama bin Laden, even more than many in America, because after his attacks the media generated the image that all Muslims are jihadists or terrorists,” he said. “I lived in Texas for a year following the 9/11 attacks and saw how many Texans felt uncomfortable and fearful of me and other Muslims.”
Alkhalifah says he still argues with those who think that Islam was the motivation behind bin Laden’s terrorist actions. He said bin Laden falsely couched his beliefs and actions under the guise of religion.
“When bin Laden was killed I finally got to show my reaction, which was just like that of many good Americans,” he said.
Like most of those interviewed, Alkhalifah’s response was one of relief, but not celebration. “Islam teaches you not to celebrate the killing of others, but also that the world is better off without people who are bad,” he said.
Both Alkhalifah and Shabbar believe bin Laden’s death was inevitable considering how many people his organization killed, including Muslims. Each cited al Qaeda’s coordinated bombing of several Jordanian hotels in 2005, which killed more than 50 people, almost all of them Muslims.
Sarsour, who regularly attends the Chico Islamic Center, agreed and pointed out that many Muslims were also slaughtered during the 9/11 attacks.
He said that despite al Qaeda’s intentions to help oppressed Arabs in Palestine and other countries, he does not believe that its actions helped these causes. He said that prior to the 9/11 attacks many of his Muslim friends were sympathetic to bin Laden but that his methods soon created strong opposition.
He was surprised the leader of al Qaeda was still alive.
“I thought bin Laden died years ago, because after 9/11 he made several public videos and recordings but hadn’t done so lately,” he said.
Palestinian Amro Jayousi, Chico State’s outgoing president of the Associated Students, expressed indifference to bin Laden’s death and instead stressed that “the U.S. has been a villain and done harm to far more nations than bin Laden.”
He emphasized the United States’ damaging foreign policies, such as support for Egypt’s now-deposed leader, Hosni Mubarak, and for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein when he was massacring Kurds in the 1980s.
Sarsour believes most of the Chico Muslim community is relieved and can now move on with their lives.
“I’ve heard many stories of Muslims outside of Chico being mistreated because of what bin Laden did,” he said. “His terrorism created Islamophobia.”