The Open Mosque

REPORTER: George Negus

Right on the Gulf at Jumeirah Beach in oil-rich Dubai – filthy rich, in fact – there’s this mosque.

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On the face of it, it’s an impressive, maybe grander version of plenty of mosques you’ll see in this part of the world.

For five days each week, with the unmistakable call to prayer, it operates normally with on Fridays, a special sermon from the imam. But for the other two days of the week, on Thursdays and Sundays, at 10:00 – between the usual morning and lunchtime prayers, this beautiful sandstone building transmogrifies into a bold attempt to form a bridge, a conduit between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds, between us and them.

The instigators call their outside-the-square initiative “Open Doors, Open Minds”. And in very down-to-earth terms, it’s aimed at precisely that – opening its doors to non-Muslims who are prepared to open their minds.

GIRL: How do you do this?

ABDALLAH BIN SERKAL, DIRECTOR DUBAI OPEN MOSQUE: Can everyone come closer please? Not too close.

Great idea but how does it work?

Well, in short, it means that on two days every week, Christians, Jews, Calathumpians – name your race, colour or religion – are freely admitted into the mosque, something that’s usually taboo to non-Muslims. So it’s quite breakthrough stuff.

ABDALLAH: The hands, three times. The mouth, three times.

The program’s run by a Emirati Muslim contact of yours truly…

ABDALLAH: It’s refreshing ..

Abdallah bin Serkal, a Dubai businessman who dabbles very successfully in property and real estate and around here there’s plenty of both.

What Abdallah’s curious non-Muslim observers get amounts to a crash course in Islam, including the pre-prayer cleansing and his usually very private Mecca-directed praying itself. Then they’re subjected to a pretty painless lecture from Abdallah on Islam’s Five Pillars – that there is no God but Allah…

ABDALLAH: You call him ‘Allah, you call him God, you call him… ..

praying five times a day, the obligatory Muslim charity, the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca…

ABDALLAH: It used to be a month’s travelling in the old days, nowadays it is about six hours drive in a good car. ..

and the pillar that intrigues so many non-Muslims – all that fasting during the month of Ramadan including, as Abdallah puts it, “the husband and wife thing”.

ABDALLAH: You can marry up to four but you have to be equal and fair. I am translating the verse to you.

That done, there’s a chatty Q&A where no question’s out of order – from why no women in the Grand Mosque…

ABDALLAH: Me, personally I would have no concentration if the nice woman’s skin is touching my arm. Would you? Huh? Would you? OK, he is honest. ..

to how many wives does he, Abdallah, have? He’s got two, by the way.

ABDALLAH: And a Lebanese restaurant is not a local restaurant. Thank you so much.

Abdallah’s got one of the sharpest and appropriately, most open minds of any devout Muslim I’ve ever met. But, here at his Open Mosque, I really wanted to catch up with this erudite, modern, moderate Muslim on more immediately pressing Islamic matters, like how should we be reacting to Hamas’s victory in the occupied territories.

ABDALLAH: I think I will just use President Clinton’s words. He said definitely none of us wanted Hamas to be in the government but if it is good for the people, it will have to be good for us. And we have to deal with it.

Remember, they were the ones who stood up for the people. They were the ones who were the patriots. And they’re known for being sincere people, clean.

GEORGE NEGUS: Not corrupt.

ABDALLAH: Not corrupt.

GEORGE NEGUS: Were you shocked?

ABDALLAH: I was of course in shock. I was expecting them to be the majority of the opposition, OK, maybe sharing. But the people punished the others who were corrupt.

GEORGE NEGUS: Because a lot of people in Israel and in Washington are saying that this means the end of the peace process in the Middle East because Hamas are committed to violence. They have been responsible for suicide bombings, they’re still committed to the destruction of the state of Israel. Do you think…

ABDALLAH: Do you want the truth?

GEORGE NEGUS: Yeah.

