Exclusive: Interview with Dr Bilal Philips

As regular readers may be aware, the Canadian Muslim scholar Dr Bilal Philips was recently refused a visa to attend an Islamic conference in Melbourne, Australia. The Australian government cited security concerns as their reason and a number of serious allegations against Dr Philips were made in the media. For example, the Herald Sun reported:

Sheik Philips, 50, a Canadian citizen who lives in Qatar, once wrote: “Western culture, led by the United States, is the enemy of Islam.”

The US Government named him as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the 1993 bombing that killed six people and injured 1000. He was deported from the US in 2004.

Unfortunately, lost in the coverage of the conference and Dr Philips’ visa application was Dr Philips’ side of the story. As such, we are pleased to present this interview with the sheikh in which he responds to some of the media and government allegations against him.

Dr Philips, where are you at the moment?

I currently reside in Doha, Qatar and have been here for the past three and a half years. Prior to that I lived in the UAE for ten years and before that for twenty years in Saudi Arabia.

As we know, the Australian government recently refused to issue you a visa to enter Australia for an Islamic conference. They cited security concerns as the reason. What is your view on the their decision?

I find it appalling as my track record as a moderate Islamic lecturer, professor, television presenter, and writer should stand against the baseless allegation that I’m an extremist or a threat to the security interests of Australia.

I have been to Australia on more than one occasion and my lectures have all been recorded and are circulated in Australia and they all speak to my moderation. I have found Australians to be very open and tolerant during my visits and lectures on campuses and other public venues. So the refusal comes as a disappointment, especially considering that my wife is a third generation Australian of Irish extraction.

Furthermore, in July of last year I did a lecture series in New Zealand, flying in transit through Sydney, and all my lectures were recorded there also, if the Australian immigration and security agencies cared to review them.

It is very saddening to see the Australian authorities so blindly following American allegations and unsubstantiated false accusations, instead of following the path of fair investigation as the authorities in New Zealand, UK, and Canada have done. Had they bothered to contact the Canadian authorities who have thoroughly investigated me based on American suspicions or the British who have done the same based on my regular lecturing in the country, they would have found sufficient evidence that I am not nor have I ever been involved in any form of terrorism or anything remotely connected to it. In fact I am one of the loudest voices in opposition to those who commit acts of indiscriminate wanton violence against civilian populations and the like in the name of the religion.

Anyone who visits my website or hundreds of Islamic websites, or googles my video and audio lectures can find hundreds of lectures recorded over the past twenty years readily available for download. My over 50 adult and 56 children’s books (Eemaan Reading Series) are on sale in most English speaking countries and used in many Islamic English medium schools internationally.

Several newspapers have reported that you were deported from the United States in 2004 and that you are an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the first WTC bombing. Is this true?

Most Australian newspapers reported the claim that I was “deported” from the USA in 2004. However, this is totally and absolutely false. I have not entered the USA since 1995, so it is an outright lie, and those who published it deserve to be sued for defamation of my character.

It is also worth noting that the other claim that I was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is really a joke, because well over 100 names of active Muslim leaders, teachers, and lecturers in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas were put on a supposedly leaked report of the then attorney general, Mary Jo White, back in 1994. Since then, none of the “unindicted co-conspirators” have been charged but the “list” remains.

Guilt by association has become a defining characteristic of the American intelligence community’s activities in dealing with Western Muslims. The case of a Canadian citizen, Mr. Maher Arar, is a classic example in which false accusations resulted in tortureand false imprisonment. In Mr. Arar’s case, even after Canadian authorities cleared his name and admitted their mistake and agreed to pay him several millions of dollars, the American authorities flatly refused and still refuse to remove him from their “list”.

A further point raised in the media is that you reportedly said that Western culture, led by the United States, is an enemy of Islam. Did you indeed say this and, if so, in what context?

This quote has been falsely attributed to me in the Australian press and has been repeated in several reports. They claim that I said that, “Western culture, led by the United States, is the enemy of Islam.”