ABDALLAH: OK, the truth is, when it comes to hardline… They did not negotiate at all when it comes to the Palestinians rights. When Israel was bombing them, they retaliated.

GEORGE NEGUS: Are they terrorists? Do you regard Hamas… As a moderate Muslim, which I know you are, do you regard Hamas as terrorists?

ABDALLAH: Honestly? No.

GEORGE NEGUS: But what about the violence?

ABDALLAH: I am not with Hamas. I am not defending them now. I am just explaining. Defending your country and your land – the right that is given to you by every religion, right? And we all share it – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Whenever someone defends his country for whatever reasons, right, he has a right to defend and die for his country or his family, or his money, right?

GEORGE NEGUS: But what about killing innocent Israelis?

ABDALLAH: That is the line that is there.

GEORGE NEGUS: So you think that Hamas… it is a fine line between being a resistance fighter and a terrorist?

ABDALLAH: Yes. OK.

GEORGE NEGUS: But you don’t condone the killing of innocent Israeli people by Hamas?

ABDALLAH: No, I am against killing the innocent people, of course. I am totally against that.

GEORGE NEGUS: But what about the recognition of Israel? You see, they have not yet said whether they will ever recognise Israel. How can they negotiate peace without recognising the state of Israel?

ABDALLAH: Everyone is in shock now but once things settle, and in a very mature way… Europeans have said yesterday, even the Israelis – that the majority of the Israelis realise now that they will have to negotiate with Hamas.

Hamas, well, it’s their destiny. They claim that they listen to the Word of God or follow the Book of God. If Hamas says they will comply and they will sign a peace treaty, when they do that with Israel, they will.

GEORGE NEGUS: If they are true Muslims and read the Book of God, they will have to negotiate.

ABDALLAH: Of course.

GEORGE NEGUS: Without guns. Without the killings.

ABDALLAH: Of course, it’s a totally… Now they’re talking about reality. Now they’re in power. Now they’re dealing with it day-to-day, serving the people. They are in government. And I have a feeling if both sides are mature enough to sit down and discuss the difficult, the most difficult points, this is one of the best periods that both Palestinians and Israelis will…

GEORGE NEGUS: So you think good could come from this?

ABDALLAH: Good could come if dirty hands are not played on both sides.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think they will ever really recognise… Even if they give up the guns, will they ever recognise the right of Israel to exist?

ABDALLAH: They have to live with the reality, of course.

GEORGE NEGUS: And that is the reality?

ABDALLAH: Of course. I mean, you can’t, say, throw Israel in the ocean or in the sea. They will have to change. When you are in the opposition, you can throw words but when you are in power, you have to achieve those words and the words count.

GEORGE NEGUS: We’ve talked about this before. Is it still the case that if the situation in Israel and the occupied territories, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is not resolved peacefully, there will never be peace in this region? Quite apart from Iraq, Iran, the war on terror, until that situation is resolved, nothing else will be.

ABDALLAH: Yes. And what worse could happen? This is the choice of the people. We believe in democracy. The West believes in democracy. Deal with it.

GEORGE NEGUS: You were shocked by Hamas winning. Were you shocked by the change that Sharon introduced when he formed Kadima, when he said he was going to give back land, he wants to negotiate peace? Did that come as a shock?

ABDALLAH: Sharon is very experienced, or was very experienced. And I think he also realised while he was in power that you are talking about 3 million or 4 million living in Palestine, 6 million in the world of the Palestinians. What are they going to do with them?

GEORGE NEGUS: They are outnumbered.

ABDALLAH: Yes.

GEORGE NEGUS: So he was being practical and realistic?

ABDALLAH: There was some kind of fear in the leadership in Israel to give the Palestinians anything.

GEORGE NEGUS: In your eyes, again as a moderate Muslim, big difference between Hamas as resistance fighters who killed Israelis and al-Qa’ida who were terrorists?

How can so many people with so many points of view still regard themselves as Muslims doing Allah’s will?

ABDALLAH: It is the way the people interpret the Koran. The Hamas way is that they have been attacked, the Palestinians were living there, the Israelis terrorised them.

That is Hamas’s way of looking at it, Hamas is defending themselves. And al-Qa’ida is youth… young generation which have, unfortunately, supported by the West during the Russian invasion in Afghanistan.

GEORGE NEGUS: Fighting with the Americans against the Russians.

ABDALLAH: Yes, there were heroes, they were heroes. But those young youth suddenly from heroes and mujahideen, suddenly they are terrorists.

They look at the West, that they control the Muslim world and they take everything. They are occupying through puppets, ruling in the Islamic world. This is the way they look at it. So they want to free the Muslim world.

GEORGE NEGUS: By any means, including terrorism?

ABDALLAH: By any means. By any means.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you regard as a man like Osama bin Laden as a true Muslim? If he is still alive. Or is he an aberration of Islam?

ABDALLAH: If you are asking me if he is sincere about his message and what he’s doing, he wants to free the Muslim world, he is sincere in that. Is that right what he is doing?

In the religion of Islam, you have to refer to the scholars and the committee of scholars.

GEORGE NEGUS: And he doesn’t.

ABDALLAH: He made up his own mind. And Prophet Mohhammed wonders in the end of the time, there will be youth that will be very un-experienced and hyper. They would pray and they would read the Koran more than all of you. You would even look at them and say, “I am nothing compared to them.”

But they will cause a lot of problems to you because they do not fully understand the whole picture of the message of the Prophet Mohammed.

GEORGE NEGUS: So in English you’d say lost the plot. He has lost the Islamic plot. He thinks what he’s doing is right but it is not.

ABDALLAH: He chose war.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is he as much an enemy of Islam or of Muslims as he is of the West and America?

ABDALLAH: He is making the Muslims and the Islam look very bad.

GEORGE NEGUS: King Abdullah of Jordan says that moderate Muslims, you know, devout but not extremist, politically extremist Muslims don’t speak up enough. Is that a big part of the problem?

ABDALLAH: You know why? Because the media have concentrated and went to those who have appointed themselves speakers on behalf of Islam. Who appointed them? They did. And then the media rushed to them.

GEORGE NEGUS: And so you’re saying it is too hard for voices like yours to be heard?

ABDALLAH: Yes, because the media likes that exciting violence and they have immediately… And they broadcast it daily to the rest of the world.

Thank you, media, we hate each other. What is next? Can we hear from the 1,000 million real Muslims?

And you’re right, they should really speak up.

GEORGE NEGUS: The Israeli elections are coming up next month. Whether Ariel Sharon lives or dies, his new centre party, Kadima, looks like winning government. But if the extremists in Israel got power, with Hamas in power in Palestine, where would that leave us?

ABDALLAH: In algebra it says minus and minus gives plus, right?

GEORGE NEGUS: Two minuses give a plus?

ABDALLAH: Yes. So I think they both have tried everything. And they both sides are kind of if condemning each other and I think what they’re actually saying…

GEORGE NEGUS: We have had enough.

ABDALLAH: We have had enough, let’s find something… Can someone like come out with something that keeps our face? Do you know what I mean?

GEORGE NEGUS: Save face. Save face.

ABDALLAH: Save face.

GEORGE NEGUS: But still find a solution.

ABDALLAH: Let’s find a solution. People are suffering.

GEORGE NEGUS: How do you describe a Muslim with your attitude, with your values, with your approach to this?

ABDALLAH: The best is called the true Islam.

GEORGE NEGUS: The true Islam.

ABDALLAH: The true Islam. You’re asking me a lot of political questions and I’m not a political person. Remember, I am a real estate person.

GEORGE NEGUS: I know, you are a real estate person. It is wonderful to talk to you again, my friend.

ABDALLAH: Thank you so much.

GEORGE NEGUS: You’re the most politically aware real estate agent I have ever met.

ABDALLAH: Actually, I would love to sell you an apartment.

GEORGE NEGUS: I’m sure you could.