These words have been taken out of context. They were actually from a book in which I was quoting the well-known Harvard University Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s famous statement on the clash of civilisations:

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to impose that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.

What did you intend to speak about in Australia?

As for my lecture topics at the conference, they were: 1. Introduction to a Dialogue between Civilizations; 2. Human Values are Truly Universal; and 3. The Prophetic Methodology: Perfection of Moral Character.

And I was to participate in a panel discussion on: Tackling the Negative Perception of Islam and Muslims in Contemporary Australian Society.

Have you had any feedback from Australians in the last few days regarding the government’s decision? What is the nature of this feedback/reaction?

A few emails have come in in response to the articles in the news papers. Most were positive. Some, mostly from Muslims, apologized for the Australian government’s handling of the issue. I did however receive some abusive emails from non-Muslim Australians (ostensibly) praising the government for its decision.

Are you considering taking any action against the government or the media in Australia over the banning and subsequent damage to your reputation?

No I’m not, though I would like to as a matter of principle. However, my finances do not allow me to be engaged in a drawn-out court battle, as in the case of Yusuf Islam when he was wrongly deported from the USA last year.

As you say, you have been to Australia on more than one occasion before and have travelled elsewhere to lecture. What was your opinion of Australia/Australians before the government’s ban and has that changed?

My impression remains positive. I have always thought of Australians as being very down-to-earth, “homey”, non-pretentious and friendly – some of the effects of watching Crocodile Dundee in my youth, I suppose. That hasn’t changed, as I know that government policies don’t necessarily represent the feelings of the common man and woman in the street.

Australians like to believe they are a tolerant and accepting people but there is a view that Islamaphobia is rife here and is growing in this country. Do you agree with that view and if Australia continues down this path, what problems do you foresee?

No doubt Islamaphobia has taken root in Australia and elsewhere due to a lot of negative media publicity in the past few years, and the hijacking of the international Islamic awakening by intolerant, violent, terroristic elements. However, as they say: ‘Things are bound to get worse before they get better.’ I believe that this is a phase and that it will pass as it passed for other Australians before. The Aboriginal people of Australia suffered and are still suffering, but a lot of improvement has taken place in the last decade. Similarly, the Chinese immigrants suffered and continue to suffer to some degree, but the worse phase has passed for them also. Likewise, Muslim immigrants and converts are going through hard times now, but as Australians come to know more sbout their Muslim neighbors, the situation will change. This is primarily because Islamic values are universal and it is only a matter of time before Australians as a whole come to know it and welcome Muslim Australians in their midst.

If you had a message for Australians, particularly in the wake of the banning, what would that be? And if there was a key message/messages from the lectures you were to present that you would like me to get across in the article, what would that be?

As to my message for Australians, it would be “don’t judge the book by its cover,” especially when the cover is prepared by the media and the powers that be. Muslims are one fifth of the world’s population and the fastest growing religion in the world, and not just some exotic cult found in remote corners of the world. There must be something to it worth knowing, if it has captivated the hearts of some many common human beings just like yourselves. Do yourselves a favor by finding out about Islam from reliable sources to better understand your fellow countrymen and women. Australia is fast becoming a large multi-cultural community so cultural-pluralism is a reality which must be accepted for the society to function effectively. Cultural sensitivity is the need of the hour. If it is not adopted, the very fabric of society will be torn apart.

Regarding the key message which I was planning to convey in the conference, it was for Muslims to get out of the box and be a part of mainstream society by being involved in their communities and the wholesome activities of their communities. Open your doors and let the general public come in and find out about your way of life so that they can realize how much we have in common. The “under-siege” mentality which plagues us is a natural consequence of the world events of the past couple of decades, however the Muslim community must go beyond it and share their values with the greater Australian society. Otherwise Islamaphobia will continue to increase, and Muslims will find themselves further sidelined from Australian social and political life.